Which Frequent Flyer Programs Are Most Rewarding?

For years savvy travelers have favored one airline or another in the hope of collecting enough miles or points for free trips and elite status. Business-traveling "road warriors" seem to have the most success, but even occasional vacationers sign up for airline credit cards to pad their accounts. Not every frequent flyer program is equally rewarding, however, and the goalposts often move. This year has already seen major changes at Delta, United, and American.

A recent Cheapism.com report on frequent flyer programs ranks 10 U.S.-based airlines. The analysis takes into account opportunities to earn miles or points, the number required for an award ticket, expiration and blackout dates, requirements for achieving status, and benefits given to elite members, among other factors. All this is broken down in charts that accompany the frequent flyer comparison. Flip through to see the final ranking, which counts down to the top choice.

10. Spirit Airlines' Free Spirit.

As befits this budget airline, Spirit's frequent flyer program is bare bones. Miles expire after just three months of inactivity and booking an award ticket can cost up to $100 if you do so close to the day of departure. Elite status flyers earn one mile for each mile they fly and enjoy the privilege of priority boarding; passengers in the "Somebody" class just earn half a mile for each mile in the air.

9. Hawaiian Airlines' HawaiianMiles.

This program works well for folks who live in Hawaii or visit frequently. It's not an attractive option for anyone else. A one-way flight between Hawaii and the continental U.S. requires 20,000 miles, which is about average. For flights within the mainland, you'll likely need to redeem HawaiianMiles on a partner airline -- and this requires a higher-than-average exchange rate.

8. Frontier Airlines' EarlyReturns.

Frontier's frequent flyer program isn't especially bad -- it stipulates lower redemption options than many legacy carriers -- but its route system is limited and it lacks major airline partners. Members can earn and redeem miles only when flying with Frontier. Travelers who live near Frontier's hub in Denver may find the program worthwhile. Others, however, could do better by choosing a frequent flyer program with more reach and flexibility.

7. Virgin America's Elevate.

Elevate program members earn points based on the amount of money they spend on a ticket and redeem points based on the ticket price. Virgin says the lowest redemption options start at just 2,500 points, but the structure of the plan means some flights require so many points that redemption simply isn't worth it. Virgin America flies to fewer than 30 destinations but has partnered with several other airlines to increase the number of landing spots available for point trade-ins. Even so, options are limited.

6. JetBlue Airways' TrueBlue.

JetBlue leads the way with innovative additions to its frequent flyer programs. Families or groups of friends can combine points using a Family Pool account; members can earn points online by sharing their activity on social networks; there's even a JetPaws program that awards pet owners with extra points when flying with their furry friends. Points are generally earned at a rate of three to six points per dollar spent on tickets, and redemption rates are tied to the cost of a flight.

5. Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles.

SkyMiles' elite status has undergone changes recently that irk some long-time elite frequent flyers. Members now must meet a minimum dollar-spend threshold in addition to the hold-over requirements of flying a set number of miles or segments. Non-elite flyers aren't big fans of the program, either. SkyMiles has long been known by the nickname SkyPesos: Despite low redemption rates, so few seats are available at those levels that members are forced to use thousands of extra miles to redeem an award ticket.

4. Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards.

Southwest doesn't have a first-class section and consequently can't offer complimentary upgrades as a perk to elite-status members. However, the carrier offers the most loyal flyers a unique deal: Reach the highest tier, Companion Pass, and you can designate a companion to fly with you for free. The Rapid Rewards program awards points based on ticket price and class and lets members redeem points for a free flight at a rate that depends on the cost of the ticket.

3. Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan.

Based on its name alone, you might think that Alaska Airlines' frequent flyer program is limited. It's not. The carrier lets members earn and redeem miles with 14 partners, and elite status within the Mileage Plus program garners some elite perks on Delta and American. Frequent flyers traveling on an Alaska Airlines plane have access to several unusual perks: Miles can be exchanged for a discount voucher towards a paid flight, and redemption rates for intra-state flights start at a very low 7,500 each way.

2. United Airlines' Mileage Plus.

United, like Delta, recently has made a few changes to its frequent flyer program, such as a minimum spend requirement for earning elite status. Overall, though, these modifications haven't affected domestic, non-elite plan members. United partners with many airlines, including those in the global Star Alliance, and it flies to more than 350 destinations. Compared with some other airline programs, United's Mileage Plus affords members more options when redeeming miles.

1. American Airlines' AAdvantage.

The Freddie Awards, an annual voter-based ranking of loyalty programs, has awarded American Airlines AAdvantage program with the gold for the third year in a row. AAdvantage boasts many partners, airline and other (e.g., rental car companies and a co-branded credit card), and members can quickly earn enough miles for a free flight. Those who have acquired elite status also receive more perks than elite travelers at other airlines.