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If you’re ready to start earning points and miles to use on award travel, you’ve probably noticed that there are several airline loyalty programs to choose from. You may even be stuck trying to decide which program — or programs — is right for you.
And while airline loyalty programs are generally free to join (and no one is stopping you from signing up for multiple memberships), it can be useful to focus your energy on just a few, rather than many. Especially for those new to the points and miles universe, targeting one or two airline loyalty programs will give you the best chance of earning enough miles for an award flight. It will also help you feel less overwhelmed, as there is plenty to know and understand about this travel hacking hobby.
Here’s a quick introduction to airline loyalty programs, plus six considerations to take into account before making a decision about which one(s) to join.
An overview of airline loyalty programs
How they work
Beyond selling airfare that gets travelers to and from destinations, many airlines run individual loyalty programs to encourage customer satisfaction and retention. These programs generally look a lot like other loyalty or rewards programs you might be used to, such as Starbucks Rewards, Sephora’s Beauty Insider or Marriott Bonvoy.
Typically, these programs:
Are free to join.
Offer ways for customers to collect or “earn” a currency, like points or miles.
Extend ways for customers to redeem their points or miles for discounts, free products, flight awards or insider perks.
Require a name and email address.
Include options for co-branded consumer credit cards.
Provide various benefits, like free in-flight Wi-Fi or priority boarding.
Inspire further customer loyalty with elite status tiers that come with additional perks.
Popular airline loyalty programs
Every major U.S.-based airline carrier has an accompanying loyalty program. The programs are named as follows:
What to think about ahead of joining
1. Flight access
Before joining an airline loyalty program, consider first whether the airline services your closest point of departure. You wouldn’t want to pledge your loyalty to United Airlines just to learn that it rarely flies out of (or into) your home airport.
Next, take your investigation a step further to get a broader sense of where else the airline flies. For instance, if you travel frequently to North Dakota or Georgia to visit family, you will likely want to stick with an airline that offers frequent flights to those destinations.
If one of your travel goals is to plan ahead for a dream vacation, like Spain or Hawaii, consider optimizing your program loyalty for an airline that offers award flights to that specific destination.
Check flight maps to ensure the airline you’re considering offers at least occasional routes to your priority places.
2. Pricing and fees
Don’t solely consider your most frequented destinations — keep the airline itself in mind, too. If you prefer to travel on low-cost carriers instead of full-service airlines, a more expensive air carrier’s loyalty program might not be the best choice for you.
Other common airline fees to consider include seat assignments or baggage. If you know that you’re a heavy packer, it might make sense to build loyalty with Southwest Airlines, which is appreciated by travelers for its generous two-checked-bags-fly-free policy.
If you’d rather pay for flight amenities as needed, consider which airlines offer a la carte add-on services, like Spirit or Frontier. Or you might want to select an airline that offers bare-bones basic economy tickets, like Delta or United.
» Learn more: Which airlines have the best (and worst) fees?
3. Airline alliance membership
Many airlines (except for some budget airlines like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant) are part of alliances, meaning that points and miles earned with one airline can often be used to redeem award flights with another. These alliances offer an even more extensive network of partners to book award flights from. Savvy travelers appreciate these relationships for their added flexibility and opportunity.
If you want your airline loyalty to maximize access to additional destinations and airlines, look into the three major alliances: Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam. Even a cursory scan can reveal which airlines make it easy to redeem your points and miles more widely.
Here’s how it works: American's AAdvantage miles can be used to book award travel on Qantas since both airlines are Star Alliance members. And you can use your United loyalty account number to earn miles on Air Canada flights due to their shared participation in Oneworld.
4. Available credit card offers
Seasoned award travelers know that flying isn’t always the fastest way to rack up points and miles with an airline loyalty program. That designation goes to travel credit cards — and just about every airline offers at least one.
But not all travel credit cards are created equal. Some, like the United Quest℠ Card, offer exceptional sign-up bonuses and perks. For instance, this card offers benefits like credit toward a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application and a faster route to elite status. Its welcome bonus is also eye-catching: Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
However, these perks come with a cost. The card has an annual fee of $250.
Generally speaking, the higher the annual fee, the better the perks of your airline credit card.
Other travel credit cards, like the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, may offer a less substantial welcome bonus, but a delayed annual fee (meaning it's free for the first year), plus other benefits, like your first bag checked for free.
But don’t forget to look at spending categories. If you don’t fly often, a card like the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® — which earns 2x points on American Airlines purchases, but 1x points on everything else — might not get you to an award flight as fast as, say, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card . This card offers 3x points on Southwest and partner purchases, 2x points on local transit and commuting (including rideshares), internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming, and 1x points on everything else
So take a look at what credit cards your preferred airlines offer and which fits your budget, spending habits and lifestyle best. Being smart about your credit card selection will in turn get you the most points and miles in the long run.
5. Other ways to earn miles
Depending on the airline, there may be additional ways to earn miles via everyday spending besides spending on credit cards. Some programs, like United MileagePlus, offer the chance to earn miles by shopping with partners or making purchases in the United MileagePlus X app. Others, like American Airlines’ AAdvantage, also allow members to earn by donating to charities.
Check to see if you can earn miles by booking a hotel or rental car for your vacation, like you can with Alaska Airlines MileagePlan and others. Sometimes, the different ways you can earn miles can be somewhat surprising — like by getting a home security system installed through Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program.
6. Ease of redeeming miles
Now that you know how easy it is to earn miles, consider how easy it is to redeem those miles. Do some research prior to joining a program to get a sense of award flight costs, for instance.
Things to look for include:
How many points or miles are required to redeem a flight? The more you need, the longer it may take to earn award travel. Airline award charts, like AAdvantage’s, can be a useful points planning tool. Other tactics for estimating flight redemption costs include checking out Southwest’s Low Fare Calendar or testing possible award flight bookings in an airline’s award search tool.
Can you pool your miles with friends or family members, like with Frontier or JetBlue? Points pooling can help you collect points and miles with loved ones to redeem award flights more quickly.
Does the airline use blackout dates for award flights? Are there caps on how many award seats will be sold per flight? Either could make award flights more challenging to find and book.
Are the miles at risk of expiring? If so, when? Weigh the realities of keeping your points and miles active without flying.
» Learn more: Simple steps to keep your miles from expiring
If you want to join an airline loyalty program
There are plenty of options when it comes to airline loyalty programs, but chances are, there are only a few that will truly suit you and your travel style. Once you’ve found them, sign up and start earning those miles with confidence.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card