cheapism

Cheapism: Ranking frequent flier programs

May 7, 2014 at 12:44 PM ET

Recent changes to airline frequent flier programs have some travelers questioning their loyalties. In particular, legacy carriers American, Delta and United have lately raised the bar for earning and redeeming miles and achieving elite status. Cheapism.com compared 10 U.S. airlines’ frequent flier programs to find out which ones are worth consumers’ while. Here’s the final ranking:

American Airlines has one of the top-ranked frequent-flier programs.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg / Getty Images
American Airlines has one of the top-ranked frequent-flier programs.

10. Spirit Airlines’ Free Spirit. The privileges of elite status in this program could hardly be skimpier: priority boarding and one reward mile for every mile flown, as opposed to half. That’s right — regular members earn only half a mile for each mile they fly, and the earnings expire after just three months of inactivity. Spirit also charges fees of $15 to $100 for booking award tickets within six months of travel.

9. Hawaiian Airlines’ HawaiianMiles. If you live in or have the good fortune to frequently travel in Hawaii, you can take advantage of low redemption levels for interisland flights. But flights to and from the mainland require a minimum of 20,000 miles, and award trips on eight partner airlines start at similarly high levels. In other words, a Hawaiian Airlines credit card is hardly a fast track to a free beach vacation.

8. Frontier Airlines’ EarlyReturns. Frontier hosts a traditional miles-based program more or less in line with the legacy airlines. It simply lacks the scope to be very rewarding for most consumers, with around 75 destinations, a lone hub in Denver, and just four airline partnerships. Frontier awards the standard 100 to 150 percent of miles flown (depending on fare class) only to members who book on its website. Flights booked through a third party yield just a quarter of the distance flown.

7. Virgin America’s Elevate. Program members start out earning five points for every dollar they spend on base airfare (minus taxes and fees). They can book award travel with as few as 2,500 points. Airlines with programs based on points generally make any seat on any flight available for award travel and designate no blackout dates, but the number of points required increases according to the price of the ticket in dollars. Virgin America’s sparse route map and few partner airlines severely limit the redemption options.

6. JetBlue Airways’ TrueBlue. JetBlue doles out up to six points per dollar spent by regular members and offers award tickets starting at 5,000 points, although some high-demand flights command far more. Any seat or date is up for grabs and family members can pool their points to earn free tickets faster. In addition to typical earning opportunities such as renting a car or using a branded credit card, JetBlue offers bonuses and points for simple activities such as sharing on social media. Other airline miles or points generally expire within two years if there’s no activity on the account, but TrueBlue points never expire.

5. Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles. Several recent policy changes have irked Delta customers. The airline’s elite Medallion status now requires a minimum level of spending, on top of a minimum number of miles, and Delta has bumped up the mileage requirements for certain award tickets. Not only that, beginning in 2015, Delta will award miles based on the price paid for a ticket rather than the distance flown. In one example, a passenger who buys a $361 round-trip ticket from Dallas to New York, a 2,778-mile trip, will earn 5 miles per dollar, or 1,805 miles — nearly 1,000 fewer than before. That will make it more difficult to reach the minimum threshold for an award ticket (25,000 for a round trip). At least one notable benefit remains: SkyMiles don’t expire.

4. Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards. This is a straightforward, points-based program that hinges on money spent instead of miles flown, with no limits on the number of award seats available, no blackout dates, and redemption levels tied directly to the (often low) price of a flight. At the highest status level, members enjoy an unparalleled perk: A designated companion can come along for free.

3. Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. Although Alaska claims fewer destinations and hubs than the legacy airlines, partnerships with 14 other carriers broaden the reach of its frequent flier program. Certain elite-level benefits extend to Delta and American. This program offers the novel option of redeeming miles for a discount on a paid flight, and award travel within the same state starts at just 7,500 miles.

2. United Airlines’ Mileage Plus. With dozens of partner airlines, more than 350 destinations, and awards for shopping, dining, and more, opportunities abound for earning and redeeming miles. Like Delta, United has attached minimum spending requirements to elite status, in addition to the existing mileage requirements, and increased redemption levels for award tickets — primarily first- and business-class bookings on international flights. Yet United remains in many travelers’ good graces. Frequent fliers active in online forums credit the airline for reserving ample seats for award redemption.

1. American Airlines’ AAdvantage. This program just took top prize for a third consecutive year at the Freddie Awards, which honor travel loyalty programs based on millions of consumer votes. Last month American raised hackles by splicing its awards into as many as five redemption levels, upping the mileage required for certain routes and dates with no advance notice. Still, miles are relatively easy to come by, thanks to an armada of partner airlines and earning opportunities such as an online-shopping portal and dining program. Executive Platinum members assert that no other airline is more generous with upgrades at the highest level of elite status.

More from Cheapism:

Full report on frequent flier programs 

Which airline charges the lowest fees? 

Top budget hotel chains under $100 a night 

Best low-cost airlines 

TOP