Best Airline Rewards Program for Frequent Travelers

How we picked the programs to evaluate:

For an airline to be eligible, it had to be based in the United States and have a publicly available rewards search calendar with availability from 15 days to eight months from the time of search. Eight airline programs fit these criteria: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United. Only two other U.S. airlines carry rewards programs: Spirit and Allegiant. Spirit was excluded for not offering availability in the set date range, and Allegiant was excluded for not offering a public rewards search. No other airlines met these criteria.

How we chose the winner:

We looked at the effective rewards rate, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the elite rewards rate and the fee rate. We rated each of these factors separately, then determined an overall rating based on the weighting described below.

How we rated and weighted each factor:

  • Effective rewards rate (35%). In a separate analysis, we determined the dollar value of each program’s rewards miles and the earnings rate of miles. To determine the effective rewards rate, we multiplied the value of each mile by the earnings rate and then multiplied by 100. For example, if an airline’s rewards miles were worth $0.01 apiece (the value of rewards miles) and 10 miles were earned per dollar spent (the earnings rate of miles), its program would have a 10% effective rewards rate. (In this example, the two equations would be: first $0.01 x 10 = 0.1, then 0.1 x 100 = 10, or 10%.)
  • COVID-19 response (15%). We compared airlines’ response to the 2020 pandemic in two categories: (1) health and safety protocols and (2) flexible booking policies.
  • Elite rewards rate (35%). We determined both (a) the value and (b) the cost of earning elite status with each program, and found an “elite rewards rate” by dividing a by b.
  • Fee rate (15%). We compared the cost of fees across several fare classes in three categories: (1) bag fees, (2) change/cancel fees and (3) basic economy fees.

How we assigned star ratings:

For each factor, we subtracted the lowest value from the highest value to determine the range. We then split this range into five separate “star rating” ranges. We assigned each airline program an appropriate star rating based on where its value fell in the range.

How we verified our data:

We independently spot-checked data collected on rewards bookings to ensure accuracy. Information about loyalty programs was verified on the airlines’ websites.