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World's Worst Mileage Programs

A new survey released by MileCards.com for the most part confirms what most frequent travelers already know about loyalty programs. But several of the findings might call for a reevaluation of popular opinion.

The results reflect the views of 1,600 respondents who actively participate in travel-loyalty programs.

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The survey questions included only the five largest U.S. programs, those of American, Delta, Southwest, United, and US Airways.

Overall Satisfaction

Southwest led the pack in overall satisfaction, measured in this survey as the "percentage of members likely to recommend the program to a friend."

  • Southwest - 62 percent
  • United - 55 percent
  • American - 52 percent
  • Delta - 49 percent
  • US Airways - 43 percent

The results suggest that a majority of the survey respondents were leisure travelers. Business travelers tend to favor more robust mileage-based programs over revenue-based programs like Southwest's.

Award Availability

On the key metric of award availability, Southwest again outdistanced the four legacy airlines. Not surprising, given that there are no capacity controls on award seats in Southwest's Rapid Rewards program.

The percentage of respondents reporting that it's easy to book an award flight:

  • Southwest - 64 percent
  • American - 56 percent
  • United - 53 percent
  • Delta - 48 percent
  • US Airways - 45 percent

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of respondents who reported that it's impossible to book an award flight:

  • US Airways - 17 percent
  • Delta - 16 percent
  • American - 10 percent
  • United - 8 percent
  • Southwest - 8 percent

Value of Miles

The percentage of respondents deeming their miles to be "worth nothing" is as follows:

  • American - 5 percent
  • Delta - 5 percent
  • United - 5 percent
  • Southwest - 6 percent
  • US Airways - 11 percent

The disconnect between these results and the award-availability findings are confounding. While Southwest points may be worth less than miles in the other programs, they have a fixed value and can be redeemed for flights with no capacity controls. They're hardly worthless. And, at least anecdotally, Delta's are the miles I most often hear described as worthless.

The Loyalty Effect

As the name implies, loyalty programs are designed to foster loyalty. On that score, United fared best, with 41 percent of the respondents saying they "nearly always choose a flight because it earns the miles they want to build":

  • Delta - 33 percent
  • Southwest - 33 percent
  • US Airways - 35 percent
  • American - 37 percent
  • United - 41 percent

Other Key Findings

  • Loyalty programs are less likely to live up to their promises than cable companies, banks, and phone companies.
  • Most popular program feature: non-expiring points.
  • Biggest frustration: need more miles than expected.
  • 90% booked their award flights online.
  • Most popular credit cards: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Reader Reality Check

How do this study's results compare with your own perceptions?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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