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

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

Almost none of this is true today. 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, not the distance you’ve flown. And many programs, like Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus, have stopped publishing award charts altogether.

In addition, members of these programs aren’t necessarily frequent flyers anymore, since it can be much easier to earn these rewards from the .

But if you actually are a regular flyer, how can you decide which airline program will be the most rewarding to you — especially when combined with the variable of airline credit cards? This is the question we set out to answer.

Note: This analysis has been updated with our .

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The return you’ll get on dollars spent with airlines depends in large part on a combination of your status and which credit card you’re using to book flights. Here’s how both ends of the spectrum stack up:

For infrequent travelers with no elite status using a credit card with lower returns (when applicable), Southwest and Alaska lead the pack with 12.8 and 11.3 cents per dollar spent, respectively. Delta and United trail at the bottom, both offering almost half as much (6.3 and 7 cents per dollar spent). Here’s the full breakdown:

For frequent travelers with the highest elite status using a credit card with higher returns (when applicable), Southwest and Alaska lead with returns of 24 and 21.7 cents per dollar spent, respectively. Delta trails far to the rear with 11.7 cents per dollar spent.

Of course, this does not take into account the middle-tier elite statuses or other credit card combinations. For example, JetBlue’s lower rank here really just reflects its lack of higher elite status tiers.

Yet even at JetBlue’s basic Mosaic level, the airline still offers more value per dollar spent than the highest elite tiers for American and United. And, stunningly, even American and United’s highest elite status and most premium credit cards together don’t offer as much value as JetBlue and Southwest’s basic programs.

Also, this analysis does not take into account the relative difficulty of achieving these higher statuses (or the higher annual fees for the more premium cards). Every frequent traveler has different goals and preferences, so these numbers only reflect a first-level comparison between programs.

Still, it is striking that the smaller carriers (Alaska and Southwest) consistently outperform the goliaths (American, Delta and United) at each level. This likely isn’t a fluke, but a representation of the near-monopoly the large carriers enjoy in many markets. 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.

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. We also considered the qualifications necessary to earn various levels of elite status.

This study built on , 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, as the bottom two — Frontier and Spirit — are smaller and offer far less competitive value than the top six: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United.

Here's how your return on spending will stack up in each program, depending on which card you have.

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 , 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 , which offers 3x miles per dollar spent on Alaska purchases.

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This program offers between 5 and 11 award miles per dollar spent on the base fare and any carrier imposed fees (but not government taxes and fees). The number of award miles you receive per dollar spent depends 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:

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

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The Delta SkyMiles Program is structured nearly identically to the American Airlines AAdvantage program, with passengers earning 5-11 miles per dollar spent depending on their elite status with the program.

Delta offers four consumer credit cards and three small business cards, including:

All of these cards offer 2 SkyMiles per dollar spent on Delta tickets, including base fare and carrier imposed fees, but not government taxes.

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United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer earnings are also similar to the Delta SkyMiles and American Airlines AAdvantage programs, with passengers earning 5-11 miles per dollar spent depending on their elite status.

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

In addition, the earns 4x points in United purchases (annual fee: ).

Also, the  offers 3x Ultimate Rewards® points on travel and dining purchases made outside the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal, and these points can be instantly transferred to United MileagePlus miles on a 1:1 basis.

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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 both your fare class purchased and your 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. The following cards offer 2x Rapid Rewards Points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases:

However, the offers 3x points on Southwest purchases. Furthermore, the also offers 3x Ultimate Rewards® points on all travel and dining purchases made outside the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal, and you can instantly transfer these to Southwest Rapid Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio.

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JetBlue’s TrueBlue frequent flyer program is also different from that of the three major legacy airlines. It offers 3 points per dollar spent on tickets in all fare categories except its Blue Basic, which is similar to the “Basic Economy” fares offered by many airlines. It also offers additional bonus points for purchasing tickets through its website or app, and if you hold Mosaic elite status.

The and from Barclays offer 6x points per dollar spent on Jetblue purchases, and both have a annual fee. There’s also the -annual-fee that offers only 3 points per dollar, but we didn’t evaluate it since it’s not the best option if you fly JetBlue even occasionally.

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We found your return on flight spending could vary from 6.3 cents per dollar to 24 cents per dollar, depending on your airline, elite status and credit card. Somewhat surprisingly, the smaller programs (Alaska and Southwest) consistently and decisively outperformed the larger ones (United, American and Delta).

While these figures are helpful to know, remember that the right program for you depends on more than this analysis, including the presence of these airlines in your home airport and availability of routes you tend to fly.

The information related to has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.

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