Best Frequent Flyer Programs

Whether you fly once a year or visit a new city every week, joining an airline's frequent flyer program is a smart idea. At a minimum you'll be rewarded for your travels with the prospect of a free flight in the future, and if you're a frequent traveler you can earn elite status, which entitles you to benefits ranging from free upgrades and snacks to priority boarding. We put 10 airlines' frequent flyer programs to the test to determine which ones deserve your loyalty.

Our Picks

Guide to Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

Our rankings are based on ease of earning redemption miles or points (from flights and/or partner options), redemption requirements and included destinations, unique incentives (such as the Companion Pass from Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines' in-state discounted redemption), and perks that come with elite status.

American Airlines' AAdvantage, United Airlines' Mileage Plus, and Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan top our list as the best frequent flyer programs. All three give members easy mile-earning opportunities in addition to flying, offer numerous redemption destinations, and include generous elite-status perks. Additionally, they are miles-based programs, which promise greater value than points-based systems. The mid-tier picks -- Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards, Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles, JetBlue Airways' TrueBlue, and Virgin America's Elevate -- are a mix of mileage- and points-based systems that offer multiple earning and redemption options but are generally less rewarding and lack as many elite-status perks. The bottom of our list takes in Frontier Airlines' EarlyReturns, Hawaiian Airlines' HawaiianMiles, and Spirit Airlines' Free Spirit, frequent flyer programs that offer little in terms of benefits or redemption options.

Earning Miles and Points

Depending on the airline, program members are awarded miles or points for their activity. Three of the airline reward programs we reviewed use points (JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America) that are doled out based on the amount of money spent on the base fare (the ticket price before taxes and fees). Other carriers currently award miles based on distance flown. (Upcoming changes in the Delta SkyMiles program call for a spending-based award.) Frequent flyers who have achieved elite status earn extra miles or points for flights taken, except on Spirit. "Non-revenue" tickets (i.e., reward tickets) never earn miles or points. Note that it's harder to build up your account with a points system based on dollars spent than with a system based on miles flown because the dollar value of a ticket usually is less than the distance in miles.

Buying a ticket is one of the most straightforward ways to earn miles or points. There are also many other earning opportunities that can help you accumulate enough for a free trip. One of the most common is using a co-branded credit card such as Citi's AAdvantage card or Chase's United card. Credit card providers often give new customers enough miles or points for one to two round-trip flights just for signing up and then continue to reward card holders every time they make a purchase. Some cards offer additional benefits such as free checked bags and opportunities to redeem miles or points for flights at a discounted rate. The Citi AAdvantage card, for example, puts 10 percent of redeemed miles back into members' accounts.

Another relatively easy way to earn miles and points is through partner offers. JetBlue's TrueBlue program, for example, lets you earn points while renting a car with Avis, Hertz, Budget, or Carmel, or when flying on Emirates, Hawaiian Airlines, or American Airlines. Partnerships aren't limited to travel-related services either -- some airlines award miles for opening a new bank or brokerage account or taking surveys online.

Energy Plus, an electricity and natural gas supplier, has partnered with seven airlines and rewards customers who sign up for its service with miles or points, which continue to accrue based on monthly bills. Rewards Network awards bonuses for dining at select restaurants. There's no extra cost to join or dine -- you simply pay with a registered credit or debit card and select which of seven airline frequent flyer programs you're allied with. Most airlines also have online shopping portals that award bonuses per dollar spent as long as you use the link in the portal to get to a participating merchant's site before checking out. All these rewards can be stacked on top of the extra miles and points earned when using an airline's credit card.

Keep an eye out for promotions as well. Airlines often promote a new route or aircraft by offering bonus miles or points to members who fly, or reward members with thousands of miles or points for booking a vacation package through the carrier. Airlines also have taken to social media and occasionally dispense miles or points to program members who "like" or tweet their material or participate in online trivia and games. There are numerous other earning partnerships and opportunities, so check the airline's membership page and sign up for the newsletter to learn about them. If you're in a pinch and need only a few more miles or points to qualify for an award ticket, you generally have the option to buy some.

Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles and Points

Once you have earned frequent flyer miles and points, how do you redeem them? Just log into your account on the airline's website and within the membership tab there is usually an option to book or redeem. Alternatively, when you search for a flight and choose a route, date, and time, look for a choice of one-way, round-trip, or award ticket. Members can also book reward tickets by phone, but there is often a $10 to $25 fee for doing so.

The number of miles or points frequent flyers must trade in for a flight generally depends on the carrier and time of year. JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America, the three points-based programs, vary the "cost" in points by the ticket price for a flight. The other programs set redemption levels based on the class of ticket desired, time of year, and departure and destination points. Spirit bases the number of miles needed for redemption on the distance being flown.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both the points- and mileage-based systems when it comes to finding good deals. With a point system, you know that if there's a sale on a flight or you're flying an inexpensive route, the lower ticket price will be reflected in a lower number of points needed for an award ticket. On the flip side, during busy seasons when ticket prices soar, the points required do as well.

Mileage-based programs require a set amount of miles no matter the ticket price. This means that during holiday periods the cost of the award ticket in miles doesn't change, providing greater savings compared with buying a ticket. But there are typically a limited number of available award seats on each flight and only a few, if any, designated "saver" spots that require fewer redemption miles. Good deals do exist, though. A look at American's award chart shows that an off-peak (Oct. 15 to May 15) MileSAAver ticket to Europe requires just 20,000 miles; that's no more than a standard AAnytime award ticket for a flight within the continental U.S.

With most frequent flyer programs -- but not Southwest or Spirit -- you can also redeem frequent flyer miles and points for travel on partner airlines. This makes the miles and points accumulated in an account applicable to more destinations and makes international trips much easier. Even Hawaiian, a relatively small airline, has partnerships with eight other carriers, including American, Virgin America, and China Airlines. Redemption rates vary depending on the partner and there is no guaranteed availability for a reward ticket on a partner airline.

The Fine Print.

Although most airlines have officially done away with blackout dates, mileage-based programs don't guarantee the number of award seats available on each flight. This means that popular flights, such as those around holidays, may not have any "saver" (discounted) award seats and program members are forced to book a reward ticket at more costly "anytime" rates.

Many programs claim that frequent flyer miles or points don't expire -- and then add an asterisk. Only two programs we researched let you bank them forever: Delta and JetBlue. With the rest, your hard-earned loyalty expires after 18 to 24 months of inactivity -- or, in the case of Spirit, after three months of inactivity. It's easy enough to earn points, though, and even a one-point or one-mile bump keeps the account alive. Still, it can be hard to track how long it's been since you earned or redeemed miles in all your many accounts. Some airlines send email reminders and there are websites, such as AwardWallet and Points, designed to help you stay organized, but they don't support every program.

Another important line of fine print is that you'll pay taxes and surcharges even when redeeming frequent flyer miles or points to book your flight. This is often $5 or less for each segment of a domestic flight, but some airlines (especially foreign carriers) add a fuel surcharge to the ticket and U.S.-based airlines often charge something for international flights. The fuel surcharge can sneak in when booking with a partner airline -- the code YQ or YR on your reservation tells you it's there. For example, the trade-in for an economy award flight from New York to London on American is 20,000 to 65,000 miles depending on award type and time of year. Even if you book through the carrier's website, the fees may be as high as $600 if you choose a flight operated by partner British Airways; if you fly directly on American, the fees are about one-third of that.

Earning Elite Status

Although many travelers enjoy the occasional free trips that come from collecting miles, those who fly regularly throughout the year also look to gain extra perks associated with "elite status" on a particular airline. Typically, there are several tiers within each airline program, and the hope of reaching the next tier and maintaining that status year after year keeps travelers from straying from a particular carrier.

The rungs you need to climb before reaching elite status vary by airline, but in general you must accumulate a set number of segments (any airport-to-airport trip), miles flown, or dollars spent within one year. Each program tracks progress differently. Some, such as Virgin America's Elevate or Southwest's Rapid Rewards program, calculate points instead of miles. American's AAdvantage program uses miles and points; the former tracks the number of miles you've flown while the latter varies by ticket class.

It used to be possible to earn status by accumulating miles or points in any number of ways -- by renting a car, say, or using a branded credit card or signing up for a new utility provider. Now, miles earned through non-flight activities can generally be applied toward reward tickets but not elite status. Most programs count only "butt-in-seat" miles or points earned on base fares (and reward tickets won't help). Airlines distinguish status-earning miles with names such as Elite, Medallion, or Premier qualifying miles. The parallel points-based programs have names such as Tier Qualifying Points. In general this means only the miles or points earned when paying for a ticket and flying in a carrier's (or occasionally a partner airline's) plane qualify.

Some airlines have been attaching still more conditions for earning elite status. In January 2014, Delta began requiring a minimum spend of $2,500 on base fares in addition to either 25,000 qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments to reach the lowest elite status; ascending to the highest level requires spending $12,500 and 125,000 miles or 140 segments. (The spending requirements can also be met with at least $25,000 in eligible purchases on the Delta co-branded American Express credit card.) United followed suit, and there is some fear within the frequent flyer community that the trend will spread. Some enthusiasts find deals on long flights and do "mileage runs" simply to gain elite status at a discounted rate. That strategy may no longer be possible due to the dollars-spent stipulation.

All requirements must be met within one calendar year. Once program members achieve elite status, they enjoy the benefits for the remainder of the current calendar year and the entirety of the next calendar year. But there's no slacking off. Each year beneficiaries must pass the finish line to maintain status into the following year. (Note: A bonus to base-mileage earning often accompanies elite status. If you fly 1,000 miles as a Premier 1K member at United, for example, you earn 2,000 miles that can be redeemed for rewards but don't count toward elite status.)

Bonus Elite Qualifying Miles.

People who earn elite status often travel for business or are lucky enough to afford many vacations, but others ramp up the process with limited-time offers. Airlines may want to highlight a newly opened route or new aircraft or try to boost travel during a slow season by extending come-ons such as double elite qualifying miles. These promotions come and go and rarely can be applied retroactively, so check the airlines' websites regularly and register before takeoff.

Another way to earn elite qualifying miles on some airlines is through select co-branded credit cards. Although almost every frequent flyer program has an associated credit card, those that allow holders to earn status are generally reserved for big spenders and come with high annual fees. Southwest's Rapid Rewards Premier card, for example, grants 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for every $10,000 in purchases, up to 15,000 per year, and carries an annual fee of $99. The Delta Reserve card from American Express offers a more attractive deal -- receive 15,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles for $30,000 in purchases during the year (up to 30,000) -- but imposes a $450 annual fee.

Some airlines occasionally present "status challenges" that let travelers earn elite status by completing certain tasks within a set period. Offers may be targeted -- only those invited or those who know to call or email the airline are allowed to participate. Sometimes the challenges are extended to travelers with status on a competing airline as an inducement to switch carriers without forgoing elite benefits. A member of FlyerTalk, an online frequent flyer community, reports that in 2014 he signed on for a United challenge that required 12,500 qualifying miles within 90 days. This followed a challenge on American that required a certain number of flight miles within three months.

Benefits of Elite Status.

Aside from extra redeemable miles, what benefits attach to elite status? Although specifics vary, most elite status holders also receive time-saving perks, such as a dedicated customer service number and priority check-in, security lines, and boarding lines. In addition, elite flyers often save money with complimentary access to airport lounges; free checked bags; waived fees related to changing a ticket; free access to preferred seats on the plane; and free entertainment, food, and drinks during flights. One of the most coveted perks is the opportunity to receive free upgrades to higher fare classes. Some programs grant unlimited upgrades and others only award a set number each year; all give priority to travelers with higher status. Imagine paying for a coach ticket and being bumped up to first class -- a free upgrade that could be worth well more than $1,000.