The Best Airline of 2024

In our first year analyzing airlines independent of their loyalty programs, Alaska is the best brand to fly.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Published
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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Airlines are more than just their loyalty programs, which is why this year — for the first time — we’ve determined the best overall airline brand.

NerdWallet’s travel team compared several categories across airlines, such as their in-flight experiences and entertainment, pet fees and operations. We spent months collecting data, analyzing the fine print and generally nerding out, not only to determine the best airline, but also the best airline rewards program, the best hotel and the best hotel rewards program of 2024. Check out all of our winners.

How we picked the best airline

Some travelers might prioritize an airline that always gets their checked bag to their final destination, while travelers who prefer to take a carry-on may want an airline that includes a carry-on with their ticket, regardless of the fare class.

With this in mind, we prioritized elements of the flight experience that offer clear, objective and measurable benefits. We then boiled these elements into a single overall rating across airlines.

Here’s what we compared:

The airline rewards analysis is a subset of the overall ratings for these programs. That’s because a business traveler looking for the best rewards points and elite status benefits might not care about, say, an airline’s pet policy.

We rated each airline brand across all of these categories on a five-point scale, then used a weighted average of these ratings to determine an overall winner. Use the links above to learn more about how we built these ratings.

The best airline of 2024

Winner: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines dominated the competition this year, earning high scores in nearly every category we considered. The airline performed particularly well in how it rewards customers through its Mileage Plan loyalty program and the benefits it offers through its MVP elite status program. Alaska’s only low score came for its “Saver” basic economy fares, which are more restrictive than others.

Here’s how the best airline scoring played out across categories:

Hawaiian Airlines saw good results for its elite status program and operational excellence. American Airlines also performed well, with particularly high marks for its elite status program and add-on fee structure. Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines scored very well in some categories but very poorly in others, and this inconsistency dropped their overall scores.

Frontier and Spirit rounded out the bottom of the list, which is unsurprising given these low-cost carriers’ no-frills approach.

The bottom line

Alaska Airlines won best overall airline for 2024 because of a combination of its high rewards rate, pet fees and benefits offered to its elite status members.

Coincidentally, they were also at the top of the list for best airline rewards program of 2024.

Methodology to determine the best airline

Read our editorial guidelines for additional information.

How we picked the airlines to evaluate

For an airline to be eligible, it had to be based in the U.S. and have a publicly available rewards search calendar with availability from 15 days to eight months from the time of the search.

Nine airlines fit these criteria: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United. No other U.S.-based airlines met these criteria.

How we chose the winner

We looked at the rewards rate, basic economy, operations, elite rewards rate, pet policies, in-flight experience and add-on fees. We rated each of these factors separately, then determined an overall rating based on the weighting described below.

Here's how we rated and weighted each factor:

  • Rewards rate (23.5%). We determined the dollar value of each program’s rewards miles and the earnings rate of miles. To determine the rewards rate, we multiplied the value of each mile by the earnings rate and then multiplied by 100. For example, if an airline’s rewards miles were worth $0.01 apiece (the value of rewards miles) and 10 miles were earned per dollar spent (the earnings rate of miles), its program would have a 10% rewards rate. (In this example, the two equations would be: first $0.01 x 10 = 0.1, then 0.1 x 100 = 10, or 10%.)

  • Basic economy (11.8%). Six of the airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United) offer basic economy fares. We rated these fares across nine categories, from which we derived a single composite rating. 

  • Operations (17.6%). We rated each airline according to on-time performance, cancellations and passenger rebookings, and baggage mishandling. We developed a composite rating from these categories.

  • Elite rewards rate rate (11.8%). We determined both (a) the value and (b) the cost of earning elite status with each program, and determined an overall value by dividing (a) by (b). 

  • Add-on fees (17.6%). We compared the cost of fees across several fare classes in two categories: (1) bag fees and (2) seat assignment fees.

  • In-flight experience (11.8%). We analyzed the airlines’ entertainment offerings based on categories like Wi-Fi availability/cost and movie availability/cost. We also took into account other metrics, like whether seatback screens were available.

  • Pet policies (5.9%). We analyzed the experience of flying the airlines with a pet, including whether pets were allowed in the main cabin, whether they were allowed in cargo, limits on the number of pets or their size and cost. We also looked at U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data around pet losses, injuries or deaths, and passenger complaints against airlines about their handling of animals. 

How we assigned star ratings

For each factor, we subtracted the lowest value from the highest value to determine the range. Then, we split this range into five separate “star rating” ranges. We assigned each airline program an appropriate star rating based on where its value fell in the range.

How we verified our data

We independently spot-checked data collected to ensure accuracy. Information about loyalty programs was verified on the airlines’ websites.


How to maximize your rewards

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NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

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See more travel cards
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