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Best airline rewards programs

Here are our top picks across five common categories.

Updated . What changed?

Fact checked

Our pick for largest airline network: United℠ Explorer Card

United℠ Explorer Card logo

40,000-mile

Signup bonus after spending $2,000 in first 3 months

  • Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Get 2x miles at restaurants, hotels and on United Airlines
  • $0 intro annual fee, then $95
See offer
Nearly every airline rewards program can hold value. It just depends on what you’re looking for, and where and how you like to travel.

When picking our choices for best airlines rewards program, we focused purely on program features independent of airline coverage or accessibility. The programs that stood above the others in rewards, perks, flexibility or other similar factors earned a spot on our list.

Largest airline network: United Airlines MileagePlus

Serving more than 300 cities across five continents, this expansive carrier is your best bet if you want as many travel options available as possible. With the United Airlines MileagePlus program, you’ll earn miles on nearly every trip you make since there are so many partners available through the Star Alliance.

How to earn United Airlines MileagePlus miles

Here are the ways you can earn these miles. For more, check out our full guide to earning United Airlines MileagePlus miles.

  • Fly to any of the numerous destinations serviced by United Airlines and its partners, such as Cuba, New Zealand, Las Vegas or Brussels
  • Purchases using an eligible credit card
  • Dine out with the MileagePlus Dining program
  • Purchases through the MileagePlus Shopping portal or using the MileagePlus X app
  • Book a partnered cruise, car rental or hotel
  • Use one of United’s many partnered services, such as Quicken Loans or NRG

What you can redeem United MileagePlus miles for

Here are your redemption options when it comes to spending your MileagePlus miles. For more information on the best options for spending your miles, check out our full redemption guide.

  • Flights to the domestic US, Central America, Europe or Hawaii
  • Flight upgrades
  • Merchandise, including gift cards and Apple products
  • Hotel stays, car rentals or cruises
  • Experiences, such as concerts or tours

Top travel perks

United’s Premier status offers a solid selection of travel benefits, with accelerated mile earnings standing out as one of the top reasons to gain this status. Other benefits depending on your status level include:

  • Priority services, including security screenings, check-ins and baggage handling
  • Discounts and waivers on checked bags and other fees
  • Access to waiting listing, premium cabins and other perks

Use the MileagePlus Club card to earn more miles

You can currently earn a 50,000 bonus mile welcome offer when you sign up for this card and spend $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening. This card also provides a host of travel perks, including United Club membership, waived fees for your first and second checked bags, alongside an increased mile bonus when you purchase tickets from United.

Easiest to earn and redeem rewards: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

The Alaska Mileage Plan rewards program is one of the simplest to understand. One mile flown equals one mile earned to your account, so it’s easy to determine when you have enough miles for award redemption.

Considering some airlines base your earnings on type of fare, destination, availability and peak season, it’s easy to see why Alaska earned our recognition. Alaska also has a fairly small pool of redemption options, with just about all options being worth at least one cent per mile.

How to earn Mileage Plan miles

There are a variety of ways to earn Mileage Plan miles. Check out our full guide to earning Mileage Plan miles to learn the best ways to earn.

  • Fly with Alaska Airlines or eligible partners
  • Make purchases with eligible credit cards
  • Shop through the Alaska portal
  • Book hotel stays or rental cars
  • Purchase miles
  • Refer a friend

What you can redeem Alaska Mileage Plan miles for

You can redeem your Mileage Plan miles on a number of rewards. Check out our full guide to redeeming Mileage Plan miles to make the most of your miles.

  • Flights with Alaska Airlines to mainland US, Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, Canada or Mexico
  • Partnered flights abroad
  • Flight upgrades
  • Book hotels
  • Redeem for magazines

Top travel perks

You must have elite status — which is easy to attain — to take advantage of many of Alaska’s travel perks. These perks include:

  • Bonuses on miles earned
  • Preferred seating
  • Two free checked bags
  • Priority check-in and boarding

Use the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card to earn more miles

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card offers a signup bonus of 40,000 miles when you make $2,000 in purchases within your first 90 days of account opening. You’ll also gain access to Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare every year on your account anniversary — a perk worth hundreds of dollars in savings.

Highest value for earning and redeeming rewards: Southwest Rapid Rewards

While other airlines can offer redemption values that outpace Southwest Rapid Rewards in edge cases, few can compare to Southwest’s average overall value. That’s because you can redeem award flights by using points on practically any ticket, on practically any day.

You’ll get great value regardless of your flight since each point is valued above average. You’ll get even greater value if you qualify for elite status or the fabled Rapid Rewards Companion Pass.

How to earn Rapid Rewards points

Here are all of the ways you can earn Rapid Rewards points. For more in depth information on earning points, check out our full guide to earning Rapid Rewards points.

  • Fly with Southwest Airlines
  • Spend with eligible credit cards
  • Book a partnered hotel or car rental
  • Shop and dine with Southwest partners
  • Take advantage of special offers, such as surveys or booking a meeting

What you can redeem Southwest points for

Here are a few of the rewards you can earn with points. Check out our full Southwest redemption guide for more information.

  • Flights to destinations such as Los Angeles, Los Vegas, Washington DC, Costa Rica and more
  • Merchandise and gift cards
  • Hotels or car rental bookings
  • Southwest Experiences, including concerts or museum tours

Top travel perks

  • Rapid Rewards Companion Pass
  • Priority boarding and check-in
  • Point earning bonuses

Use the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card to earn more miles

Earn 2 bonus points for every dollar spent on Southwest and Rapid Rewards and 1 bonus point on other eligible purchases. Also, earn a 50,000-point signup bonus when you spend $2,000 on purchases within your first 3 months of account opening. And an additional 30,000 points after spending $10,000 in the first 9 months.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card also features other perks, such as 7,500 points each year on your cardmember anniversary, travel credits, upgraded boarding and points toward qualifying for A-list status.

Runner up

If you’re looking to take advantage of raw point value, check out the Avianca LifeMiles program. According to our recent guide, the airline offers points valued around 1.7 cents each. It also recently added Amex and Capital One to its credit card transfer partners, offering plentiful ways to earn.

Best for complimentary travel benefits: Delta SkyMiles

The Delta SkyMiles program is known for its numerous complimentary benefits for Medallion status members. Many of these benefits apply to even the first level of Medallion status and are unlimited, restricted only by availability or priority.

While earning this status can appear confusing at first, the perks are worth it. Few airlines can match the sheer number and generosity of these travel benefits.

How to earn Delta SkyMiles

Here are the ways you can earn Delta SkyMiles. For a more in depth look, check out our guide to earning Delta SkyMiles.

  • Fly on Delta and partnered airlines
  • Make purchases with eligible credit cards
  • Dine out with SkyMiles Dining
  • Make purchases through SkyMiles shopping portal
  • Book car rentals, hotels or vacation packages — including cruises
  • Purchase SkyMiles directly

What you can redeem SkyMiles for

Here are a few of the redemption options you can earn using your SkyMiles. To find out which are most worth your points, check out our full redemption guide for SkyMiles.

  • Flights to destinations such as Los Angeles, Calgary, London and Hong Kong
  • Upgrades on flights
  • Dine out with SkyMiles Dining
  • Merchandise and gift cards
  • SkyMiles experiences, including concerts and tours

Top travel perks

Delta has many travel perks, though they depend on your Medallion status. Here are just a few types of benefits you can expect:

  • Numerous waived fees, including same-day and baggage fees
  • Priority check-in, priority boarding and other priority services
  • Unlimited complimentary upgrades
  • SkyTeam elite status

Use the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card to earn more miles

You can earn 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 MQMs with the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card after you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months of account opening. Also you can earn $100 when you make a Delta purchase within the first 3 months.

Best for flexible reward options: JetBlue TrueBlue

Many airlines offer “traps” in their reward selections. For example, the value you get per point spent on new things like a speaker or coffee pot is typically abysmal.

JetBlue TrueBlue sidesteps this issue by limiting your redemption options but ensuring they all give a solid or even great value for each point spent. That means there are no wrong choices in how you choose to spend these points and no matter where you fly.

How to earn TrueBlue points

Here’s a quick rundown of the ways you can earn TrueBlue points. To learn about your best earning options, check out our full JetBlue points earning guide.

  • Fly with JetBlue airlines
  • Make purchases with eligible cards
  • Upgrade your seating or fly with a pet
  • Purchase a vacation package through TrueBlue
  • Dine out with TrueBlue Dining
  • Make purchases with one of JetBlue’s partners

What you can redeem TrueBlue points for

Here are your options for redeeming TrueBlue points. If you want to know which is the best use of your points, check out our full JetBlue points redemption guide.

  • Flights to any of JetBlue’s service destinations, such as Alaska, the Bahamas, Columbia or Los Angeles
  • The flight portion of your JetBlue vacation
  • Flights through partnered airlines
  • Magazine subscriptions

Top travel perks

Earning Mosaic status with TrueBlue will earn you a few travel perks, including:

  • Waived change and cancellation fees
  • First two bags checked free of charge
  • Discounts on seating space upgrades

Use the JetBlue Plus Card to earn more points

You’ll earn an impressive 6x additional points on JetBlue Plus Card purchases when you use this card, 2x points at restaurants and grocery stores and 1x points on all other purchases. This alone is a solid earnings bonus, but you can also earn a 50,000 bonus point welcome offer when you sign up and spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account and paying your annual fee.

Do I really need to join an airline rewards program?

While you can join a frequent-flyer program for free and earn miles to redeem for award flights, this type of rewards program isn’t right for everyone. Joining might not be the best choice if:

  • You almost never fly, or you fly with an airline once in a blue moon.
    You likely won’t earn enough miles to get the award flights you want. Also, your miles will probably expire before you’re able to use them. However, keep in mind that there may be non-flight redemption options for your miles.
  • You don’t want the hassle of signing up or maintaining membership.
    To get into a frequent-flyer program, you’ll need to fill out an application. To get miles and loyalty credits from your flights, you’ll need to add your membership number. On top of that, you’ll want to pay attention to when your miles expire.

How to choose the best airline rewards program for you

Here are some considerations when choosing an airline rewards program for your travel needs.

  • What airlines do you fly with most?
    Chose a frequent-flyer program for an airline that has many flights available to you. This increases the chances you can earn miles and book award flights.
  • How many airline partners does your preferred program have?
    Airlines partner with other carriers to give their customers more flight options. Check out who your preferred airline partners with, and see if it’s part of an alliance that lets you use miles across many carriers.
  • What are the fees or other requirements?
    Most airline reward programs are free to join. However, many require you earn elite status to obtain the best travel benefits.
  • How frequently does the airline fly?
    Choose an airline that flies often so you won’t have to adjust your schedule around available flights.
  • What credit cards are available?
    Making purchases with credit cards is often the fastest and most effective way to accumulate miles. Whether the card is cobranded or one that can transfer points, find one that fits your spending habits.

Compare airline rewards credit cards

Cobranded cards aren’t your only option for earning reward points. Several general travel reward cards allow you to earn and transfer points to different airlines. The Chase Ultimate Rewards points are transferable to several airlines at a 1:1 ratio, including JetBlue, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

Here are just a few of the cards that can help you earn airline points and miles.

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $750 through Chase Ultimate Rewards
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
$95
Earn a signup bonus worth $750 with this popular travel card. Combine with other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards for even greater value.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months
10x points on Lyft rides, 3x points on dining and travel after earning your $300 travel credit and 1x points on all other purchases
$550
Get a generous $300 in annual travel credits, 3x points on travel and dining, and a 50% bonus on point redemptions with Chase's premier card.
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
35,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months
2x miles on Delta purchases, restaurants and at US supermarkets and 1x miles on all other purchases
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
With a welcome offer worth up to $600, up to 2x miles on select purchases, and assorted Delta perks, this is a strong choice for Delta fans. Rates & fees
Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card
10,000 miles after spending $500 in the first 3 months
2x miles at restaurants and on direct Delta purchases and 1x miles on all other purchases
$0
Earn 2x miles on Delta purchases and dining with this simple, entry-level Delta card, and pay no annual fee. Rates & fees
Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
N/A
4% at gas stations on up to $7,000 annually (then 1%), 3% at restaurants and on travel, 2% at Costco and 1% on all other purchases
$0
Get 3% back on your travel and dining purchases with no foreign transaction fees and use the card for your Costco membership.
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Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong when selecting an airline rewards program as there are so many great options. Pick from any of the ones we highlighted above for good results or review your own travel and spending preferences to determine which will create the most value for you during your travels. Read on to learn more about how credit card miles work.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the best way to earn airline miles? Flying with the airline and spending with cobranded cards is typically the best way to earn airline miles. Review our earning guides for more strategies on earning miles.
  • How many miles do you need to get a free flight? The points or miles you need for an award flight depend on the airline. Most commonly, the price comes down to fare class, destination or miles flown.
  • What is the easiest airline credit card to get? Reward credit cards that require little to no credit history are your best bet, though these cards often lack the range of benefits found on more demanding cards.

Pictures: GettyImages

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