Best Frequent Flyer Program

How we picked the programs to evaluate:

NerdWallet initially selected the 10 largest domestic airlines for review (Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United). Allegiant and Spirit award flights were not publicly searchable, so those programs were excluded.

How we chose the winner:

We looked at the effective rewards rate, the availability of award flights, the ease of use when booking award flights and the overall quality of the program’s elite status.

How we rated each:

  • Effective rewards rate. In a separate analysis, we determined the dollar value of each program’s reward miles and the earnings rate of miles. To determine the effective rewards rate, we multiplied the earnings rate by the value of each mile and divided by 100. For example, if an airline’s reward miles were worth $0.01 apiece (value of reward mile) and 10 miles were earned per dollar spent (earning rate of miles), its program would have a 10% effective rewards rate. This factor received a 40% weight in the overall rating.
  • Availability of award flights. During the data collection above we tracked the number of flights that were ineligible for award bookings. We rated the airlines based on the percentage of unavailable flights. This factor received a 20% weighting in the overall rating.
  • Ease of use when booking award flights. We asked a panel of in-house travel experts to use each airline’s award search tool and rate each one by ease of use. This factor received a 20% weighting in the overall rating.
  • Overall quality of program’s elite status. We asked the same panel to rate the airlines’ elite status program based on both the perks available to elite status members and the ease of achieving status. This factor received a 20% weighting in the overall rating.

How we assigned star ratings:

For each category, we subtracted the lowest value from the highest value to determine the range. We then divided this range by 5 and separated the airline programs into the appropriate star rating based on where its value fell in the range.

How we verified our data:

We independently spot-checked data collected on reward bookings to ensure quality. Information about loyalty programs is verified on the airlines’ websites.