Best Value Airline Rewards Programs in 2024

Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue lead the way on cash value per mile.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Updated
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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Nerdy takeaways
  • Alaska Airlines offers the most rewarding domestic airline program, in terms of the value of miles earned.

  • Both Alaska and Hawaiian still grant reward miles based on the number of miles flown versus flight cost.

  • Among the three big domestic airlines, American Airlines holds the edge.

Nerdy takeaways
  • Alaska Airlines offers the most rewarding domestic airline program, in terms of the value of miles earned.

  • Both Alaska and Hawaiian still grant reward miles based on the number of miles flown versus flight cost.

  • Among the three big domestic airlines, American Airlines holds the edge.

Airline rewards programs are complicated. It might seem like you need a Ph.D. in complex systems (or at least fine-print reading) to understand them. But underneath the complex gobbledygook lies a simple pair of questions:

  • How many points or miles do you earn per dollar spent on airfare?

  • How much are those points or miles worth?

After all, that’s what an airline loyalty program is about: Rewarding frequent flyers with value (in this case, points or miles) that they can use for future trips.

With this in mind, we can determine which airlines deliver on this simple promise and which fall short.

To do this, our team at NerdWallet compared U.S. airlines’ rewards programs across these two factors to arrive at a single “rewards rate” for each. This rewards rate shows which airlines offer the best bang for your travel buck when purchasing airfare. For example, a rewards rate of 10% means that for every dollar you spend purchasing base fares with the airline, you can expect about 10 cents back in the form of rewards (redeemable points or miles).

This analysis doesn’t consider every aspect of an airline — such as in-flight entertainment or elite status programs — and simply looks at the base airfare cost. Optional add-ons such as seat selection fees, carry-on fees, checked bags, or in-flight food and beverage purchases were not a factor. It also gives us a new way to think about which airline provides the best loyalty program in 2024.

Which airline offers the best rewards rate?

To determine these rankings, we collected hundreds of data points from real-world airline routes to determine the value of points or miles for each airline. Then, we combined these results with the number of miles earned per dollar spent on base airfare.

Enough math. The point is that Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are easily the most rewarding domestic airline programs (and they’ll merge into one program in 2024, so you soon won’t have to choose between the two). You can expect to get about 9 to 10 cents in value for every dollar spent with Alaska or Hawaiian. That's far above the 4 to 7 cents per dollar spent you can expect from the big three: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Alaska’s performance is hardly surprising for rewards aficionados, as its Mileage Plan has a good reputation for customer-first policies. The same goes for Hawaiian Airlines, which has a customer-friendly reputation.

Spirit Airlines came in with just a 3.5% rate largely because they offer a lower points earning rate on base fares (6x) than they do on purchases they categorize as optional (12x), such as boarding pass printing, seat selection, baggage, etc. If you spend a lot on these extra fees with Spirit, your proportional earning rate will be higher.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re an infrequent traveler who takes a couple of trips per year and doesn’t bother much with earning airline miles, you can mostly ignore these rankings. They’re called frequent flyer programs for a reason.

If you travel a lot for work or are a leisure traveler who maximizes travel rewards, these rankings should make a big impact on where you put your loyalty. If you or your company spends $5,000 per year on airfare, you could earn back $485 worth of miles from Alaska versus only $245 from United, for example.

Choosing the right airline loyalty program for you will involve other factors, such as the number of flights from your home airport or your willingness to pay extra fees for additional services, but the rewards rate can help tip the scales.

What this means for your airline loyalty

Imagine choosing between two cash-back credit cards: One offered to refund 10% of every purchase and the other offered only 3.4% back. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the best airline and the lowest rewards rate airline program when comparing their rates on base airfare costs.

Keep in mind that miles are not cash, and the hypothetical return on spending with any of these programs depends on one crucial variable: whether you actually use the miles. Still, the differences are stark.

Cards for earning airline miles
Chase United Airlines Mileage Plus Credit Card
United℠ Explorer Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Barclays JetBlue Plus Credit Card
JetBlue Plus Card
NerdWallet Rating
Annual fee

$0 intro for the first year, then $95.

$69.

$0 intro for the first year, then $150.

$99.

Earning rates

• 2 miles per $1 on United purchases.

• 2 miles per $1 at restaurants and hotels (when booked directly with hotel).

• 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases.

• 2 points per $1 on Southwest purchases.

• 2 points per $1 on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, local transit and commuting (including rideshare), and on internet, cable, phone services and select streaming.

• 1 point per $1 on all other purchases.

• 2 miles per $1 on purchases made directly with Delta and at U.S. supermarkets and restaurants (including takeout and delivery in the U.S.).

• 1 mile per $1 on all other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 6 points per $1 with JetBlue.

• 2 points per $1 at restaurants and grocery stores.

• 1 point per $1 on other purchases.

• 1 Mosaic tile per $1,000 spent.

Horizontal scroll

Terms apply.

If you choose to become loyal to one of the big three domestic airlines, the good news is that they all offer similar, middling rewards rates. In terms of the pure financials of redeemable miles, you’re not meaningfully better off with Delta than you are with United or American.

These rankings are a good indication of which airlines are dedicated to offering value to their most frequent customers and which are throwing up smoke and mirrors. The fact that it took us weeks of data collection and analysis to determine these figures demonstrates how opaque the travel rewards game can be. Hopefully, this offers some clarity.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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