America has numerous airline loyalty programs to choose from, but which is the right one for you, your location, and your travel needs?
These days, everyone wants to earn points through loyalty programs. Let’s face it, this isn’t the Jet Age anymore. The glamor of air travel is gone. Now, cramped seats, no meals, and disgruntled passengers are the norm. In order to experience some of the luxuries airlines have to offer, you either need to pay the big bucks, or earn miles (points) through an airline’s loyalty program, but not all programs are the same. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about every major US airline and their loyalty programs.
Delta SkyMiles members can earn points anytime they fly Main Cabin or above. This means that Delta is not allowing those who book its cheapest fare, Basic, to earn miles. From there, miles can be used to redeem flights, upgrades, and Delta vacation packages. Passengers can also earn miles when flying with Delta’s SkyTeam partners like Air France, as well as select other airlines, like Virgin Atlantic. SkyMiles can also be earned at select hotel chains like Marriott and Accor and on the rideshare platform Lyft.
Delta offers four American Express credit cards branded with the SkyMiles program. The Blue card is an entry-level credit card that comes with no annual fee. It’s great for casual travelers who don’t want to get bogged down with yearly charges. SkyMiles members can also get the AMEX Gold, Platinum, and Reserve cards, all of which come with hefty sign-on bonuses. All four cards allow you to earn SkyMiles on purchases, with bonus points for restaurants and Delta purchases, and all have no international transaction fee.
Frequent international and business travelers and those who live near Delta-controlled hubs like Detroit, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and Minneapolis.
American Airlines’ AAdvantage program is the nation’s largest loyalty rewards program – likely due to American being the world’s largest airline. Members can earn miles on American Airlines flights, as well as flights on American’s regional counterpart American Eagle, and any OneWorld partner airline, which includes legacy names like Qantas.
Miles can also be earned at select hotel brands, such as Hyatt, the InterContinental, and Wyndham properties. The airline also has deals with rental car companies like Avis and Budget which allows passengers to earn miles by renting a car. Points can be redeemed for flights, upgrades, lounge passes, and vacation packages.
American also just changed its milage plan to make it easier. Previously, in order to get Elite status, passengers had to navigate a labyrinthine hell of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs), Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs), and “qualifying tickets”. Starting January 1st, the airline simplified its structure to one qualifying metric: Loyalty Points. Now, one mile = one point. Gold level begins at 30,000 points.
American has 11 credit card options, ranging everywhere from their no-fee MilesUp card to their Executive World Elite card which comes with a $450 annual fee. There are also cards designed specifically for business travelers. American’s free MileUp credit card does charge a foreign transaction fee of 3%, the higher-tiered cards do not.
Business travelers, frequent flyers who live near American-dominated hubs like Miami and Dallas.
United’s MileagePlus program allows flyers to earn points on United flights, as well as their Star Alliance partners like ANA, Singapore Airlines, and SWISS International Air Lines. They also have lodging partners like the Crowne Plaza and the Autograph Collection, as well as Vrbo. You can also earn thousands of miles by booking a cruise through United Cruises, which allows you to book cruises on Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival, and more.
The MileagePlus plan has a special value for those who live/travel to Central America and the Caribbean. Not only does United have partnerships with airlines like Copa and Avianca, but you can also get MileagePlus branded credit cards at banks in Mexico and seven Central American and Caribbean countries including Panama, Ecuador, the DR, and more. It’s a great way to earn extra miles while making purchases abroad.
United offers a whopping 45 credit cards in nations around the world. Six of those are for the US, with two being for business travelers and four being for the general traveler. Their American cards are through Chase/Visa and start with the no-fee Gateway card and go all the way up to the Infinite card, which comes with unlimited lounge access, priority boarding, and a $525 yearly fee. All US cards offer no international transaction fees.
Those who frequently visit Central America and the Caribbean, and those who live near United hubs like Denver and Houston.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program allows you to earn points that go towards Southwest flights. This can be achieved by booking flights, or by shopping with one of Southwest’s partners. Their partner companies are varied, ranging from hotels like Best Western and MGM Resorts to 1-800 Flowers and Harry & David. Southwest even allows passengers to outright purchase points either for themselves or as a gift to someone else (though simply buying someone a Southwest gift card would seem to be much more cost-effective).
Curiously, Southwest offers two credit cards…both of which have an annual fee, despite the fact that Southwest is a discount carrier. Even worse, their cheapest card, the “Plus” card, doesn’t even wave international transaction fees, despite costing $69 a year.
Those who travel domestically, and travel to and from underserved smaller airports – for example, someone who takes flights from cities like Nashville and Columbus.
JetBlue has grown into a true national contender with hubs in NYC, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and more. True Blue allows passengers to earn points on JetBlue flights (2x points for booking directly on the airline’s website), as well as select other airlines.
Though JetBlue isn’t part of an airline alliance, it has independent alliances with airlines like Singapore, Icelandair, Hawaiian Airlines, and American Airlines. You can redeem your points for JetBlue flights, vacation packages, and, oddly enough, you can use JetBlue points for free flights on Hawaiian Airlines.
JetBlue offers two cards, one without a yearly fee and one with. Both cards have no international transaction fee. The base card offers 3X points on JetBlue purchases, while the ‘Plus’ card offers 6X points. the ‘Plus’ card also comes with benefits like free checked bags, but has a $90 annual fee.
Those who live in cities like Boston and Fort Lauderdale, and those who enjoy the airline’s quirky charms like their hybrid (but easier to afford) business class, Mint.
Alaska Mileage Plan
Despite the somewhat dull name, Alaska’s Mileage Plan is actually the most rewarding of all the major loyalty programs. As a OneWorld member, you can earn points on Alaska, as well as its OneWorld partners. You can also earn points at select dining and shopping venues. What makes Alaska’s plan so unique is that it still allows you to earn miles based on miles flown, rather than the price of your ticket. According to Alaska’s website, this means that Alaska passengers earn around 30% more rewards per-flight than with other major airlines.
The downside to Alaska is that, aside from the West Coast, its presence in the Lower 48 is still a little slim. Starting about 10 years ago, the airline really began boosting its presence in Seattle and Portland, and is now the dominant airline at SeaTac. Since then, it’s also boosted its presence in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and also has a hefty number of daily flights to Hawaii.
Alaska Airlines has two credit cards, one for leisure travelers, and the other for business travel. Both have annual fees, but no international transaction fees. The cards allow you to earn more points on flights, come with a 60,000-mile sign-on bonus, grant you free checked bags (as well as free bags for up to six other people on your itinerary), and yearly discounted companion fares.
Anyone who lives in Alaska, or who lives on the West Coast and mainly travels along the coast.