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WalletHub Says Delta’s Is the Best Frequent-Flyer Program. Is It?

You have your favorite frequent-flyer program. I have my favorite. And WalletHub has its favorite.

The difference is that WalletHub has analyzed the 10 largest U.S. programs across “23 key metrics,” bringing a level of scientific rigor to their comparison that’s missing in individuals’ preferences. Whether that gives their findings extra weight is debatable.

Weighty or not, their findings are interesting.

First, the overall scoring, based on a maximum of 75 points:

  1. Delta – 49.62
  2. JetBlue – 42.64
  3. American – 40.78
  4. United – 37.60
  5. Southwest – 33.31
  6. Sun Country – 30.51
  7. Alaska – 29.78
  8. Hawaiian – 27.27
  9. Spirit – 26.46
  10. Frontier – 21.34

Those scores do not take into account program members’ spending; there are separate scores for light, average, and heavy spenders, which in some cases reorder the rankings.

Presumably in the interest of arriving at a fully representative score for each program, WalletHub ranked each scheme on 23 different metrics, ranging from the number of daily flights to free inflight Wi-Fi.

What that methodology has produced is results that will have most frequent flyers rolling their eyes. Delta is the top-rated program? The tiny program of tiny Sun Country is mid-pack? Spirit outranks Frontier?

Clearly the metrics and their respective weights have led this survey astray. And so it’s worth getting back to basics, and asking: What do frequent-flyer program participants really care about?

The answer doesn’t require 23 bullet points; most travelers’ needs and wants are much simpler. The number and variety of options for earning and redeeming points. The value of points (how much you have to spend to earn an award). And for more frequent flyers: how much you have to spend to earn elite status, and the perks associated with that status.

WalletHub compounds its initial methodological mistake by adding a further misguided level of complication. In what’s advanced as a helpful feature, the survey offers to personalize the results based on your annual airfare spend. Personalization is great, but what the survey really needs is geographic personalization. For all its many faults, Delta’s SkyMiles program is almost certainly the best program for travelers residing in the Atlanta area. And conversely, as good as it is on paper, Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan probably isn’t a good choice for travelers living in Phoenix.

Maybe next year WalletHub will bring its criteria into closer alignment with actual travelers’. In the meantime, let common sense prevail.

Reader Reality Check

What’s important to you in a frequent-flyer program?

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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