Best Airline Rewards Program
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.
How we picked the programs to evaluate
Nine airlines fit these criteria: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United. No other airlines met these criteria.
We looked at the rewards rate, basic economy fares, operations, elite rewards rate, pet policies, in-flight entertainment and the fees. We rated each of these factors separately, then determined an overall rating based on the weighting described below.
How we chose the winner
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 (10%). Six of the airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United) offer basic economy fares. We rated these fares across nine categories, from which we derived a single composite rating.
- Operations (20%). We rated each airline according to on-time performance, cancellations and passenger rebookings, and baggage mishandling. We developed a composite rating from these categories.
- Elite status value rate (10%). 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 (10%). We analyzed the airlines’ entertainment offerings based on categories 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 the experience of 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.
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 assigned star ratings
We independently spot-checked data collected on rewards bookings to ensure accuracy. Information about loyalty programs was verified on the airlines’ websites.