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The answer to, “What is the best frequent flyer program,” is both easy and tough. The short answer can be “it depends”, but we prefer, “It's the one that gets you where you want to go, when you want to go, at a price (in miles) you're happy to pay.”
Other factors go into deciding which program is best, most notably if you're a road warrior and spend 25k, 50k or 100k+ miles a year in the air. That much flying will earn you elite status and the benefits afforded may trump some of the attributes of a less than perfect rewards program. Long story short, there is never a one-size-fits-all program, but rather your travel habits and goals will dictate what is best for you.
With that said, we've looked at a few programs that we think are standouts and should be considered as programs you choose to deposit your miles.
Our Favorite Frequent Flyer Program
This is an easy one: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
We like Alaska for a few reasons:
- Their Partners. While Alaska doesn't belong to a major airline alliance, such as SkyTeam, Star Alliance or oneworld®, they partner with airlines that are both members of these alliances and those that stand alone like themselves. Being able to earn and redeem miles across a wide variety of international partners opens up access to lots of opportunity for earning and redeeming miles
- Their Fees. If you need to cancel or change an award ticket and its more than 60 days before departure, you'll pay nothing. Other airlines will easily charge you $100+ for any changes or cancellations
- Earning with Credit Cards. Alaska has a personal (Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card) and business (Alaska Airlines Visa® Business Credit Card) credit card to earn miles directly with Mileage Plan
- Earning & Transfers through partner programs. If you've got either the Marriott Bonvoy™ American Express® Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card, you'll earn Bonvoy points, but you can transfer them to Alaska at a 3:1 ratio — you'll also receive a bonus 5,000 miles for every 60,000 points you transfer
The downside to Alaska is that they're not a part of a major airline alliance. While they have an excellent partner network, airline alliances afford additional benefits and protections with travel disruptions. We wouldn't steer away from Alaska for this reason, but it is important to keep in mind.
Favorite Programs for Families
There are some standout programs for families that are perfect for a few key reasons.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
If you live in a Southwest city, in general, people love Southwest. Free checked bags, an optimized boarding process, and no crazy fees for canceling or changing a ticket. Many people will complain about the “cattle call” style boarding process, but it is likely the fastest one (thank you MythBusters).
While the program doesn't allow you to pool your earned points, Southwest is abundantly clear about what you'll pay in points versus cash for any flight. The number of points required is directly correlated to the cash price of the ticket, and while you won't receive champagne and a lie-flat seat with Southwest, you can still get great value out of their points.
Another great feature with Southwest Rapid Rewards is that if you book a ticket and the price drops, paid for either with cash or points, you'll receive a rebate of points or a voucher good for future travel with Southwest – just call them and ask. Pretty sweet if you ask us.
For racking up Southwest Rapid Rewards you can check out any of their credit cards including the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card or a Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card where you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to Southwest.
While JetBlue doesn't have the same customer-friendly policy with price changes and refunds, they are a powerhouse when it comes to earning rewards for a family with their Family Pooling. Perfect for a family that travels together as all of the points earned from a family get deposited into the “head of household” account, and you can then redeem for anyone from that pool when it comes time to cash in.
You'll never worry about errant points with JetBlue's program. Similar to Southwest's Rapid Rewards Program, the number of points you'll pay for a ticket is correlated to the cash price of that ticket.
Either the JetBlue Card or the JetBlue Plus Card, or an Ultimate Rewards earning card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card will help you rack up additional JetBlue points the fastest.
Favorite Foreign Programs
These programs all work great even if you're not a native of the country of the program!
British Airways Avios
If you're a loyal American Airlines traveler, you might find some significant value with BA. Some things about BA that stand out:
- No close-in booking fees for last-minute awards. AA will charge you $75 if you need to book an award within 21 days of departure (waived possibly with high-level elite status). If the award space is available to BA, you can book it with Avios, and you won't pay that $75 fee
- Family Pooling. Much like JetBlue has done, BA allows a family to pool their earned miles to a single account. Again, never an errant mile laying around
- Lots of transfer partners. You can transfer SPG Points, Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards to British Airways Avios. These flexible currencies, provide a great value and with BA as a partner of all three, makes the program that much more valuable with the ease of getting points into an account.
Check out some of the sweet spots in British Airways program.
Korean Air SKYPASS
A partner of Delta, Korean fly to 11 destinations in the US, but it is their program which is fantastic. They're the best program to use for flights to Hawaii. They've recently added capabilities to their website to complete many online bookings. The rates they charge are fantastic, and they have friendly change and cancellation policies.
We've put together 10 reasons you should consider Korean's SKYPASS program along with some of the sweet spots in the SKYPASS program
The biggest drawback to Korean is when it comes time to redeem miles, you can only redeem for family members, and you'll be required to show proof of relationship. No big deal, but something to keep in mind. Korean is a transfer partner of Marriott Bonvoy, so if you need to build up a balance, you can do it by transferring points from Marriott earning credit cards.
This is a new one to us — Sam just covered it yesterday. Perhaps the most lucrative benefit of this program is that it supports family pooling of miles, but the pooling is of both redeemable and elite qualifying miles. So, one person could earn elite status through the help of trips taken by other family members. Then, when traveling together, many of the benefits extend to additional family members!
EgyptAir is a member of Star Alliance which means you can redeem your miles across any airline in the alliance, which includes United, Air Canada, Lufthansa and Air New Zealand. Better yet, the redemption rates are pretty favorable — if you're looking to splurge on Lufthansa First Class, it'll only cost you 70,000 miles one-way from the JFK to Frankfurt. Sure you'll have to cover almost $500 in taxes/fees, but it pales in comparison to the 110,000 miles United would charge you for the same flight.
You'll notice American, Delta and United didn't make the list. Sure, we know the programs, but depending on how you redeem, you could find much better value in one of their partner programs.
There truly is no one program that is perfect for everyone, but you should always look into the details of a program to see what potential value can be had. What's your favorite frequent flyer program and why? We all have a favorite airline, but what about the frequent flyer program itself?
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