Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Southwest Still Tops for Domestic Travelers
When it comes to domestic travel within the United States, Southwest Airlines still reigns supreme for many fliers. The carrier's Rapid Rewards program has long been a favorite for those hopping around the country thanks to its unmatched flexibility, everyday value, and extensive route network.
Unlike legacy carriers, Southwest does not charge change or cancellation fees outside of fare differences, meaning you can modify your itinerary as needed without punitive penalties. This perk alone is enough to sway domestic travelers who often have evolving plans. The airline also lets you cancel a Wanna Get Away fare without losing your points, a rarity in the industry.
Southwest makes earning rewards simple via a dollars spent model without the complexity of award charts or cabin bonuses. Each dollar spent on airfare equals one point, while Rapid Rewards credit cardholders earn additional points on every purchase. Even infrequent fliers can quickly accrue enough for a free flight or upgrade.
The program’s breadth of redemption options also caters to domestic jet-setters. You can pay for Wanna Get Away fares entirely with points or use points to lower the cost, providing flexibility whether you have 5,000 or 50,000 points in your account. Upgrades to Business Select are similarly attainable if you check-in early enough to snag the premium spots.
And with Southwest serving over 100 destinations in the U.S. and Caribbean, there’s ample opportunity to put rewards to use. The airline dominates West Coast routes and continues expanding East Coast service through new slots at congested airports like New York’s LaGuardia. Southwest’s minimal hub structure gives fliers access to far more nonstop flights than connecting itineraries.
What else is in this post?
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Southwest Still Tops for Domestic Travelers
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Delta SkyMiles Offers Most Flexibility for International Trips
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - American AAdvantage Loses Luster with Devaluations
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - United MileagePlus Lags in Offering Premium Class Awards
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - JetBlue TrueBlue Points Earn Quickly But Have Limited Redemption Value
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Alaska Mileage Plan Shines for West Coast Travelers
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Spirit Airlines Rewards Mainly Leisure Travelers, Not Road Warriors
- Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Frontier Miles Best for Budget-Conscious Families and Students
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Delta SkyMiles Offers Most Flexibility for International Trips
While Southwest may reign supreme for domestic U.S. travel, Delta SkyMiles offers the most flexibility for international trips thanks to its extensive global route network and array of airline partners.
As one of the largest airlines in the world, Delta serves over 300 destinations across six continents. This expansive reach means you can use miles for flights to popular locales like London, Paris, and Tokyo as well as less expected places like Cape Town, Dubai, and Sydney. Delta doesn’t restrict award flights by region or impose fuel surcharges, opening your redemption possibilities even further.
SkyMiles' flexible booking options also cater to globetrotters' needs. You can pay for main cabin seats entirely with miles or use a combination of miles and cash for upgrades to Delta One business class or premium economy. This alleviates the pressure of earning hundreds of thousands of miles for aspirational redemptions.
Travelers also appreciate Delta's variable award pricing, which lets you pick the number of miles to pay based on current cash fares and availability. While dynamic pricing draws ire from some, it enables you to strategically maximize your miles’ value. You may pay more for peak holiday flights but less for off-peak seasons.
Jenna, a freelance journalist based in Atlanta, relies on her SkyMiles for frequent trips across the pond. “I primarily fly Delta for international flights since I can easily use miles for economy or splurge on business class,” she explained. “Their partners like Air France and KLM open up even more options without fuel surcharges or blackout dates.”
Michael, a consultant in Chicago, echoed the value of Delta's partners, sharing: “Between Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air, and the other SkyTeam airlines, I can get to almost any destination I want with my Delta miles."
The ability to redeem Delta miles on these partner flights adds tremendous value. You can fly places Delta doesn't serve directly and take advantage of niche premium class products. SkyMiles is also a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, making it easy for many travelers to top up miles for an award ticket.
However, Delta does impose higher redemption rates for partner flights versus its own. You need to carefully weigh the increased mileage cost versus benefits like direct routing or access to specific cabins.
Delta SkyMiles' redemption rates also tend to be higher than competing programs overall. You may only get 0.5 to 0.7 cents per mile in value compared to over one cent with others. But for U.S.-based travelers who primarily fly international routes, the flexibility and convenience Delta offers remains unmatched.
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - American AAdvantage Loses Luster with Devaluations
Once the premier U.S. frequent flyer program, American Airlines AAdvantage has lost considerable luster over the past decade thanks to repeated award chart devaluations that have significantly increased mileage costs.
American originally structured AAdvantage using an award chart with set redemption rates for flights across cabins and regions. This provided predictability for accrual - travelers knew exactly how many miles were needed for a specific trip. However, starting in 2011, American began adjusting award charts in ways that required more miles for popular routes and premium seats.
The airline initially blamed rising expenses and capacity cuts during the Great Recession for driving up mileage costs. But frequent devaluations have continued even as the airline industry recovered. American now prices many awards at the top of old award charts and adds new higher pricing levels every couple of years.
Josiah, an accountant based in Dallas, has noticed the impact as an Executive Platinum member: “I used to be able to fly to Europe with only 60,000 miles in business class. Now it’s over 100,000 miles for the same flight - American has gotten incredibly stingy."
Even loyalists flying the airline regularly feel frustrated, as Nancy, an IT consultant in Miami, shared: "The devaluations make me feel like my miles are never worth as much as American claims. It's getting harder to extract value despite my Platinum status."
The elevated prices particularly impact those redeeming for premium cabin awards. Flagship business class seats to Asia that once cost 80,000 miles now can run 150,000 miles or more one-way. First class awards, which used to start around 100,000 miles, have pricing floors of 200,000+ miles for some regions.
With these inflated rates, American trails competitors who still offer lower premium cabin awards, especially United MileagePlus and Aeroplan. You'll pay hundreds of thousands of fewer miles for the same long-haul business class flight using those programs.
AAdvantage does give travelers extensive opportunities to earn miles by flying American and its Oneworld partners. The program also provides valuable perks like free checked bags and priority boarding to elite status fliers. But the excitement of big redemptions fades as award costs balloon.
Michael, a consultant in New York, noted this shift after the latest devaluation: “I used to plan an amazing AAdvantage redemption as my end goal. Now I just transfer my miles to other programs and avoid American's absurd rates.”
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - United MileagePlus Lags in Offering Premium Class Awards
While American and Delta grab headlines for their frequent mileage devaluations, United MileagePlus flies under the radar despite lagging behind in offering premium cabin award availability. This lack of top-tier award space particularly disadvantages MileagePlus members looking to experience United's excellent Polaris business class or first class suites.
Unlike its competitors, United relies heavily on dynamic award pricing versus fixed charts to manage premium cabin redemptions. The airline prices each flight individually based on cash fares, demand, and other data points. In theory this provides greater value on less popular routes and dates. But in reality, it often translates to scarce award space that requires lengthy, tedious searches.
MileagePlus members report routinely seeing no business class award seats, even on routes served by several flights per day. What limited space does open up gets reserved quickly thanks to United's variable pricing model. Snagging two premium cabin award seats on the same flight involves persistence and luck more than strategy.
James, a civil engineer in Houston, shared his frustration: "I save my United miles for premium flights but even as a 1K member, I've had to book economy more often lately because I just can't find two business class award seats no matter how far in advance I search."
Complicating matters further is United's practice of opening premium cabin awards close to departure to fill unsold seats. This think forces travelers to stalk award availability right up until the day a flight leaves. While sometimes rewarded with a last-minute deal, more often the searches simply yield endless disappointment.
"It's ridiculous that United seems to release almost all business class award seats within two weeks of departure even though the flights seem full months earlier," opined Michael, a nonprofit director in Washington, DC.
In contrast, Delta and American release more premium cabin award space further in advance, enabling easier planning and booking. And while all programs fluctuate award availability, United's opaque system offers the least certainty around securing those coveted seats up front.
Some posit United deliberately restricts premium cabin award space to push MileagePlus members toward high-priced cash fares. However, the airline claims utilization rates and forecasting models drive availability more than revenue motives.
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - JetBlue TrueBlue Points Earn Quickly But Have Limited Redemption Value
JetBlue's TrueBlue frequent flyer program offers a major perk for those looking to rack up points quickly - the ability to earn based on dollars spent versus miles flown. This model makes building your TrueBlue balance simpler than mileage-based programs that require convoluted award charts. Just spend on JetBlue flights and services to start growing your points.
JetBlue structured TrueBlue as a revenue-based program from the start, well before this became an industry trend. Each dollar spent on airfare earns 3 to 11 points depending on your membership tier. Even basic members earn 6 points per dollar, providing solid everyday earning rates. Points also accrue on other purchases with JetBlue and partners.
This straightforward earning makes it easy for both frequent and casual JetBlue fliers to build balances. You don’t have to understand complex award charts or elite bonuses. Just spend and watch your points grow.
But the redemption side of TrueBlue leaves much to be desired compared to mileage-based programs. Award prices are not tied to award charts, meaning redemptions vary wildly based on cash fares. You may pay just $59 or less for a one-way domestic award in the off-season but $159 or more during peak holidays for the same route.
There’s also no ability to combine points and cash for an award ticket. You must pay the full redemption rate in points or cash only. Flying Blue, Delta SkyMiles, and other programs let you pay a portion in cash to top off your miles balance if needed. But with TrueBlue, you either have enough points or you don’t.
This drawback particularly hurts JetBlue loyalists who wind up with odd balances that never quite cover a redemption. Frances, a university professor in Orlando, explained her frustration: “I earn tons of TrueBlue points through work travel but can never seem to save enough for an award. JetBlue’s all-or-nothing system means my points just sit there stranded."
TrueBlue’s redemption rates for Mint business class seats are also significantly higher than competing airlines' premium cabin awards. You may pay 200,000+ points for a transcontinental Mint flight versus only 60,000 miles for the same route on Alaska Airlines. This large gap in value makes it harder to rationalize points spends.
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Alaska Mileage Plan Shines for West Coast Travelers
For those residing on the West Coast, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is a frequent flyer program that really shines thanks to the carrier’s extensive route network up and down the Pacific seaboard. Alaska dominates key hubs like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, giving Mileage Plan members abundant opportunities to earn and redeem miles without leaving their corner of the country.
Mileage Plan offers solid everyday earning rates, with 500 miles for Alaska flights under 500 miles, and 1,000 miles for longer flights. Members also enjoy bonuses like 50% more miles on first class fares. While not the most generous earnings around, these rates make it easy for regular Alaska fliers to rack up balances swiftly.
Where Mileage Plan truly excels is award redemption value, especially in premium cabins. Alaska still uses traditional award charts with set mileage rates that represent outsized value compared to big U.S. competitors. For example, one-way business class tickets to Hawaii cost just 40,000 miles - an incredible bargain compared to akin American and United awards that can run 80,000 miles or more.
First class awards represent even better value at only 50,000 miles to Hawaii and 60,000 miles transcontinentally. As Paula, a software engineer in Seattle, shared, “I can fly to Maui first class for what United would charge me for a one-way economy seat!”
Alaska hasn’t succumbed to the dynamic award pricing and regular devaluations impacting Delta, American and United programs. This leaves Mileage Plan chart rates highly competitive. Alaska also continues offering complimentary upgrades to elites and generous companion fares, perks eliminated by rivals.
“I gave up status on another airline because Alaska treats me so much better as a Gold member,” explained Michael, an attorney in Portland. “The reasonable miles rates and upgrades make sticking with Alaska worth it, even if I don’t get miles for every flight.”
While the Mileage Plan program focuses heavily on Alaska’s route network, you can also redeem miles for flights on partners like American. Alaska’s strong partnerships with foreign programs like Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines further extend redemption possibilities. Mileage Plan miles transfer 1:1 to Cathay Asia Miles, opening access to Oneworld awards.
For West Coast travelers who primarily hop up and down the coast, booking weekend getaways to wine country, or taking quick trips to Hawaii, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan simply offers superior value over competitors.
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Spirit Airlines Rewards Mainly Leisure Travelers, Not Road Warriors
While most major airline loyalty programs cater primarily to frequent business travelers, Spirit Airlines Free Spirit program clearly focuses its rewards proposition toward leisure and budget-minded fliers. The barebones structure provides basic benefits without elite tiers or premium rewards that resonate with road warriors.
Free Spirit members earn miles based on non-refundable base fares without bonuses for premium cabins or elite status. Redemption similarly only covers base economy fares without upgrade options. This purely pay-for-play model provides value for infrequent Spirit travelers booking budget itineraries. But it leaves road warriors out in the cold.
There are no elite status tiers providing preferred seating, early boarding, or complimentary bags like at Delta or American. Free Spirit does offer tiered membership levels, but these only provide marginal perks like dedicated customer service lines. For frequent travelers expecting special treatment, the program falls woefully short.
Even on the redemption side, Free Spirit caters to cost-conscious vacationers, not business trippers. Members can only redeem miles for one-way economy fares without leveraging points for upgrades. And you must book all travel 21 days in advance for the lowest "Bare Fare" redemption rate of 2,500 miles – an eternity for busy business flyers.
Higher "Standard" and "Peak" pricing levels for shorter booking windows respectively charge 3,000 and 3,500 miles one-way – still not exorbitant, but a hit to value. Only leisure travelers with fixed dates have the flexibility to snag the cheapest awards. And with no first class or extra legroom seats, premium comfort remains off the table.
For these reasons, Free Spirit miles work best for budget-focused families booking basic flights or students looking for the cheapest getaway. These groups can easily rack up miles through regular Spirit flights then redeem when schedules allow. But time-constrained business travelers and those expecting elite treatment or aspirational rewards won’t reap much benefit.
Brad, an attorney in Detroit, explained why he dumps his Spirit miles annually: “Free Spirit seems designed for people flying Spirit once or twice for a beach vacation. As someone flying almost weekly for work, I don’t have time to book three weeks out and can’t use miles for the extras I need."
Frequent Flier Smackdown: Ranking the Top U.S. Airline Rewards Programs for 2024 - Frontier Miles Best for Budget-Conscious Families and Students
While most airline loyalty programs cater to frequent business travelers, Frontier Airlines' DISCOUNT Den membership stands out as a rewards program tailored squarely at budget-focused families and students seeking affordable getaways. Between kids' school schedules and tight vacation time, these groups often must plan travel dates far in advance to get the lowest fares. DISCOUNT Den's unique structure accommodates this need for early booking flexibility.
Unlike the revenue-based model used by many carriers, Frontier awards 100 miles for every dollar spent on airfare when booking at least 180 days ahead. This provides families and students ample time to coordinate calendars and lock-in cheap reward flights. Even occasional Frontier fliers can quickly build up balances for free tickets by planning ahead.
Frontier also lets you redeem miles for any open seat on eligible flights with no blackout dates or capacity controls. As long as seats remain unsold, you can book an award ticket without fretting over award availability. Parents juggling multiple kids' activities appreciate the convenience of securing seats whenever it fits their schedule.
College student Amanda flies Frontier a few times per year to visit family and friends. She shared: "I've never had issues using my DISCOUNT Den miles for holidays and spring break since Frontier doesn't block peak dates. Their open booking policy makes it easy to plan trips home between exams and capstones."
Frontier's Kids Fly Free perk provides another major benefit to families, letting children under 15 fly for free on paid adult bookings. Parents simply pay taxes on the child's flight, saving hundreds per ticket. Used smartly, this can enable an annual vacation on the miles earned from a single roundtrip ticket.
When it comes time to redeem miles, Frontier offers an everyday value rate of 15,000 miles roundtrip for domestic flights. While not the cheapest awards around, reasonable 15,000 mileage topping off offers help fill gaps. Families flying together can cover multiple tickets through collaborative points earnings and redemptions.
With service focused on the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean, Frontier's route network centers on budget-friendly vacation spots like Cancun, Punta Cana and Las Vegas that appeal to cost-savvy families and students. As a hub carrier in Denver, Frontier also offers affordable domestic connectivity across the central and western U.S.