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Best airline rewards programs

Here are our top picks across five common categories.

Updated . What changed?

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
50,000 miles after spending $2,000 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
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $1,000 through Chase Ultimate Rewards
5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
Earn a huge signup bonus worth $$1,000 with this popular travel card. Combine with other Chase Ultimate Rewards cards for even greater value.
Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi
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
Get 3% back on your travel and dining purchases with no foreign transaction fees and use the card for your Costco membership.
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
Earn 2x miles on Delta purchases and dining with this simple, entry-level Delta card, and pay no annual fee. Rates & fees
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
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.

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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.

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