Which Frequent Flyer Program and Credit Card Combo Is Most Rewarding?

JT Genter
Sam Kemmis
Jason Steele
By Jason Steele,  Sam Kemmis and  JT Genter 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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Nerdy takeaways
  • The return on flight spending could vary from 7.2 cents per dollar to 28.5 cents per dollar, depending on your airline, elite status and credit card.

  • Alaska, Southwest and JetBlue had the highest rewards rates for both infrequent and semi-frequent travelers.

  • United, American and Delta generally performed worse than the smaller programs.

Nerdy takeaways
  • The return on flight spending could vary from 7.2 cents per dollar to 28.5 cents per dollar, depending on your airline, elite status and credit card.

  • Alaska, Southwest and JetBlue had the highest rewards rates for both infrequent and semi-frequent travelers.

  • United, American and Delta generally performed worse than the smaller programs.

When frequent flyer programs began more than 40 years ago, they offered clear value to frequent travelers. Passengers were generally awarded miles based on the distance they traveled, and miles could easily be redeemed for a free flight based on published award charts.

Almost all of this has changed. Most U.S. frequent flyer programs now award miles or points based on the cost of the ticket and your elite status in the program, instead of the distance you’ve flown. And award pricing is now largely based on demand rather than an award chart.

If you're a regular flyer, you might wonder which airline program is the most rewarding for you. So, we dug into mileage earning rates and return on spend from airline credit cards to determine the smartest combinations of loyalty and credit cards.

So, what is the best loyalty program and credit card combo for cheap airfare? Regardless of travel frequency, pairing Alaska elite status with the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card will net you the highest return.

Here's how we came to that conclusion, and how other programs and cards fare against one another.

Analysis

The return you’ll get on dollars spent with airlines depends largely on a combination of your status and which credit card you’re using to book flights. Few travelers can maximize the elite status bonuses airlines offer and not all travelers want to pay a massive annual fee for a card that earns more miles.

We broke down our analysis by three types of flyers: Infrequent, semi-frequent and frequent.

  • Infrequent travelers are defined as non-elite travelers paired with an airline credit card with under a $100 annual fee.

  • Semi-frequent travelers are defined as those who travel enough to earn mid-tier status and have a mid-tier credit card that costs less than $300 annually.

  • Frequent travelers are defined as flyers who hold the highest elite status using a premium travel credit card.

Infrequent travelers

First, let's consider the best frequent flyer credit card combo for infrequent travelers. This analysis considers the return on spending for non-elite travelers paired with an airline credit card with under a $100 annual fee.

Alaska takes first place with a return of 13.6 cents per dollar spent. Put another way, you can earn about 1 cent of rewards for every 7 cents spent on Alaska flights. JetBlue and Southwest virtually tied for second place with 11.7 and 11.6 cents per dollar spent, respectively.

American and Delta trail the pack in offering 9.3 and 9.2 cents per dollar spent. However, United ends up at the bottom, with a return of just 7.2 cents per dollar spent — sunk by both a low earning rate and a low value of points.

Airline

Miles per dollar spent

Return on dollar spent

Alaska

11.3 miles.

13.6 cents.

JetBlue

7.8 points.

11.7 cents.

Southwest

7.7 points.

11.6 cents.

American

6.2 miles.

9.3 cents.

Delta

6.1 miles.

9.2 cents.

United

6 miles.

7.2 cents.

Semi-frequent travelers

Now let's consider the best frequent flyer credit card combo for travelers that travel enough to earn mid-tier status (e.g. Delta Gold Medallion, United Premier Gold or AAdvantage Platinum) paired with a mid-tier credit card with under a $300 annual fee.

Once again, Alaska Mileage Plan comes out on top with an excellent return of 23.5 cents per dollar spent. JetBlue takes second place with a 19.8-cent return. Southwest, American and Delta fall in the middle with a return of 14.8 cents, 14.6 cents and 14.3 cents, respectively. And again, United finishes at the bottom with a return of just 11.3 cents per dollar spent.

Airline

Miles per dollar spent

Return on dollar spent

Alaska

19.6 miles.

23.5 cents.

JetBlue

13.2 points.

19.8 cents.

Southwest

9.9 points.

14.8 cents.

American

9.7 miles.

14.6 cents.

Delta

9.6 miles.

14.3 cents.

United

9.4 miles.

11.3 cents.

Frequent travelers

Finally, let's consider the best credit card combo for frequent travelers with the highest elite status using a credit card with the highest-possible returns.

Yet again, Alaska Mileage Plan takes the top spot. The 150% mileage bonus for MVP Gold 100K elite members helps boost the total mileage earning rate to 23.8 miles per dollar spent, despite earning a modest 3 miles per dollar on the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card. Factor in NerdWallet's valuation of 1.2 cents per Alaska mile for a return of 28.5 cents per dollar spent.

Pairing Delta Diamond Medallion with the 5 points per dollar spent on airfare through The Platinum Card® from American Express nets a total return of 21 cents per dollar spent. Southwest finishes third with a return of 20.1 cents per dollar after the 100% bonus for A-List Preferred members and 4 points per dollar spent on the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card.

Note that this analysis does not take into account the relative difficulty of achieving these higher statuses or the higher annual fees for some of the more premium cards.

Airline

Miles per dollar spent

Return on dollar spent

Alaska

23.8 miles.

28.5 cents.

Delta

14 miles.

21 cents.

Southwest

13.4 points.

20.1 cents.

JetBlue

13.2 points.

19.8 cents.

American

12.2 miles.

18.4 cents.

United

13.8 miles.

16.6 cents.

For example, in order to earn a total of 14 miles per dollar spent on Delta, you'll need to earn Diamond Medallion elite status — which requires $15,000 in spending before taxes, fees and incidentals — plus pay the $695 annual fee on The Platinum Card® from American Express. Meanwhile, top performer Alaska doesn't have a spending requirement for elite members, and the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card earns 3x miles with just a $95 annual fee.

Key takeaways

Every frequent traveler has different goals and preferences. These numbers are meant to serve as a first-level comparison between programs.

Still, it is striking that the smaller carriers (Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue) consistently outperform the Goliaths (American, Delta and United) at each level. This likely isn’t a fluke, but a representation of how these airlines need to offer better-than-average rewards to compete with the large carriers. For example frequent flyers out of Atlanta are almost certainly going to be Delta loyalists, so the airline doesn't necessarily need to offer competitive rewards.

We found your return on flight spending could vary from 7.2 cents per dollar to 28.5 cents per dollar, depending on your airline, elite status and credit card. Somewhat surprisingly, the smaller programs (Alaska, Southwest and JetBlue) consistently and decisively provided the best credit card combo compared to the larger airlines (United, American and Delta).

However, these figures are meant as a starting point. Remember that best frequent flyer credit card combo for you also depends on the presence of these airlines in your home airport and availability of routes you tend to fly.

Methodology

With this study, we wanted to model how airline ticket purchases reward travelers per dollar spent. To build this model, we looked at several factors, including the earning structure of the frequent flyer program and the returns offered by each airline’s branded credit cards.

This study built on NerdWallet’s point and miles valuations, which assign values to the miles offered by eight different airline frequent flyer programs. We limited this analysis to the top six programs in terms of value: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United.

Here's a deeper dive into how your return on spending stacks up in each program, depending on which card you have.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Unlike most domestic airlines, Alaska still awards miles based on the distance flown, not the amount spent. Determining a “return on spend” for Alaska is therefore a bit more complicated, since the cost of a ticket does not directly correspond to the miles earned.

We performed a related analysis to determine the miles earned per dollar spent, collecting data from dozens of domestic routes and determining the average mile per dollar earning rate. We calculated Alaska’s base earning rate as 8.3 miles per dollar spent.

There is only one consumer Alaska credit card, the Alaska Airlines Visa® credit card, which offers 3x miles per dollar spent on Alaska purchases.

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from Alaska credit card

Return on dollar spent

Member

8.3 miles.

3.

13.6 cents.

MVP

12.5 miles.

3.

18.5 cents.

MVP Gold

16.6 miles.

3.

23.5 cents.

MVP Gold 75K

18.7 miles.

3.

26 cents.

MVP Gold 100K

20.8 miles.

3.

28.5 cents.

American Airlines AAdvantage

AAdvantage members earn 5 award miles per dollar spent on the base fare and any carrier imposed fees (but not government taxes and fees). Once you factor in those taxes, fees and other incidentals, NerdWallet finds members actually earn an average of 4.2 miles per dollar spent.

AAdvantage elites earn a bonus between 40% and 120% depending on the status level you’ve earned in their AAdvantage program.

American offers the following credit cards that offer 2x miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases:

For travelers with one of these credit cards, here's how your earnings breaks down:

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from most AA credit cards

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.2 miles.

2.

9.3 cents.

AAdvantage Gold

5.9 miles.

2.

11.8 cents.

AAdvantage Platinum

6.7 miles.

2.

13.1 cents.

AAdvantage Platinum Pro

7.6 miles.

2.

14.3 cents.

AAdvantage Executive Platinum

9.2 miles.

2.

16.9 cents.

Also, Barclays offers the AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®, which features 3x miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases. It has a $199 annual fee, but it’s not directly available to new applicants. Instead, you can apply for the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, and then request to be upgraded to the Silver version.

To maximize your AAdvantage mileage earnings, you'll want to get this card for the extra 1x mileage earnings on American Airlines purchases. This will net you:

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.2 miles.

3.

10.8 cents.

AAdvantage Gold

5.9 miles.

3.

13.3 cents.

AAdvantage Platinum

6.7 miles.

3.

14.6 cents.

AAdvantage Platinum Pro

7.6 miles.

3.

15.8 cents.

AAdvantage Executive Platinum

9.2 miles.

3.

18.4 cents.

Delta SkyMiles

The Delta SkyMiles Program is structured nearly identically to the American Airlines AAdvantage program. Members earn between 5-11 miles per dollar spent — depending on their elite status with the program — before government taxes and fees.

Basic economy fares are no longer eligible to earn SkyMiles as of Jan. 1, 2022. In NerdWallet analysis, we found that base members earn an average of 4.1 miles per dollar spent after eliminating non-qualifying spending.

Delta offers four consumer credit cards and three small business cards. Cards with Blue and Gold branding generally earn 2 SkyMiles per dollar spent on Delta purchases and include:

Here's your combined earnings when using these cards.

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from most Delta SkyMiles credit cards

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.1 miles.

2.

9.2 cents.

Silver Medallion

5.7 miles.

2.

11.6 cents.

Gold Medallion

6.6 miles.

2.

12.8 cents.

Platinum Medallion

7.4 miles.

2.

14.1 cents.

Diamond Medallion

9 miles.

2.

16.5 cents.

If you fly Delta enough to earn elite status, consider upgrading to a SkyMiles credit card that earns 3x SkyMiles on Delta purchases:

These cards offer 2 or 3x SkyMiles per dollar spent on Delta tickets, including base fare and carrier imposed fees, but not government taxes.

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from Delta SkyMiles Platinum credit cards

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.1 miles.

3.

10.7 cents.

Silver Medallion

5.7 miles.

3.

13.1 cents.

Gold Medallion

6.6 miles.

3.

14.3 cents.

Platinum Medallion

7.4 miles.

3.

15.6 cents.

Diamond Medallion

9 miles.

3.

18 cents.

To maximize the SkyMiles earnings on your Delta flights, consider getting The Platinum Card® from American Express. You'll earn 5 American Express Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on airfare booked directly with airlines, on up to $500,000 of such purchases each year (then 1x). And Membership Rewards points transfer to AmEx partner Delta SkyMiles at a 1:1 transfer ratio.

By using this roundabout way of earning more SkyMiles, you can earn:

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from The Platinum Card® from American Express

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.1 miles.

5.

13.7 cents.

Silver Medallion

5.7 miles.

5.

16.1 cents.

Gold Medallion

6.6 miles.

5.

17.3 cents.

Platinum Medallion

7.4 miles.

5.

18.6 cents.

Diamond Medallion

9 miles.

5.

21 cents.

United MileagePlus

United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer earnings are also similar to the Delta SkyMiles and American Airlines AAdvantage programs. MileagePlus members earn 5-11 miles per dollar spent before government taxes and fees — depending on their elite status. After subtracting out ineligible spending, NerdWallet finds that members earn around 4 miles per dollar spent.

The following branded credit cards all offer 2x miles per dollar spent on United tickets:

Here are your estimated return rates for the cards listed above.

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from most United credit cards

Return on dollar spent

Member

4 miles.

2.

7.2 cents.

Premier Silver

5.6 miles.

2.

9.1 cents.

Premier Gold

6.4 miles.

2.

10.1 cents.

Premier Platinum

7.2 miles.

2.

11 cents.

Premier 1K

8.8 miles.

2.

13 cents.

United now offers a mid-tier United Quest℠ Card which earns 3x miles on United purchases — plus a slew of other benefits — for a $250 annual fee. Here's how this boosts your mileage earnings and return:

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from the United Quest℠ Card

Return on dollar spent

Member

4 miles.

3.

8.4 cents.

Premier Silver

5.6 miles.

3.

10.3 cents.

Premier Gold

6.4 miles.

3.

11.3 cents.

Premier Platinum

7.2 miles.

3.

12.2 cents.

Premier 1K

8.8 miles.

3.

14.2 cents.

The best way to maximize your United MileagePlus earnings is by purchasing your United flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal and charging the purchase to a Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

After exhausting the card's $300 annual travel credit, you'll earn 5x Ultimate Rewards® points on the purchase. Then you can transfer these points to United MileagePlus at a 1:1 transfer ratio.

Status level

Miles earned per dollar spent on tickets

Miles earned from the Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Return on dollar spent

Member

4 miles.

5.

10.8 cents.

Premier Silver

5.6 miles.

5.

12.7 cents.

Premier Gold

6.4 miles.

5.

13.7 cents.

Premier Platinum

7.2 miles.

5.

14.6 cents.

Premier 1K

8.8 miles.

5.

16.6 cents.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Like so many aspects of Southwest Airlines, the Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program is very different than those of its competitors. This program awards points based on your spending but also factors in your fare class and elite status. For the purpose of this evaluation, we’ll only consider tickets purchased in the lowest fare class, called “Wanna Get Away?”.

Southwest currently offers three personal and two small business credit cards. These cards offer varying Rapid Rewards points rates per dollar spent on Southwest purchases. The following offer 3x rates per dollar spent:

Status level

Points earned per dollar spent on tickets

Points earned from most Southwest credit cards

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.7 points.

3.

11.6 cents.

A-List

5.9 points.

3.

13.3 cents.

A-List Preferred

9.4 points.

3.

18.6 cents.

However, the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card offers 4x points on Southwest purchases.

Status level

Points earned per dollar spent on tickets

Points earned from Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card

Value of miles earned (cents)

Member

4.7 points.

4.

13.1 cents.

A-List

5.9 points.

4.

14.8 cents.

A-List Preferred

9.4 points.

4.

20.1 cents.

Note that you can potentially earn 5x Ultimate Rewards® points on Southwest purchases by booking through Chase travel portal using your Chase Sapphire Reserve®. However, you can't book flights online. Instead, you have to call a Chase travel agent to book Southwest flights. Since this is a hassle, we didn't include this 5x earning option in the charts above.

JetBlue

JetBlue’s TrueBlue frequent flyer program is also different from that of the other major U.S. airlines. Members earn 3 points per dollar spent on all fare categories except Blue Basic — which is similar to the “Basic economy” fares offered by many airlines. JetBlue members earn another 3x points just for booking directly with JetBlue (1x for Blue Basic). Finally, Mosaic elites earn another 3x points for a potential total of 9x points.

If you don't fly JetBlue often, you might opt for the $0-annual-fee JetBlue Card. This card earns 3x points per dollar on JetBlue purchases.

Status level

Points earned per dollar spent on tickets

Points earned on the JetBlue Card

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.8 points.

3.

11.7 cents.

Mosaic (and Mosaic+)

7.2 points.

3.

15.3 cents.

(You can no longer earn Mosaic+ as of Jan. 1, 2023, but if you earned it in 2022, your benefits last through the end of this year. Read about other changes to the program here.)

However, if you fly JetBlue with any sort of frequency, you should consider getting the JetBlue Plus Card or the JetBlue Business Card from Barclays. Both cards offer 6 points per dollar spent on JetBlue purchases, and both have a $99 annual fee.

Status level

Points earned per dollar spent on tickets

Points earned on the JetBlue Plus Card and JetBlue Business Card

Return on dollar spent

Member

4.8 points.

6.

16.2 cents.

Mosaic (and Mosaic+)

7.2 points.

6.

19.8 cents.

The information related to CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® and United Club℠ Business Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.


How to maximize your rewards

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