If your airline loyalty has been on autopilot for the past few years, this would be a good time to reassess your choice of frequent flyer programs. A lot has changed, and not for the better.
In particular, the three largest U.S. programs are now all revenue-based, awarding miles on the basis of members’ spend rather than according to the number of miles traveled. Prices for award flights have also been adjusted, mostly higher. The net effect of the changes has been a significant devaluation of the largest programs for average travelers, who fly infrequently, on discounted advance-purchase fares.
Frequent business travelers, on the other hand, find themselves more richly rewarded. Indeed, that’s the point of the changes: to disproportionately reward the airlines’ most profitable customers, at the expense of the occasional travelers who make up the bulk of those flying on any given day.
To determine the best U.S. frequent flyer program for 2017, we evaluated the programs of nine U.S. carriers: Alaska Mileage Plan, American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, Frontier EarlyReturns, JetBlue TrueBlue, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Spirit Free Spirit, United MileagePlus, and Virgin America Elevate.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for 2017: The Methodology
The following factors were considered when determining the best frequent flyer program for U.S. travelers: ease of earning, which is determined by an airline’s own flight network and its roster of mileage-earning partner companies; ease of award redemption, a reflection of an airline’s award-booking policies, award prices, and the number of partner companies offering rewards; and the program’s overall value, which is a combination of the earning and rewards sides of a program.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for 2017: The Finalists
When the dust settled, the following three programs emerged as standouts.
American’s AAdvantage program was the first modern airline loyalty program and remains the largest, with a reported membership of more than 100 million.
While membership size doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality, the size of a program’s earning and rewards network is a key determinant of usability and value. Bigger is better.
American itself operates more than 3,500 flights a day within the U.S. and to around 100 overseas destinations. The airline is a founding member of the oneworld global alliance, which links American with 13 other airlines in a network of deep marketing and operational ties that includes reciprocal frequent-flyer participation. Through the combined networks of American, oneworld, and other AAdvantage airline partners, program members can earn miles and take award flights to almost 950 destinations worldwide.
Flight miles are only the beginning. AAdvantage members may also earn miles for hotel stays and car rentals, as well as for purchases at 1,000 partner companies, including an extensive network of online retailers.
As befits a full-featured loyalty scheme, AAdvantage has a robust elite program, with four tiers, each with its own travel perks including upgrades.
The program also features a particularly wide selection of co-branded credit cards which award miles for charges. In addition to earning miles, the cards come bundled with award discounts, allowing members to book award flights for fewer miles.
What’s not to like? Although it was the last of the Big Three airlines to do so, American last year followed Delta and United in converting to a scheme that awards miles based on dollars spent rather than miles flown, and now has minimum spend levels to reach elite status as well. For the average traveler, that means awards are harder to earn and the program overall has less value.
If American’s AAdvantage is the Goliath of airline programs, Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is the David.
Although Alaska isn’t a member of one of the three global airline alliances, as American is, and has a relatively modest flight network compared to those of the Big Three, the carrier has cobbled together an impressive partner roster of 15 airlines, serving more than 900 destinations worldwide. That means Mileage Plan members can earn miles and take award flights on Air France, American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, JAL, KLM, Qantas, and several others.
In addition to earning miles for flights, Mileage Plan members earn miles for stays at 10 major hotel chains, seven rental-car companies, more than 800 online retailers, and so on.
What gives Mileage Plan an added value boost is its adherence to traditional mileage-earning rules. Program members still earn flight miles according to the distance flown, rather than according to the price of their tickets. For the average traveler, Mileage Plan delivers more free flights, faster, at less cost.
If Alaska’s program has a weakness, it’s in its conspicuously sparse credit-card line-up. Where American, Delta, and United partisans have a choice of multiple co-branded cards, at different price points with varying bundles of benefits, Mileage Plan has only a single consumer card and a single business card.
Rapid Rewards’ principal claim to fame is the airline that hosts it, a reminder that airlines and their programs are ultimately inseparable. For many good reasons, Southwest has been a perennial crowd-pleaser, and its loyalty program has only added to that popularity.
Rapid Rewards members earn between six and 12 points per $1 spent on Southwest tickets, depending on the type of fare purchased. The price of Southwest award tickets also varies, according to the market price of comparable paid tickets. It’s complicated; but for most travelers, points are earned and redeemed for Southwest’s popular Wanna Get Away fares, in which case the points have a value of around 1.5 cents apiece. On the upside, there are no blackout dates or capacity restrictions on award travel.
Although there are other options for redeeming Rapid Rewards points, there aren’t many, and they don’t represent very good value. For flights, the choices are Southwest, Southwest, or Southwest. While Southwest remains primarily a domestic carrier, it does offer flights to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
In keeping with the airline’s freedom-from-fees theme, Southwest only charges the price difference for changes in award tickets, and will redeposit points for cancelled award flights without charge.
With no first-class seats or airport lounges, Southwest is limited in its ability to recognize and reward its elite customers. However, travelers who fly 100 one-way flights or accumulate 110,000 Rapid Rewards points will be rewarded with one of the industry’s most coveted perks: the Companion Pass, free flights for a travel companion.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for 2017: The Winner
At this point, Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan’s combination of utility and value makes it the best U.S. airline program for average travelers.
The “at this point” qualifier is important, as it’s an open question whether and when Alaska might follow the airline herd and convert Mileage Plan to a revenue-based scheme. That would almost certainly erase the program’s value edge and push it off the winner’s platform. But for now, Mileage Plan takes the Editors’ Choice prize as the Best Frequent Flyer Program for 2017.