It’s a reliably engaging parlor game for frequent travelers: deciding which airline loyalty program is “the best.”
Some programs boast more earning opportunities; others are more robust on the rewards side. Some programs stand out for their award-seat availability, others for their liberal award-travel policies. Some programs offer easy access to elite status; other programs stand out for the generosity of their elite benefits. In the end, the choice of a travel-rewards program comes down to what’s important to you, and which program best dovetails with your needs and your day-to-day behavior as a traveler and a consumer.
There is no single best program. If there were, everyone would join it, leaving the other programs member-less and floundering.
Nevertheless, the idea of a categorically best program is a compelling one, fueling regular articles in the mainstream and not-so-mainstream press that promise to definitively answer the question. The latest is from U.S. News & World Report, the former weekly news magazine now known chiefly for its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities.
Best Airline Program
To evaluate and rank the nine U.S. airline programs, U.S. News used a scoring system weighted as follows:
- Ease of earning a free roundtrip flight – 45%
- “Additional benefits” – 25%
- Network coverage – 10%
- Award flight availability – 10%
- Number of daily flights – 5%
- Airline quality rating – 5%
Based on those factors, the nine airline programs included in the study ranked as follows, on a scale of 1 – 5:
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan – 4.49
- Delta SkyMiles – 4.19
- JetBlue TrueBlue – 4.12
- Southwest Rapid Rewards – 3.96
- United MileagePlus – 3.87
- American Airlines AAdvantage – 3.84
- HawaiianMiles – 3.40
- Frontier EarlyReturns – 3.05
- FREE Spirit – 1.76
Alaska’s Mileage Plan is a fine program, no doubt. In fact, it was recently picked as the best airline program in SmarterTraveler’s Editors’ Choice awards, not least because it has bucked the trend toward revenue-based mileage earning, which has devalued many of the largest programs for average travelers. And certainly if you live in Seattle, Alaska’s hub airport city, it’s likely to be the best program for you. But if you live in Houston, or Detroit, or Tampa, or Richmond, or hundreds of other cities, it’s a non-starter. The Alaska Airlines route network simply doesn’t feature enough flights from those cities to make the airline a clear first choice for air travel.
And at the other end of the spectrum, there might even be scenarios in which Spirit’s program best meets your needs, although that’s a stretch.
When it comes to choosing the best travel-rewards program, your mileage may vary.
Reader Reality Check
Which programs work best for you?
After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.
This article first appeared on SmarterTravel.com, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.