How NerdWallet Rates Airline Rewards Programs

NerdWallet’s overall ratings for airline reward programs are weighted averages of ratings in the following categories:
  • Effective rewards rate (20%).
  • Basic economy fares (20%).
  • Elite rewards rate (20%).
  • Fees (20%).
  • Onboard entertainment and Wi-Fi (10%).
  • Pet friendliness (10%).

  • How we picked the programs to evaluate

    For an airline to be eligible, it has 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. Eight airline programs fit these criteria: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.

    Data collection and review process

    NerdWallet independently checks data collected on rewards bookings to ensure accuracy. Reward flights and cash flights are compared across hundreds of data points to help determine a baseline value for each airline. Information about loyalty programs, airline offerings and fees are verified on the airlines’ websites.

    Information updates

    Airline loyalty program reviews are reassessed annually, and writers and editors also make updates throughout the year as necessary. We maintain contact with airlines to keep information current.

    The review team

    The review team is made up of expert writers and editors who cover airlines, travel rewards, credit cards and airline alliances, as well as related travel topics such as hotels, budget travel, cruises, rental cars and destination-specific travel. Each writer and editor follows NerdWallet’s strict guidelines for editorial integrity.

    In addition to appearing on NerdWallet, the work of our team members has been published by The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Nasdaq, MSN, MarketWatch, Yahoo Finance and other national and regional media outlets. The travel team’s writers and editors combined have more than 40 years of experience in travel, travel rewards and credit cards.

    Methodology, broken down by category

    Effective rewards rate

    We collect the dollar value of each program’s rewards miles and the earnings rate of those miles (the number of points you earn per dollar spent) to arrive at an effective rewards rate.

    To determine this rate, we multiply the value of each mile (based on real-world flights) by the earnings rate, then multiply that total by 100. As a formula, that’s: (Value x Earnings Rate) x 100 = Effective Rewards Rate.

    For example, if an airline’s rewards miles are worth $0.01 apiece and 10 miles are earned per dollar spent, its program would have a 10% effective rewards rate. Here’s that math: ($0.01 x 10) x 100 = 10%

    Basic economy fares

    Six of the eight airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United) offer basic economy fares. We rate these fares across eight factors, from which we derive a single composite rating that takes into account:

  • Cost for basic economy seats.
  • Change/cancellation policies.
  • Carry-on bag policy.
  • Seat selection options.
  • Whether redeemable airline miles are earned.
  • Whether elite miles are earned.
  • Whether elite upgrades are applicable.
  • Ability to fly standby.

  • Elite rewards rate

    We determine both (a) the average value of elite status and (b) the average cost of earning elite status with each program. Then we calculate the overall value by dividing a by b.


    We compare the cost of fees across several fare classes in two categories:
  • Bag fees.
  • Seat assignment fees.

  • Onboard entertainment and Wi-Fi

    We analyze airlines’ entertainment offerings based on factors like Wi-Fi availability/cost and movie availability/cost. We also take into account other considerations, like whether seatback screens are available.

    Pet friendliness

    We analyze the experience of flying with a pet, including whether pets are allowed in the main cabin or cargo, limits on the number of pets or their size, and cost. We also look at Department of Transportation data around pet losses, injuries or deaths, and passenger complaints against airlines’ handling of animals.