Once upon a time, frequent flyer programs were used only by frequent travelers loyal to one airline. Those miles expired after awhile if you didn’t use them or add to them, and there wasn’t a huge variety of ways to earn points outside of air travel. Then, as more people traveled, airlines formed alliances and established partnerships with companies and retailers that weren’t airlines – and, in some cases, weren’t even travel-related. They stopped making the miles you earned expire, and some of them even got pretty generous with the rewards you could earn.
With the economic downturn and so many airlines struggling to survive these days, however, their focus isn’t on giving you cool ways to earn miles and get free trips. Which means frequent flyer programs aren’t as good as they were even a few years ago. On top of that, it’s notoriously difficult to actually redeem miles for free trips (or whatever else you’re trying to get) – and that’s been true for many years – so ranking the best frequent flyer programs is a bit like putting a bunch of mediocre things in order. They’ve all got their drawbacks.
Another thing that makes ranking frequent flyer programs challenging is that there are several factors that could be used to rank them. For this list, I’ve chosen to focus on the variety of ways to earn miles. I did look at the number of miles earned on each airline, but most of them offer the same number of miles per trip, so that didn’t differentiate them too much. In addition to looking at the ways you can earn miles, there’s also a bit of subjectivity thrown into this list – which means it’s important for you to use this list as a starting point for researching frequent flyer programs, but not an end-point. After you’ve read through it, be sure to click through to the various articles about each program to learn more so you can decide which program is really best for you.
>> Don’t forget to check out the many options for mileage credit cards that will help you earn even more miles with many of the airline programs listed below.
Best Frequent Flyer Programs
- American Airlines AAdvantage – The list of airlines American is partnered with to earn miles is long, as is the list of partner hotels. In general, the list of ways to earn points outside of air travel and hotel stays is also really long, which is one of the big reasons it ranks at the top of my list. A couple perks American has that most other airlines don’t offer are that you can register up to 6 credit and debit cards with their dining program (rather than just one, which most programs limit you to) and you can even earn miles for making charitable donations to select causes – I think that’s particularly cool. The main drawback is that rather than having a minimum of 500 miles per flight that you’ll earn (which most airlines have), American gives you actual miles flown – and they measure “non-stop distances” between airports. So one trip won’t necessarily put you into the stratosphere as far as earning points goes, but you’ll have lots of options to earn you points besides that one flight. (Learn more about how to earn American points)
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles – Delta has a long and impressive list of air partners, hotel partners, car rental agency partners, and credit cards with which you can earn miles. There’s a good variety of other ways to earn miles, too, including cruises and vacation booking as well as dining and shopping. You’ll earn at least 500 miles per flight (or the actual miles flown, whichever is greater), and Delta has partnerships with the Hilton and Marriott vacation clubs to give you even more options. And the recent merger with Northwest Airlines only increases Delta’s route network, which is always a good thing if you’re a loyal customer. (Learn more about how to earn Delta points)
- US Airways Dividend Miles – Despite billing itself as a “budget airline,” US Airways tends to be more of a stripped-down legacy carrier in most respects (including ticket prices). But when it comes to their frequent flyer program, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. US Airways has a decent list of airline partners and a huge list of partner hotels with which you can earn points, and there are also things like car rentals (with eight rental car agencies), credit cards (five options), shopping and dining, cruise booking services, and an assortment of other services as well. You’ll get at least 500 miles for each trip, or the actual miles flown (whichever is greater), and one nice perk is that you can register up to five different credit or debit cards with the dining program. Also, for loyal US Airways customers, there are higher levels of the frequent flyer program with which you can earn even more miles. (Learn more about how to earn US Airways points)
- Continental Airlines OnePass – Continental’s lists of partner airlines and hotels are both long and varied, which is good for travelers at different budget levels. There are also eight different car rental companies and an impressive (if not a little eyebrow-raising) seven mileage credit cards in addition to the usual suspects of financial services, real estate, and some online shopping. With Continental you can earn miles on both Amtrak and SNCF (in France) rail travel, and the airline promises that if you pay full price for a ticket in coach you’ll never sit in a middle seat. You’ll earn actual miles flown on Continental flights, the number of miles you’ll earn on other airlines varies. (Learn more about how to earn Continental points)
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan – Yes, the state-specific name of Alaska Airlines does make it seem like the benefits of its frequent flyer program would be pretty limited, but that’s not the case. It’s not as comprehensive as some other programs, but if you live in or travel frequently in the western part of the United States then it’s an excellent program to consider – especially because it’s partnered with so many big legacy carriers. The list of partner airlines is long, and although there isn’t a huge number of partner hotels in the program the budget level variety is good. Alaska’s other miles-earning methods include lots of the same ones you’ll find with other programs – car rentals (seven companies), credit cards (three), cruises, dining, and shopping. You’ll get at least 500 miles for every flight, or the actual miles flown (whichever is more) – and if you use your Alaska Airlines credit card to book your Alaska flight, you’ll earn bonus miles. (Learn more about how to earn Alaska Air points)
- United Airlines Mileage Plus – You might be surprised to find such a big legacy carrier like United so far down on this list – but there’s a very good reason for it. Sure, there’s a decent list of partner airlines in the program and quite a long list of partner hotels. Yes, there are eight car rental companies affiliated with United, two credit cards in the program, and several more of the usual ways to earn miles with an airline. But the thing that makes me stick United down here in its lowly ranking is that they’ve chosen to go back to the bad old days of frequent flyer programs and bring back expiration dates on accrued miles. It’s a shame, really, because the airlines tend to act like lemmings, so I’m sort of waiting for other airlines to follow suit. Let’s hope in this regard that they don’t. (Learn more about how to earn United points)
Northwest Airlines WorldPerks – Did you read through the list above and wonder why Northwest Airlines wasn’t included? Well, the airline recently merged with Delta and it looks like the name is slowly being phased out. For flights in the near future, it’s likely you’ll find a mix of Delta and Northwest insignia – Northwest on the side of the plane, Delta flight attendants and Delta-labeled napkins inside – but eventually everything will be Delta. And they’ve already completed the merger of the two frequent flyer programs, with everything from the old Northwest frequent flyer program now re-directing online to Delta’s program (which is referenced and linked to above). You can read more about how to earn Northwest points, but remember that if you’re new to the program it’s not the Northwest one you’ll be signing up for – it’s Delta’s.
photo by hyku