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Published: Feb 28, 2022 10 min read
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Ready to dip your toes back into travel but feeling overwhelmed by all the different airline rewards programs? Confused about how to make the most of points and miles — especially in the waning months of a global pandemic?

Not to worry: You don’t need to be a seasoned traveler to start racking up points and cashing them in for free flights, upgrades and other perks. 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.

Below, you’ll find the best airline rewards programs for every type of traveler.

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The Best Airline Rewards Programs

Best Overall: American Airlines AAdvantage

Pros
  • Earn and spend points with dozens of partner hotels, including 500 miles for each Hyatt stay and 2 miles per dollar with Marriott Bonvoy
  • Massive coverage area
  • Easy-to-use rewards map
  • Starting this year, the program is simplifying its points structure
Cons
  • Some cheaper rewards flights have limited availability
  • Points expire after 18 months of inactivity (policy paused through March 2022), but can be reactivated for a fee

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 hub cities in Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago, Miami, New York and more, you’re likely to find options with American wherever you’d like to fly. You can start redeeming benefits at just 7,500 points — that’s about $1,500 spent with American Airlines for regular customers. Citi AAdvantage card holders earn exclusive benefits and rack up points faster.

Runner up: Delta Skymiles

Pros
  • No blackout dates
  • Miles don't expire
  • Highly rated customer service
Cons
  • Can't earn miles or points toward elite status on basic economy fares
  • Doesn't publish an awards chart, and rates for points flights vary widely

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

Runner up: United Mileage Plus

Pros
  • 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
Cons
  • Doesn't publish an awards chart

Highlight: Members get discounts on the Clear service to save time at the airport

Delta Skymiles and United Mileage Plus are also great choices for conventional travelers. Each of these programs share many of the same perks as American’s AAdvantage program, like free checked baggage for members with higher tiers of status. Both serve major hub cities across all regions of the United States. The points earning structure is similar at both airlines, and both allow customers to book flights with a combination of cash and points (though United has an edge when it comes to partner airlines and awards destinations). And 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. 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.

Best for spring breakers: JetBlue TrueBlue

Pros
  • 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
Cons
  • Smaller footprint than other airlines

Highlight: Members get 300 extra points for bringing a pet along for the ride

With plenty of flights from all over the U.S. to warm-weather destinations like Orlando, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, JetBlue’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. JetBlue’s partnership with IGH Hotels and Resorts (which includes the Kimpton, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts and Crowne Plaza brands) means you can keep earning points once you arrive at your beach getaway. You’ll earn top-tier “Mosaic” status after 15,000 points, which can be accrued relatively quickly (in some cases by spending less than $2,500 with the airline in a year). JetBlue credit card holders earn more points per dollar and get bonus points for opening their accounts.

Best for Long Haul Travelers: Alaska Air Mileage Plan

Pros
  • Calculates points based on distance traveled, not dollars spent
  • Easy-to-use online route map for awards travel
Cons
  • Direct routes are more limited, especially on the East Coast
  • Points can expire after two years of inactivity

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, Alaska Air’s Mileage Plan is a great choice. Alaska 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 has 24 partner airlines including American Airlines, Emirates and British Airways, and while you may earn fewer points on those partner routes depending on what type of fare you purchase, you can still rack up points on non-West Coast flights.

Best for Couples: Southwest Rapid Rewards

Pros
  • Partnerships with Marriott and Hyatt Hotels
  • No blackout dates
  • Free in-flight wifi for top membership tier
  • Points don't expire
Cons
  • 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. The Rapid Rewards program only allows you to earn points on flights with Southwest (or on purchases with the airline’s retail partners), and you’ll reach A-List status after taking 25 flights in a year or earning 35,000 points. A-List status unlocks priority boarding, priority check-in and security line access and same-day 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 125,000 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).

Best for Families: Frontier Miles

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

Highlight: One child under 15 can fly free with a Discount Den membership of just $60 per year — 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. Frontier also 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.

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Best Airline Rewards Program Guide

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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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 evaluated the best airline rewards programs

To determine the best rewards programs for different types of travelers, Money 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. Learn more about the best travel credit cards here.

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Summary of Money’s best airline program reviews

Best overall: American Airlines AAdvantage
Best for spring breakers: JetBlue TrueBlue
Best for long haul travelers: Alaska Air Mileage Plan
Best for couples: Southwest Rapid Rewards
Best for Families: Frontier Miles