The pandemic has been hard on all relationships, and you might be asking yourself that all-important question: Should you be loyal, or play the field?
I’m talking about airline loyalty, of course. Sticking with one airline carries lots of perks, from accruing miles to earning elite status. But air travel monogamy isn’t right for everyone. Some travelers, especially those who fly infrequently or out of diverse airports, might benefit from a more freewheeling approach, chasing whichever airline offers the lowest fares on a given route.
There’s also the big question of which airline is best, both in general and for your specific airport. You don’t want to get stuck in a relationship with some skeezy, deadbeat airline.
What types of travelers benefit the most from loyalty?
If you’re a frequent or business traveler who mostly pays cash for tickets (rather than using miles), then this one’s easy: You should consider going steady with a single airline. Sticking with one airline generally offers good benefits that outweigh the annoyance of more limited flight options when booking.
If you’re a semi-frequent traveler or someone who mostly uses travel rewards to book flights, the answer is muddier. You might want to focus on a single airline yet stay open to flying with competitors (if the price and timing is right). Think of this relationship as “monogam-ish.” You likely won’t get high level status with your focus airline, but you’ll reap some benefits by staying within a single partner network for using your miles.
If you fly only once or twice a year, you probably don’t need to sweat airline loyalty too much. It might be nice to accrue enough miles with a single airline to book an award ticket down the line, but you won't need to bend over backward to do it.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
How to pick an airline life partner
It’s a common lament among travelers on social media: All airlines are racing to the bottom for price and service, so they’re all equally bad. However, like most things on social media, this truism isn't true. Some airlines are much, much worse than others.
For starters, there are the budget airlines, like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant. You can pretty much swipe left on all of those, unless you’re a die-hard cheapskate with no interest in creature comforts.
For the other U.S. airlines, the best one for you depends on several factors:
Which airlines fly out of your home airport? If you mostly fly out of Atlanta, for example, there are few legitimate options beyond Delta. If you live near a polyamorous hub like LAX, you have plenty of options.
Do you care about elite status? NerdWallet ranked airline elite status programs based on the value they offer per dollar spent and found some big discrepancies. If you care about elite status, pick an airline that provides the most valuable perks. If you don’t fly often enough to earn it, ignore it.
How about airline rewards? We also did a big analysis across airline rewards programs to show which ones offer the best bang for your buck. Alaska and Hawaiian topped the list, while Frontier and United brought up the rear.
Like real-life relationships, tastes differ, so choose the airline that maximizes your own personal preferences and interests. Unlike a real-life relationship, it’s easy to switch loyalty after a year or two if things aren’t working out.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
What about airline partnerships?
Airline partnerships expand the benefits you can get with your miles and elite status, but they can also seem confusing and overwhelming. Some airlines belong to major alliances like SkyTeam and Star Alliance, while others offer a hodgepodge of international partners.
My recommendation is to keep it simple. Decide which domestic airline you’re going steady with, then learn which partnerships are involved. For example, Delta flyers should learn the basics of the SkyTeam alliance and mostly ignore everything else.
If you learn nothing else about partnerships, remember this: Use your main frequent flyer account when flying with partners. So if you’re taking a flight on a Delta partner such as Air France, apply your Delta account number to the itinerary. Don’t bother signing up for an Air France account to earn a few measly miles that you’ll likely never use.
The bottom line
Airline loyalty carries both costs and benefits. Sticking with one airline means fewer options when searching for flights, which can lead to higher fares and less convenient flights. Yet frequent flyer and elite status programs reward loyalty, so you’ll have an easier time earning free flights and perks if you mostly stick with one airline or alliance.
If you’re on the fence, I recommend focusing on one airline that you already enjoy flying, and preferentially booking through it when fares are similar. But don’t lock yourself in: You can still jump on an ultra-low fare with another airline when you see one.
Your preferred airline never needs to know. What happens in Kayak stays in Kayak.
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 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card