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The Best U.S. Mileage Program, and the Worst

The best frequent-traveler program? If you read this column regularly, you already know the answer: It’s the program that delivers the most rewards (free flights, elite perks), given your individual travel and consumption patterns.

Some programs boast more earning opportunities; others are more robust on the rewards side. Some programs stand out for their award-seat availability, others for their liberal award-travel policies. Some programs offer easy access to elite status; other programs stand out for the generosity of their elite benefits. In the end, the choice of a travel-rewards program comes down to what’s important to you, and which program best dovetails with your needs and your day-to-day behavior as a traveler and a consumer.

There is no single best program. If there were, everyone would join it, leaving the other programs member-less.

Nevertheless, the idea of a categorically best program is a compelling one, fueling regular articles in the mainstream and not-so-mainstream press that promise to definitively answer the question. The latest is from U.S. News & World Report, the former weekly news magazine now known chiefly for its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities.

Best Airline Program

To evaluate and rank the 10 U.S. airline programs, U.S. News used a scoring system weighted as follows:

  • Ease of earning a free roundtrip flight – 45%
  • “Additional benefits” – 25%
  • Network coverage – 10%
  • Award flight availability – 10%
  • Number of daily flights – 5%
  • Airline quality rating – 5%

Based on those factors, the 10 airline programs included in the study ranked as follows, on a scale of 1 – 5:

  1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan – 4.48
  2. JetBlue TrueBlue – 4.07
  3. Southwest Rapid Rewards – 4.00
  4. Delta SkyMiles – 3.99
  5. Virgin America Elevate – 3.71
  6. United MileagePlus – 3.57
  7. American Airlines AAdvantage – 3.42
  8. HawaiianMiles – 3.38
  9. Frontier EarlyReturns – 2.92
  10. FREE Spirit – 1.01

Alaska’s Mileage Plan is a fine program, no doubt. As the study rightly points out, “By rewarding points based on the number of miles flown rather than dollars spent, the airline makes it easier for budget-conscious travelers to earn free flights on its vast partner network.” And certainly if you live in Seattle, Alaska’s hub airport city, it may well be the best program for you. But if you live in Houston, or Detroit, or Tampa, or Richmond, or hundreds of other cities, it’s a non-starter. The Alaska Airlines route network simply doesn’t feature enough flights from those cities to make the airline a clear first choice for air travel.

And at the other end of the spectrum, there might even be scenarios in which Spirit’s program best meets your needs, although that’s a stretch.

When it comes to choosing the best travel-rewards program, your mileage may vary.

Reader Reality Check

Which programs work best for you?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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