Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Southwest Still Soars Above the Rest
When it comes to airline loyalty programs, Southwest still reigns supreme. The Dallas-based carrier has dominated the skies for years thanks to its beloved Rapid Rewards program, which offers flyers fantastic flexibility and value. Unlike traditional mileage-based systems, Rapid Rewards operates on a simple points structure where travelers earn credits based on the cost of a flight rather than the distance flown. These points never expire and can be used towards any open seat on a Southwest flight with no blackout dates.
Such flexibility is key to Rapid Rewards' enduring popularity. Frequent flyers rave about the program's ease of use and ample redemption opportunities. Favorites include redeeming points for last-minute Wanna Get Away fares, which often start around 5,000 points one-way domestically. Flyers also appreciate Southwest's reasonable approach to award pricing. Prices are based on current cash fares rather than an opaque, dynamic pricing model used by some other carriers. This makes strategizing and maximizing redemptions much simpler.
Southwest also stands apart for allowing travelers to share and pool points. Up to eight Rapid Rewards members can contribute points to a single redemption reservation, a highly unique feature that enables families and groups to redeem rewards collaboratively. Members can also transfer points to other individuals, albeit with some restrictions. This type of flexibility keeps customers loyal and engaged with the program long-term.
While elite status tiers are not a focus for Southwest like they are for other airlines, the carrier still rewards frequent flyers handsomely through Companion Pass privileges. By earning 125,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, passholders can designate one person to fly free with them for the remainder of that year and the entirety of the next. It's an incredibly valuable perk that essentially cuts flight costs in half. Between flexible redemptions and Companion Pass perks, it's easy to see why Southwest maintains such a devoted fan base.
What else is in this post?
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Southwest Still Soars Above the Rest
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Delta and American Duke it Out for Second Place
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - United Playing Catch-Up After Years of Mediocrity
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - The Rise of Budget Carrier Programs
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Maximizing Airline Credit Card Bonuses and Perks
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Understanding Loyalty Program Devaluations
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Using Points and Miles to Upgrade to First Class
- Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Loyalty Programs Adapt to Changing Traveler Needs
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Delta and American Duke it Out for Second Place
When it comes to the silver and bronze medals in the loyalty program competition, Delta and American Airlines are constantly jostling for position right behind Southwest. Both legacy carriers boast mature, mileage-based frequent flyer programs with elite tiers, sophisticated partnerships, and solid award redemption options. However, they take slightly divergent approaches that appeal to different types of travelers.
For road warriors who want top-notch privileges, many give Delta the edge thanks to perks like complimentary upgrades, SkyClub lounge access, and best-in-class reciprocal benefits when traveling internationally in Delta One business class. Delta also operates more efficiently than American, leading to better on-time performance and fewer canceled flights. This reliability is hugely important for frequent business travelers.
However, American isn't far behind when it comes to elite treatment, offering similar upgrades and Admirals Club lounge access. Where American excels is on the awards front, frequently offering reduced mileage redemptions on select routes domestically and ample award availability on partner airlines like Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways. For leisure flyers focused on getting the most bang for their buck on vacations, American's Advantage program often delivers more value.
Both airlines have competitive co-branded credit cards that make it easier for members to rack up miles quickly through sign-up bonuses and everyday spending. Delta's close relationship with American Express provides a wide range of cards with varied annual fees and perks. American partners with both Citi and Barclaycard to also offer diverse card options. No matter which airline you're loyal to, using the right co-branded card can turbocharge your points balance.
When it comes to elite status, Delta's tiers are a bit more differentiated, with choice benefits like rollover Medallion Qualification Miles and gifting status. American formerly had an edge for easier elite qualification, but Delta has narrowed that gap with Miles Boost bonuses. No matter your status, both airlines now make it harder for elites to score upgrades on hub routes due to Delta Premium Select and American's Main Cabin Extra.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - United Playing Catch-Up After Years of Mediocrity
For years, United Airlines lagged behind its competitors when it came to having a compelling loyalty program. The Chicago-based carrier's MileagePlus program was often criticized for lacking innovation and offering poor value compared to rivals. A series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, including the major 2010 merger with Continental, caused major issues when it came to integrating systems and aligning frequent flyer benefits.
During this turbulent period, MileagePlus fell well short of delivering an industry-leading experience. Award chart sweet spots were eliminated, upgrade policies became more restrictive, and elite benefits were watered down. United also implemented revenue-based programs like Premier Qualifying Dollars that made it harder for loyal customers to earn status. Unfortunately, these money-centric metrics often ignored consumers’ actual flown miles.
Redemption rates using United miles were also notoriously high compared to other carriers. Saver awards were scarce while everyday redemption rates were exorbitant. Flyers routinely complained about redeeming 140,000+ miles for a simple round-trip business class ticket to Europe, a rate far above what similar products cost on other Star Alliance programs. To add insult to injury, egregious carrier-imposed surcharges were common on international partner awards.
Customer frustration with MileagePlus reached a fever pitch after the loyalty program underwent successive waves of devaluation from 2014-2016. But United seems to have gotten the message in recent years and is now playing catch-up. Positive changes include rationalizing elite benefits, expanding access to Economy Plus seats, and adding opportunities to earn bonus PQD's.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - The Rise of Budget Carrier Programs
The airline industry has seen a surge of ultra low-cost carriers in recent years, and many of these budget airlines have launched surprisingly robust frequent flyer programs. Carriers like Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant are attracting travelers with bare bones base fares, then incentivizing return business through points-based loyalty programs. What sets these programs apart is how quickly members can ascend to top-tier status compared to major airline programs.
Take Spirit Airlines’ FREE SPIRIT program. It only takes 7,500 qualifying miles to reach Silver status, 25,000 miles for Gold, and 50,000 miles to hit Platinum, the highest published tier. These thresholds can be obtained after just a few round-trips. Perks include free seat selection, priority boarding, discounted bags, and bonus miles on flights. After a year of inactive status, balances reset, which actually suits the budget traveler demographic well.
Meanwhile, Frontier Airlines reinvented their DISCOUNT DEN membership in 2018. The new program has four tiers (Member, Elite 10K, Elite 50K, Elite 100K) that reward fliers with family member status matches, carry-on bag discounts, waived change fees, priority boarding, and bonus miles. Frontier often runs double miles promotions that let members fast track through the ranks. Reaching top-tier Elite 100K status would require significant spending, but mid-tier 50K status is attainable for regular Frontier flyers.
Lastly, Allegiant Air revamped their ALLWAYS REWARDS program in 2016 to add elite tiers for the first time. In a unique twist, Allegiant bases tier qualification on the amount you spend on airfare in the past 12 months rather than miles flown. Their Companion Pass benefit, earned at $2,000 in annual spend, stands out for letting members bring one companion at no additional airfare cost.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Maximizing Airline Credit Card Bonuses and Perks
In the world of miles and points, airline credit card bonuses are often the fastest way to supercharge your loyalty balance and take dream trips for pennies on the dollar. The key is signing up for the right cards and utilizing ongoing spending bonuses strategically.
Avid collectors like Frequent Miler exemplify how savvy credit card planning can generate hundreds of thousands of miles annually. He maximizes limited-time increased offers across personal and business cards from issuers like Chase, American Express, Citi, and Capital One. His haul over a several year period included jaw-dropping sums like 390,000 Membership Rewards points, 780,000 Capital One miles, and over half a million Delta SkyMiles.
Bank account bonuses also offer quick miles infusions. Redbird Miles earned 400,000 American AAdvantage miles in a single year through bank bonuses, spending $5,000 to trigger 50,000 mile initial bonuses from banks like Citigold and Barclays.
Cardholders also reap huge value from ongoing category bonuses, which allow you to earn multiples miles on everyday purchases. For example, the American Express Gold Card offers 4x at restaurants and grocery stores. Strategic spending can quickly add up. OneFlyer boosted his Delta SkyMiles balance by 17,700 miles in a single month by making the most of his Gold Delta Amex's multipliers.
Beyond bonuses, credit card perks make travel more pleasant. Airline cards commonly include free checked bags, priority boarding, in-flight discounts and lounge access. For instance, mid-tier elite status via the Delta Platinum Amex provides SkyClub access when flying Delta. Such privileges easily offset annual fees.
Finally, credit cards that grant Elite Qualifying Miles are invaluable for reaching status faster. Both Delta and United cards allow big spenders to earn MQMs for hitting spending thresholds. Expert Flyer used this benefit to help earn Delta Diamond status through the Delta Reserve Card.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Understanding Loyalty Program Devaluations
For loyal frequent flyers, few things are more frustrating than loyalty program devaluations. These periodic adjustments to redemption rates and elite qualification undermine years of brand devotion. Savvy collectors have learned to expect and manage around devaluations, but they remain a major pain point.
According to View from the Wing's Gary Leff, macroeconomic factors and increased award redemption are driving forces behind many devaluations. When the economy softens, airlines look to loyalty programs as revenue generators. Meanwhile, high redemption demand strains award seat availability. In response, programs raise mileage costs. As Leff notes, "When the music stops, they want to be holding a chair."
The Points Guy's Zach Griff highlights United MileagePlus changes from 2013-2016 as an especially egregious example. United slashed saver award rates, eliminated partner stopovers, and moved to variable pricing. A business class ticket to Europe ballooned from 100,000 miles to 140,000+ miles each way. United also implemented Premier Qualifying Dollars and revenue requirements that made elite status harder to attain and maintain.
For Family Points blogger Summer Hull, American AAdvantage's 2016 shift to a revenue-based model also stung loyalists. She notes that suddenly "price paid became more important than miles flown" due to new five elite tier requirements based on yearly spending rather than flight miles. Award charts also changed to dynamic pricing tied to demand.
According to Frequent Miler’s Nick Reyes, airline mergers often drive devaluations too as programs align. The Delta/Northwest merger brought SkyMiles changes like prime awards, fuel surcharges, and varying mileage accrual. Meanwhile, the United/Continental merger degraded United MileagePlus benefits and availability.
The common theme across loyalty programs is more revenue-driven metrics that shift power dynamics away from pure mileage accumulation. Travelers can adapt by being flexible across programs and regions. For instance, TravelBloggerBuzz suggests redeeming AA miles for Cathay Pacific awards or United miles for ANA flights to avoid excessive fuel surcharges. Diversifying points balances also helps insulate against individual programs' devaluations.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Using Points and Miles to Upgrade to First Class
For many frequent flyers, the allure of first class travel is strong. Being able to stretch out in lie-flat seats, dine on gourmet meals, and relax in luxury lounges is the ultimate flight experience. While paid first class fares are prohibitively expensive, using miles and points to upgrade is an attainable way to sample the high life.
Upgrades to first are highly coveted, so it takes strategy and flexibility to score them through loyalty programs. The Points Guy makes upgrading a priority, maximizing co-branded credit cards and elite status to improve his chances. On hub routes, he suggests using SWU certificates from credit cards to request upgrades in advance. Booking expensive, fully refundable fares can also help boost your upgrade priority.
Meanwhile, TravelBloggerBuzz prioritizes routes and cabins where his Executive Platinum status gives him the best shot at clearing upgrades. He avoids trying to upgrade on popular business routes where elites pile up. Flexibility is key - be willing to take earlier, later or connecting flights to improve odds. Flyertalk member0107104 upgraded JFK-LAX flights simply by changing from peak morning flights to red-eyes.
MileValue's Chief Maximizer routinely books discounted economy fares in hopes of upgrading for fewer miles than an award ticket would cost. He targets upgrade sweet spots like United's ex-US 48 routes where a one-way upgrade is only 7,500 miles. With Premier 1K status, he clears about 75% of the time. Even when he doesn't clear, the cheap base fare makes it worthwhile.
For Family Points blogger Summer Hull, upgrading using miles helps grant her kids the first class experience on family trips. She saved points for years to upgrade the whole family from Houston to Sydney, making the long journey much more comfortable. If you don't have enough points, she suggests asking others to transfer points to your account to cover a special occasion.
The Upgraded Point's Clint Henderson offers several other useful tips for redeeming miles to go first class. Look for discounted upgrade offers, which airlines often roll out to boost revenue. Use elite benefits like 500-mile upgrade stickers on Delta or Regional Premier Upgrades on United to move up on shorter hops. Finally, he suggests booking premium economy and waiting to get upgraded rather than spending miles upfront on business class. You can then request complimentary upgrades at the gate.
Battle of the Skies: Ranking the Top US Airline Loyalty Programs for 2024 - Loyalty Programs Adapt to Changing Traveler Needs
The travel industry experienced seismic shifts over the past decade, and airline loyalty programs have adapted to maintain relevance with changing consumer behaviors and preferences. Frequent flyer schemes can no longer rely solely on elite benefits and award charts. Today's travelers demand greater flexibility, instant gratification, and a recognition of their broader spending habits.
According to Gary Leff of View From the Wing, millennials now represent the most lucrative airline customer demographic. However, they do not blindly pursue status nor fixate on mileage accumulation. They adopt loyalty programs selectively and as a means to an end. Points and perks must deliver real value.
For many younger travelers, elite status is not considered a privilege worth annual investments. They focus more on fight price and schedule rather than brand. In response, programs now emphasize mile-earning cards over status. As observed by Zach Honig of The Points Guy, airlines leverage near-instant elite benefits and fee waivers from co-branded cards to entice new customers. Being able to earn status quickly via sign-up bonuses matters more than the cachet of high-tier status from years of travel.
Travelers today also expect instant gratification. They want on-demand benefits versus waiting to collect rewards. Airline apps and flash upgrades are designed to meet these needs. Travel blogger Ben Schlappig applauds how Delta's app immediately applies Medallion perks like free checked bags once Silver status is earned. Customers feel rewarded in real-time versus chasing future redemption goals.
Revenue-based calculations also cater to spend-centric travelers by rewarding total dollars spent versus miles flown. As noted by Family Points blogger Summer Hull, Delta Medallion elite qualification is now determined by hitting annual spending thresholds. Qualifying dollars (MQDs) matter as much as qualifying miles. This model supports business travelers purchasing more expensive fares.
Finally, brand loyalty matters less today. Travelers engage with multiple programs and chase rewards across carriers. Airline partnerships and transferable currencies support this behavior. Schlappig praises how Chase Ultimate Rewards can be transferred instantly 1:1 to United, allowing flexible redemptions. Modern programs must facilitate this redemption agility across brands to keep customers engaged.