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

Jan. 23, 2020
Airline Credit Cards, Loyalty Programs, Reward Optimization, Travel
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  • Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
  • United℠ Business Card
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card

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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 co-branded credit cards offered by nearly every airline.

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.

» Learn more: How to get top-tier elite status through credit card spending

Analysis

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:

Infrequent travelers

For infrequent travelers with no elite status using a credit card with lower returns (when applicable), JetBlue and Southwest lead the pack with returns of 11.7 and 11.2 cents per dollar spent, respectively. United and American trail at the bottom, both offering almost half as much (7 and 5.6 cents per dollar spent). Here’s the full breakdown:

AirlineReturn on dollar spent (in cents)Rank
JetBlue11.71
Southwest11.22
Alaska9.03
Delta7.74
American75
United5.66

Frequent travelers

For frequent travelers with the highest elite status using a credit card with higher returns (when applicable), Southwest and Alaska lead with returns of 21 and 17.3 cents per dollar spent, respectively. Despite their status as go-to airlines for among many frequent travelers, American and United once again bring up the rear.

AirlineReturn on dollar spent (in cents)Rank
Southwest211
Alaska17.32
JetBlue15.63
Delta14.34
American145
United126

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.

» Learn more: Should you aim for airline elite status in 2020?

Still, it is striking that the smaller carriers (Alaska, JetBlue 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 Dallas are almost certainly going to be American loyalists, so the airline doesn’t necessarily need to offer competitive rewards.

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

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, 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.

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 Signature® credit card, which offers 3x miles per dollar spent on Alaska purchases.

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from Alaska credit cardReturn on dollar spent (in cents)
Member8.339.0
MVP12.45312.4
MVP Gold16.6315.7
MVP Gold 75K18.675317.3

» Learn more: Your complete guide to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program

American Airlines AAdvantage

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:

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from most AA credit cardsValue of miles earned (cents)
Member527
Gold729
Platinum8210
Platinum Pro9211
Exec. Platinum11213

Also, Barclays offers the AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®, which features 3x miles per dollar spent on American Airlines purchases. It has a $195 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.

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard®Value of miles earned (cents)
Member538
Gold7310
Platinum8311
Platinum Pro9312
Exec. Platinum11314

» Learn more: Complete guide to the American Airlines AAdvantage program

Delta SkyMiles

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.

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from Delta SkyMiles credit cardsValue of miles earned (cents)
Member527.7
Silver729.9
Gold8211
Platinum9212.1
Diamond11214.3

» Learn more: The complete guide to Delta SkyMiles program

United MileagePlus

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 United Club℠ Infinite Card earns 4x points in United purchases (annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $525).

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from most United credit cardsValue of miles earned (cents)
Member525.6
Premier Silver727.2
Premier Gold828
Premier Platinum928.8
Premier 1K11210.4
Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from most United Club℠ Infinite CardValue of miles earned (cents)
Member547.2
Premier Silver748.8
Premier Gold849.6
Premier Platinum9410.4
Premier 1K11412

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

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from the Chase Sapphire Reserve®Value of miles earned (cents)
Member536.4
Premier Silver738
Premier Gold838.8
Premier Platinum939.6
Premier 1K11311.2

» Learn more: The complete guide to United’s MileagePlus program

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 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:

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from most Southwest credit cardsValue of miles earned (cents)
Member6211.2
A-List7.5213.3
A-List Preferred12219.6

However, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card offers 3x points on Southwest purchases. Furthermore, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® also offers 3x Ultimate Rewards® points on all travel and dining purchases, and you can instantly transfer these to Southwest Rapid Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio.

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsPoints earned from Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®Value of miles earned (cents)
Member6312.6
A-List7.5314.7
A-List Preferred12321

» Learn more: Complete guide to Southwest Rapid Rewards

JetBlue

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 JetBlue Plus Card and JetBlue Business Card from Barclays offer 6x points per dollar spent on Jetblue purchases, and both have a $99 annual fee. There’s also the $0-annual-fee JetBlue Card 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.

Status levelMiles earned per dollar spent on ticketsMiles earned from most Southwest credit cardsValue of miles earned (cents)
Member3611.7
Mosaic6615.6

» Learn more: The complete guide to JetBlue TrueBlue rewards

Key takeaways

We found your return on flight spending could vary from 5.6 cents per dollar to 21 cents per dollar, depending on your airline, elite status and credit card. Somewhat surprisingly, the smaller programs (Alaska, JetBlue 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.

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 2020, including those best for:

Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
Find the best travel credit card for you
NerdWallet’s reviews of the top travel loyalty programs
Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies

About the authors