Which Airline Reward Program Offers the Most Bang for Your Buck?

Sam KemmisJanuary 21, 2020
On a similar note...
On a similar note...

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Airline reward programs have undergone dizzying changes in recent years. Earning miles on many airlines is now based on how much you spend rather than how far you fly, and the number of miles needed to book a given route has become harder and harder to determine.

To help make sense of the confusion, we performed a data-driven analysis of major domestic airlines to determine which offer the best bang for your buck — that is, which program offers the most value in return per dollar spent.

How we did it

To figure out which program offered the best return on spend, we needed to know:

  1. How many miles you can expect to earn per dollar spent (mile earning rate).

  2. How much these miles are worth (mile valuations).

Mile earning rate

You still earn miles based on distance flown on four major domestic airlines: Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian and Southwest. For these, we searched for the cheapest available round-trip fares across five dates and 14 popular domestic routes, totaling 70 routes per airline. We averaged the price across the five dates and divided by the miles earned for each route.

Four other airlines — American, Delta, JetBlue and United — issue miles based on the base fare. For these, we searched for the cheapest available round-trip fares across 14 popular domestic routes and collected both the base fare and total fare. We divided the miles earned by the total cost of the ticket to determine the mile-earning rate.

Here are the results:

Program

Miles Earned Per Dollar Spent

Alaska

8.3

American

4.2

Delta

4.1

Frontier

10.5

Hawaiian

6.3

JetBlue

2.4

Southwest

4.7

United

4.0

In other words, if you spend $100 on a ticket with Frontier, you can expect to earn 1,050 miles (100 x 10.5). If you spend $100 on United, you can expect to earn 400 miles (100 x 4).

As you can see, these earning rates vary a lot. The top earning rate, Frontier, was more than four times higher than the lowest, JetBlue.

Of course, these earning rates raise the question: How much are those miles actually worth?

Mile valuations

In a separate analysis, we compared cash prices and award redemptions for the same round-trip routes across several destinations and dates.

For example, we compared the cost of flying round-trip from New York to London using either cash or miles. We divided the cost of the cash ticket by the cost of the reward ticket to determine a “cent per mile” value for each flight, then averaged these values.

Here are the results:

Program

Mile value

1 cent

1 cent

0.9 cent

0.3 cent

1.1 cents

1.1 cents

1.6 cents

1 cent

Drumroll, please…

Finding the return on spend was then simply a matter of multiplying the mile earning rate by the mile valuations and dividing by 100 to make it a percentage. Here are the results, from the highest-earning program to the lowest:

Program

Return on Dollars Spent

Alaska

7.5%

Southwest

6.6%

Frontier

6.3%

Hawaiian

5.7%

Delta

4.5%

American

4.2%

United

3.2%

JetBlue

3.1%

This means that if you spend $100 on an Alaska Airlines flight, you can expect to get $7.50 in value from the miles you’ll earn. And you can expect to get only $3.10 in return from a $100 JetBlue flight.

Unsurprisingly to many, most of the distance-based programs outperformed revenue-based ones. In fact, Alaska’s Mileage Plan offers more than twice the return on spend compared to United, American and JetBlue.

The bottom line

Airline frequent flyer programs are all about paying you back for being a loyal customer. But, as we found in this analysis, the programs vary widely in how much bang you get for your buck.

The limited mile-earning rate among the three largest U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — significantly reduces the value of their reward programs. This factor ended up being more important than the value of the miles themselves in determining overall value.

Alaska’s Mileage Plan program stands well above the pack and offers a solid value for West Coast flyers, while budget carriers Southwest and Frontier offer surprisingly lucrative programs in their own right.

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 2020, including those best for:

We want to hear from you and encourage a lively discussion among our users. Please help us keep our site clean and safe by following our posting guidelines, and avoid disclosing personal or sensitive information such as bank account or phone numbers. Any comments posted under NerdWallet’s official account are not reviewed or endorsed by representatives of financial institutions affiliated with the reviewed products, unless explicitly stated otherwise.