Best Airline Rewards Program

How we picked the programs to evaluate:

For an airline to be eligible, it had to be based in the U.S. and have a publicly available rewards search calendar with availability from 15 days to eight months from the time of search.
Nine airline programs fit these criteria: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United. No other airlines met these criteria.

How we chose the winner:

We looked at the rewards rate, basic economy fares, elite rewards rate, pet policies, in-flight entertainment 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:
  • Rewards rate (20%). We determined the dollar value of each program’s rewards miles and the earnings rate of miles. To determine the 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% 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%.)
  • Basic economy (20%). Six of the airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United) offer basic economy fares. We rated these fares across nine factors, from which we derived a single composite rating.
  • Elite status value rate (20%). We determined both (a) the value and (b) the cost of earning elite status with each program, and determined an overall value by dividing a by b.
  • Fees (20%). We compared the cost of fees across several fare classes in two categories: (1) bag fees and (2) seat assignment fees.
  • Entertainment and Wi-Fi (20%). We analyzed the airlines’ entertainment offerings based on factors like Wi-Fi availability/cost and movie availability/cost. We also took into account other metrics, like whether seatback screens were available.
  • Pet policies (10%). We analyzed flying the airlines with a pet, including whether pets were allowed in the main cabin, whether they were allowed in cargo, limits on the number of pets or their size, and cost. We also looked at Department of Transportation data around pet losses, injuries or deaths, and passenger complaints against airlines about their handling of animals.

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.