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Top 5 best airline rewards programs

With so many to choose from, we narrowed down some of the top airline programs for your benefit.

Our pick for largest airline network: United℠ Explorer Card

70,000-mile

Signup bonus after spending in first 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. To that end, we looked at several factors to determine which programs could provide the most value for different types of travelers as well as unique features or perks. We made our comparisons 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

Average United MileagePlus point valueHow to earn United MileagePlus pointsUnited MileagePlus redemption optionsUnited MileagePlus perksFinder’s credit card pick for United MileagePlus
1.2 cents
  • 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
  • Full list of options
  • 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
  • Full list of redemption options
  • 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
  • Full guide to United Airlines MileagePlus program
  • MileagePlus Club Card
  • 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

    Average Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan mile valueHow to earn Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan milesAlaska Airlines Mileage Plan redemption optionsAlaska Airlines Mileage Plan perksFinder’s credit card pick for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
    1.8 cents
    • 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
    • Full list of options
    • Flights with Alaska Airlines to mainland US, Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, Canada or Mexico
    • Partnered flights abroad
    • Flight upgrades
    • Book hotels
    • Redeem for magazines
    • Full list of redemption options
  • Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
  • 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.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards mile valueHow to earn Southwest Rapid Rewards milesSouthwest Rapid Rewards redemption optionsSouthwest Rapid Rewards perksFinder’s credit card pick for Southwest Rapid Rewards
    1.6 cents
    • 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
    • Full list of options
    • 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
    • Full list of redemption options
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
  • 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.

    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.

    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.

    Delta SkyMiles mile valueHow to earn Delta SkyMiles milesDelta SkyMiles redemption optionsDelta SkyMiles perksFinder’s credit card pick for Delta SkyMiles
    1.4 cents
    • 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
    • Full list of options
    • 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
    • Full list of redemption options
    • Numerous waived fees, including same-day and baggage fees
    • Priority check-in, priority boarding and other priority services
    • Unlimited complimentary upgrades
    • SkyTeam elite status
    • Full guide to Southwest Rapid Rewards program
  • Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
  • You can earn 50,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles with the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card after you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months of account opening. Also, get up to $100 statement credit when you spend at eligible US restaurants during your first 3 months. (Terms apply, see rates & fees).

    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.

    JetBlue TrueBlue mile valueHow to earn JetBlue TrueBlue milesJetBlue TrueBlue redemption optionsJetBlue TrueBlue perksFinder’s credit card pick for JetBlue TrueBlue
    1.4 cents
    • 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
    • Full list of options
    • 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
    • Full list of redemption options
  • JetBlue Plus Card
  • 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 60,000 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.

    Who should 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. Here’s a quick cheat sheet on when it might make sense to join an airline rewards program.

    • You frequently fly for travel. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t join an airline rewards program unless you travel enough to build up an appreciable number of points.
    • You want to use travel perks. Airline rewards program often come with several travel perks that can make travel more comfortable or cheaper, such as free checked bags.
    • You have a preferred airline. If you prefer the services of a single airline, it can pay off to join their loyalty program so that you can start to accrue points.

    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.

    Cobranded airline credit card or general airline credit card?

    You have two options for an airline credit card: a cobranded card, which is associated with a single airline, and a general airline card, which can earn miles or points on all airlines. Generally, a cobranded credit card offers more perks and features for that specific airline, as well as a bigger opportunity for miles earnings compared to general airline cards. You can read more about the differences between each at our full guide.

    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
    100,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. That's $1,250 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
    5x points on Lyft, 2x points on travel and dining and 1x points on all other purchases
    $95

    Up to $1,250 signup bonus

    Earn a massive signup bonus of 100,000 points with this popular travel card. That's worth up to $1,250!
    Chase Sapphire Reserve®
    60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, a value of up to $900 through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
    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
    Earn a huge signup bonus worth $900 toward travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards with Chase’s premier card.
    Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
    Earn 40,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months.
    Also, earn up to $50 back in statement credits for purchases at US restaurants within the first 3 months of membership
    2x miles on Delta purchases, restaurants and at US supermarkets and 1x miles on all other eligible purchases
    $0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
    Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn up to $50 back in statement credits for eligible purchases at US restaurants with your card within the first 3 months of membership
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    Compare up to 4 providers

    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. You can also read more about the best credit card rewards programs and best hotel rewards programs. Finally, read more about how credit card miles work for a better understanding of how point values are determined.

    Pictures: GettyImages

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