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Published: Mar 23, 2023 14 min read
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Despite rising airfares and inflation, Americans are now flying almost as much as they did before the pandemic. That means there’s never been a better time to take advantage of the perks that come with earning airline points and miles.

You don’t need to be a constant traveler to start racking up points and cashing them in for free flights, upgrades and other benefits. Whether your job sends you on a cross-country flight every other week, or you only hop on a plane for the occasional family vacation, there’s a frequent flier program for you.

As is the case with nearly every airline rewards program, airline credit card holders get exclusive perks and earn points much faster than general members. For each pick, then, we’ve listed credit cards associated with the program. (If you prefer a card that equally rewards travel spending of all types, with all providers, see our picks for the best travel credit cards.)

Below, you’ll find the best airline rewards programs for every type of traveler. And for more help planning your next trip, check out Money’s guides to the best travel insurance companies and the best airlines of 2023.

Our Top Picks for Best Airline Rewards Programs

Best Airline Rewards Guide

Best Airline Rewards Program FAQ

How We Evaluated the Best Airline Rewards Programs

Summary of Money’s Best Airline Rewards Program Reviews

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The Best Airline Rewards Programs

  • Massive coverage area
  • Easy-to-use rewards map
  • Earn and spend points with dozens of partner hotels, including 500 miles for each Hyatt stay and 2 miles per dollar with Marriott Bonvoy
  • Travelers can access perks without earning the first tier of elite status
  • Points expire after two years of inactivity
  • Basic economy fares earn fewer points

Highlight: Members can use points to purchase an Admirals Club membership and get access to more than 100 airport lounges across the globe — and elite members get cheaper membership rates.

The American Airlines AAdvantage program is our top pick for the average traveler. With American Airlines hubs in Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago, Miami, New York and more, you’re likely to find decent flight options with American wherever you’d like to fly. You’ll earn Loyalty Points based on the number of miles you accrue on flights with American or its partner airlines, You can also earn miles by spending money with dozens of rewards partners including Marriott and Hyatt hotels.

This spring, American began implementing changes that make the Aadvantage program even more rewarding to less frequent travelers. Travelers can now access perks like priority boarding and security clearance, and preferred seat coupons, after accruing just 15,000 Loyalty Points; for basic rewards members, that translates to only about $3,000 in eligible spending. (On the other hand, it’s now slightly more difficult to unlock the first tier of elite status, which comes after accruing 40,000 Loyalty Points.)

While all three of the top three loyalty programs have lots of benefits, American Airlines AAdvantage has the edge thanks to its easy-to-use points structure and extensive network of partners.

Credit cards: American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Mastercard, Citi/AAdvantage® Platinum Select Mastercard, Citi/AAdvantage Executive Mastercard

  • No blackout dates
  • Miles don't expire
  • Money's top pick among airlines for reliability
  • Can't earn miles or points toward elite status on basic economy fares
  • Doesn't publish an awards chart

Highlight: Earn points with unique partners including Lyft, Starbucks and Instacart

Delta Airlines' SkyMiles, along with United Mileage Plus, is also a great choice for conventional travelers. It shares many of the same perks as American’s AAdvantage program, like free checked baggage for members with higher tiers of status, and it, too, allows customers to book flights with a combination of cash and points. And like American, Delta recently updated its awards program to raise the requirements for earning elite status.

The Delta program lags American’s, though, in that it doesn’t provide rewards on basic economy flights. And the absence of an awards chart, which almost all airlines provide, means you must research by destination and timeframe to find out how much an awards flight will cost you in SkyMiles.

Credit cards: Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express card, Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express card, Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express card

  • Earn and spend points with more than 35 partner airlines including Singapore Airlines and Air Canada
  • Claims to have the most rewards destinations of any U.S. global airline
  • Miles don't expire
  • Doesn't add fuel surcharges to awards travel
  • Doesn't publish an awards chart

Highlight: Members get discounts on the Clear fast security clearance service to save time at the airport.

United Airlines' Mileage Plus shares at least two major pluses of the American and Delta programs. It offers free checked baggage for members with higher tiers of status and the ability to book flights with a combination of cash and points.

It also shares a recent drawback with both American and Delta. Like them, United has made recent changes to its awards to raise the requirements for earning elite status. And like Delta — but unlike American and other carriers — United publishes no awards chart, which hampers you in planning the use of your points.

United, though, has an edge over those competitors when it comes to using points on partner airlines and awards destinations.

Credit cards: United Gateway Visa card, United Explorer Visa card, United Quest Visa card, United Club Infinite Visa card

  • Points don't expire
  • No blackout dates
  • Partnership with American Airlines expands East Coast flight options for JetBlue customers
  • Can pool points with other people
  • Smaller footprint than other airlines

Highlight: Members get 300 extra points for bringing a pet along for the ride (although they’ll still need to pay the $125 pet fee).

With JetBlue offering plenty of flights from all over the U.S. to warm-weather destinations like Orlando, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the airline's TrueBlue program is ideal for vacationers. And because the program lets you pool your points with up to six other people, it’s a great choice for larger groups traveling together.

Also, JetBlue’s partnership with IGH Hotels and Resorts — which includes the Kimpton, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts and Crowne Plaza brands and is one of our picks for the best hotels of 2023 — means you can keep earning points once you arrive at your beach getaway.

A recent partnership agreement with American Airlines known as the Northwest Alliance lets customers of both airlines book travel and earn points with the other, for now (federal regulators are scrutinizing the arrangement).

Change is underway in JetBlue’s rewards, in ways that will make the program more rewarding to infrequent fliers. In the revamped TrueBlue program, launching in spring 2023, travelers can collect tiles in addition to their points from the old program (which aren’t going anywhere).

Now, every $100 spent with JetBlue or American Airlines translates to one tile, and earning 50 tiles unlocks elite status. For those who fly only once in a while, the perks of tiles come much sooner: Starting at just ten tiles (and again at 20, 30 and 40 tiles), travelers can choose a benefit like early boarding, priority security or a free drink.

Credit cards: JetBlue Mastercard, JetBlue Plus Mastercard

  • Calculates points based on distance traveled, not dollars spent
  • Easy-to-use online route map for awards travel
  • Points don't expire
  • Direct routes are more limited, especially on the East Coast

Highlight: Club 49, a program within Mileage Plan specifically for people who live in Alaska, offers two free checked bags on every flight to or from Alaska as well as two 30% discounts per year on flights to, from or within the state.

For transcontinental travelers or those traveling up and down the West Coast frequently, the Alaska Air Mileage Plan is a great choice. The program calculates rewards points based on miles flown, not dollars spent, which the airline says nets members 30% more miles on average than they would on other airlines.

Alaska Airlines has 25 partner airlines, including American Airlines, Korean Air and British Airways. While you may earn fewer points on the routes of those partners, depending on what type of fare you purchase, you can still rack up points on non-Alaska Airlines flights.

Credit card: Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card

  • Can earn points with Marriott and Hyatt Hotels
  • No blackout dates
  • Free in-flight Wi-Fi for top membership tier
  • Points don't expire
  • Limited international destinations
  • Can't combine cash and points to book flights

Highlight: The program’s best perk is the ability to earn a “companion pass” that lets you bring someone with you when you fly — for free.

Southwest is famous for its low fares, making it popular among younger, budget-minded travelers. The airline has no assigned seating, which makes it easier for travelers to sit in their preferred seats without paying extra fees on their reservation. It has fewer fees than its competitors, and also offers two free checked bags on every flight.

You’ll reach A-List status after taking 25 flights in a year or earning 35,000 points. That status unlocks priority boarding, priority check-in and security line access and same-day change and standby benefits. One of the best perks of the Rapid Rewards program as a whole is the Companion Pass, which can be earned after taking 100 flights or earning 135,000 points in a year. The pass allows you to bring a guest with you every time you fly — for free (though you’ll both have to pay the taxes and fees on the ticket).

Southwest made headlines this winter after it canceled more than 15,000 flights after a major storm — a far higher number than other carriers. The airline compensated affected customers with refunds and an extra 25,000 rewards points; it also announced internal changes to address the underlying causes of the event.

Despite the disruption, we still think Southwest is a good choice for couples on a budget who want to stay flexible with their travel plans.

Credit cards: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Visa card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Visa card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier credit card

  • Low fares
  • Certain membership tiers have family points pooling and free family seating
  • Straightforward point system: earn one point per mile flown
  • Charge fees for amenities that are free on other carriers
  • Can't use points on other airlines
  • Points can expire, but also be reinstated for a fee

Highlight: One child under age 15 can fly free with a Discount Den membership of just $60 per year (and $100 for new members) — an expense that pays for itself after just one flight.

Budget airline Frontier, based in Denver, is a great choice for families flying within the United States. Members earn one point for every mile flown, and reaching the first tier of elite status requires just 20,000 points.

That tier of status gets you a free carry-on bag, priority boarding and the ability to pool points within your family. It also gets you a guaranteed seat assignment, which is standard on other mainstream carriers but generally costs extra on budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit.

Frontier offers a special program called Discount Den, which gets you access to discounted fares and lets one child under age 15 fly for free on certain qualifying flights. The Discount Den membership is half price once you reach the second tier of membership status and it’s free at the top tier.
Credit card: Frontier Airlines World Mastercard

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A Guide to Airline Rewards Programs

What are airline rewards programs?

Airline rewards programs are specialty “frequent flier” programs offered by every major airline. They are generally free to join, and allow you to earn points or miles on purchased airfare that you can then exchange for a bunch of different perks. Generally, the programs have multiple tiers of membership that offer better rewards as you accumulate more points.

How do airline rewards programs work?

Airline rewards programs allow you to earn rewards based on how much you spend or how far you fly with a certain airline or group of airlines. Usually, these reward programs track your progress through points.

Once you’ve accumulated enough points by spending money on flights and other eligible expenses, you can redeem them for perks and rewards with the airline or its partners. Those perks might include free flights, free upgrades to first or business class, free checked bags and access to exclusive airport lounges — just to name a few. Many programs also let you redeem points through partnerships with hotels, rental car agencies, cruise lines, retailers and more.

Each airline structures its rewards program a little differently, which is why it's so important to do some research before deciding which one makes the most sense for you.

Best airline rewards programs FAQs

Are airline rewards programs worth it?

Even if you don't travel frequently, airline rewards programs offer serious benefits. They are generally free, and accumulating points now can lead to some great perks and savings down the road. Of course, the right program for you depends on a lot of factors. Our best pick for the average traveler is American Airlines AAdvantage, but the program that's right for you might vary depending on where you travel, how often you travel and who you travel with.

Is it worth it to stick to one airline?

You'll earn rewards faster if you stick to one major rewards program, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're stuck flying with the same airline forever. The biggest U.S. airlines (United, Delta and American) are all part of airline alliances that include an extensive network of partner airlines, many of which are international. Generally, points and benefits transfer between airlines in the same alliance. Budget airlines like Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant are not members of any airline alliances, meaning that rewards points earned through their programs can only be used on one airline. It's always a good idea to keep your options open to make sure you get the best deal.

Who has the best airline rewards program?

Our top pick is the American AAdvantage program, but again, the best rewards program for you might be different. You should consider which airlines fly out of your local airport and which serve your most frequented destinations. Consider whether you travel alone or with family and friends most of the time, and if any membership perks—like free checked bags or lounge access—are especially important to you.

Who has the best airline rewards programs for international travel?

The best airline rewards program for international travel will depend on your preferences and the destinations you most frequently visit. If you're looking for the frequent flier program with the most international options, United's MileagePlus rewards program lets you transfer points to other airlines in the Star Alliance, a network of airlines that, together, serve thousands of destinations in 195 countries.

How We Chose the Best Airline Rewards Programs

To determine the best rewards programs for different types of travelers, Money editorial staff independently evaluated the exclusive features, destinations served, network partners (including hotels and other airlines) and ease of earning and spending points for ten popular airline rewards programs.

We used this information to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each program, highlighting the features that differentiate the winners, while keeping in mind that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all program that works for every traveler.

We only considered rewards programs from airlines based in the United States. Most airlines offer branded credit cards to accompany their rewards programs. We’ve chosen to focus on the program itself, not the perks of the credit card, in our analysis. That said, these cards can offer significant benefits and savings and can help you earn points at a faster rate.

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Summary of Money’s best airline program reviews