Best Value Airline Rewards Programs in 2023

Alaska, Frontier and Southwest lead the way on cash value per mile.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Meg Lee

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences 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. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

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

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

  • Between the three big domestic airlines, there isn't a huge difference in rewards rate.

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

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

  • Between the three big domestic airlines, there isn't a huge difference in rewards rate.

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?

At the end of the day, 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 set about determining 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 particular analysis doesn’t take into account 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 2023.

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.

Our elite status analysis is based on main cabin flight fares. If you’re a business or first-class traveler who sits at the front of the plane, the rewards rates will likely differ.

Enough math. The point is that Frontier Airlines and Alaska Airlines are easily the most rewarding domestic airline programs. You can expect to get about 10 cents in value for every dollar spent with Frontier or Alaska. That's far above the 4 to 6 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. What is surprising is how well Frontier Airlines performed.

One caveat about Frontier's performance: Because the base fares for Frontier flights are so low, this leads to a high mile-per-dollar earning rate. However, when you factor in add-ons such as seat selection and baggage fees (which do not earn miles), Frontier’s earning rate could be less robust.

Spirit Airlines came in with just a 3.4% rate largely due to the fact that 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.

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 $505 worth of miles from Frontier versus only $235 from United, for example.

Choosing the right airline loyalty program for you will certainly 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 if you had the choice between two cash-back credit cards: One offered to refund 10% of every purchase, while the other offered only 3.4% back. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the best airline, Frontier, 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.

If you’re choosing whether 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.

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:

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.