Air travel is on the rise as the pandemic winds down, and flights figure to be increasingly crowded as more and more people get back to pre-pandemic habits. We’ve got two years’ worth of vacations and business trips to catch up on, after all, so it’s little surprise that many people are eager to return to the friendly skies.
To help you earn more free flights and other assorted perks, WalletHub compared the 10 largest domestic airlines’ loyalty rewards programs across 21 key metrics, ranging from the value of a rewards point or mile to blackout-date policies.
Best Frequent Flyer Programs of 2022
- Alaska Airlines - Mileage Plan
- United Airlines - MileagePlus
- Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles
- Hawaiian Airlines - HawaiianMiles
- American Airlines - AAdvantage
The rankings for the best airline rewards programs are based on a trio of annual airfare budgets: Light ($321), Average ($3,658) and Frequent ($6,994). As a result, the best overall frequent flyer programs are well-rounded and positioned to satisfy the needs of loyal airline customers of all types.
To find out which airline miles program is best for you, try out the frequent flyer miles calculator below. The calculator will customize the results of this study based on your own airline budget.
Table of Contents
Frequent Flyer Miles CalculatorMain FindingsDetailed ScoringAsk The ExpertsMethodology
Frequent Flyer Miles Calculator
Enter your annual air travel budget below. We’ll use the report’s methodology to find the best frequent flyer program for you.
Annual Amount Spent On Airline Travel
WalletHub Score: 73.17
WalletHub Score: 69.75
Alaska Mileage Plan is the best frequent flyer program of 2022, beating last year's winner United MileagePlus.
Hawaiian Airlines offers the most rewards value, at $24.78 per $100 spent. Alaska Airlines comes closely in second, with $24.65 per $100 spent.
Three of the 10 largest airlines are offering more rewards value in 2022 than in 2021, sweetening the pot by an average of roughly 10%.
Seven major airlines have miles that do not expire because of inactivity: Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines give preference to frequent flyer program members when deciding whom to bump from overbooked flights.
Five major U.S. airlines will retroactively credit loyalty program members with miles for a flight up to 12 months after the fact.
6 of the 10 largest U.S. airlines allow rewards program members to earn and redeem miles with partner carriers.
The following airlines do not have frequent flyer partnerships with other airlines: Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and Sun Country.
Airline miles cost an average of 2.4X more than they’re worth when purchased rather than earned.
*Sun Country Airlines does not sell miles.
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Best Frequent Flyer Programs for 2022
|Airline Rewards Program||Best For||Overall WalletHub Score||Number of Destinations|
|Alaska Mileage Plan||Overall & Rewards Value||76.27||123|
|United MileagePlus||Airline Coverage & Partner Coverage||72.56||369|
|Delta SkyMiles||Redemption Policies||67.57||276|
|HawaiianMiles||Most Additional Features & Rewards Value||65.19||31|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||Airline Coverage||56.27||351|
Note: The “Best For“ column represents the category in which a frequent flyer program ranked the highest.
The frequent flyer programs also have co-branded credit cards, which allow frequent travelers to earn free flights by making purchases wherever Visa, Mastercard, American Express or Discover is accepted. The rewards these cards provide vary widely, just like the loyalty programs they represent. So travelers may want to check out WalletHub’s picks for the best airline credit cards before committing.
Detailed Scoring for 2022’s Best Frequent Flyer Programs
The following table shows how many points each airline rewards program received in the scoring categories included in our methodology.
|Scoring Categories||Maximum Score||American Airlines||Delta Air Lines||Southwest Airlines||United Airlines||JetBlue Airways||Alaska Airlines||Spirit Airlines||Frontier Airlines||Hawaiian Airlines||Sun Country Airlines|
|Frequent Flyer Program||-||AAdvantage program||SkyMiles||Rapid Rewards||MileagePlus||TrueBlue||Mileage Plan||FREE SPIRIT||myFrontier||HawaiianMiles||Sun Country Rewards|
|Number of US Destinations||10.00||9.68||9.08||4.09||10.00||2.30||4.04||1.61||3.76||0.10||2.34|
|Number of International Destinations||5.00||4.56||2.08||0.24||5.00||1.36||0.36||1.04||0.40||0.12||0.52|
|Partner airlines earning and redemption||3.00||1.66||1.93||0.00||3.04||0.36||1.86||0.00||0.04||0.43||0.00|
|Number of US destinations of partner airline||4.00||3.24||1.48||0.00||2.85||3.63||4.00||0.00||0.21||1.05||0.52|
|Number of International destinations of partner airline||3.00||1.59||1.36||0.00||3.00||0.57||2.55||0.00||0.05||0.34||0.23|
|Value earned - Light Flyer||20.00||9.28||8.81||12.11||8.76||1.70||19.88||5.11||18.77||20.00||0.38|
|Value earned - Average Flyer||20.00||5.85||8.64||7.64||8.60||1.08||19.88||5.01||11.84||20.00||0.24|
|Value earned -Frequent Flyer||20.00||6.61||7.44||7.37||7.40||4.48||19.89||4.97||11.20||20.00||0.17|
|Earn miles when booking through 3rd party websites||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00|
|Retroactive flight credit for members||4.00||1.71||1.14||1.71||1.71||1.71||1.71||0.00||0.57||0.19||0.00|
|Retroactive flight credit for non-members||1.00||0.00||0.73||1.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.45||0.27||0.18|
|Booking blackout dates||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00|
|Short-notice booking fee||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||0.00||0.00||3.00||3.00|
|Layover in award flight||5.00||0.00||5.00||0.00||5.00||5.00||5.00||5.00||0.00||5.00||5.00|
|Award-ticket redeposit fee||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||3.00||0.00||0.00||3.00||3.00|
|Expired mile reactivation||1.00||0.00||1.00||1.00||1.00||1.00||1.00||0.00||1.00||1.00||0.00|
|Ease of achieving elite status||3.00||0.31||1.70||1.69||1.88||1.98||2.32||2.86||2.14||3.00||0.00|
|Transferring miles between accounts||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||0.00|
|Membership perks - Light Flyer||6.00||0.33||0.00||1.50||0.00||0.50||0.00||0.00||0.00||2.49||0.00|
|Membership perks - Average Flyer||6.00||0.33||4.66||1.50||4.99||0.50||4.49||0.66||1.99||3.49||0.00|
|Membership perks - Frequent Flyer||6.00||4.99||5.49||2.49||4.99||3.66||4.99||2.16||2.49||3.99||0.00|
|Score not based on consumer spending||74.00||47.14||55.89||38.13||60.98||50.28||53.23||29.51||32.88||41.87||38.28|
|Light Flyer Score||100.00||56.74||64.71||51.73||69.74||52.48||73.11||34.62||51.65||64.36||38.66|
|Average Flyer Score||100.00||53.32||69.20||47.27||74.57||51.85||77.60||35.18||46.71||65.36||38.52|
|Frequent Flyer Score||100.00||58.74||68.82||47.98||73.37||58.42||78.11||36.64||46.57||65.86||38.45|
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Ask The Experts: Assessing The Value Of Frequent Flyer Programs
With a quantitative analysis in hand, we turned to a panel of leading hospitality and consumer studies experts to learn more about the inner-workings of airline rewards programs and how they affect the way we travel. You can check out their bios and responses to the following questions below.
- Who benefits more from airline rewards programs: consumers or the airlines themselves?
- To what extent do airline rewards programs influence consumer behavior?
- How do you think mergers, acquisitions and alliances of individual brands impact airline loyalty?
- To what extent, if at all, do you expect airline rewards programs to change in the next 5 to 10 years?
- Why are each airline's miles worth different amounts? How does this affect consumers?
Ask the Experts
Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business
Assistant Professor of Business Analytics at The University of Tennessee
Alison Jing Xu
Associate Professor of Marketing in the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota
Adjunct Lecturer in Marketing in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology
Charles R. Taylor
John A. Murphy Professor of Marketing at Villanova School of Business
Professor of Practice in Marketing and Director of Marketing Strategy & Analytics at Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business
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Methodology for Selecting the Best Frequent Flyer Programs:
This report compared the frequent flyer programs operated by the 10 largest airlines in the U.S., based on number of passengers, using publicly available information and company policies posted online. We did so for three different consumer profiles, designed to illustrate how programs compare across spending levels. Where policies were incomplete or ambiguous, we confirmed them with the respective airline’s customer service department. Once data collection was complete, we reached out to the public relations departments of each airline to confirm our findings. However, Spirit Airlines either did not meet our deadline for input or did not provide any corrections regarding company policy and pricing.
The scoring framework used to evaluate each airline rewards program, and ultimately identify the best option for different types of consumers, can be found below. Generally, full points were awarded to the best-performing program for that metric, while the zero-point level was set slightly below the worst program’s value. Most of the metrics were first graded on a 100-point scale. Point allocations for more-binary metrics that did not use this 100-point scale are explained below. Airline ticket cost data was collected in March 2022 and is likely to have changed since.
This methodology also applies to WalletHub's individual reviews of the top 10 airline rewards programs. Those individual program reviews include both "category ratings" and "editor's ratings." The category ratings are derived from the scoring process described below, and the editor's ratings reflect the sum of each rewards program’s scores across the study’s six major categories – airline coverage, partner coverage, rewards value, earning policies, redemption policies and other features – adjusted to a five-point scale and to create a representative distribution of ratings. Category rating scores are rounded up to the nearest decimal.
Consumer Profiles: We created three consumer spending profiles (Light, Average and Frequent) to evaluate how well each airline meets the needs of travelers with varying budgets. We based the airfare budget of a “Light” flyer on travel expenditure data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and household income data from the U.S. Census Bureau. We determined the budget of a “Frequent” flyer by applying average airfare rates to a travel schedule that comprises monthly domestic flights supplemented by an annual trip abroad. The “Average” flyer’s budget was determined by averaging the “Light” and “Frequent” flyers’ budgets. Exact values can be found below.
- Light Flyer: Spends roughly $321 on annual airline travel.
- Average Flyer: Spends roughly $3,658 on annual airline travel.
- Frequent Flyer: Spends $6,994 on annual airline travel.
1. Airline Coverage (total score: 15 points)
a. Number of U.S. destinations (max score: 10 points)
- We collected the total number of U.S. destinations by the individual airline NOT including partners/alliances.
b. Number of International destinations (max score: 5 points)
- We collected the total number of U.S. destinations by the individual airline NOT including partners/alliances.
2. Partner Coverage (total score: 10 points)
We chose to grade partner airlines separately in order to avoid overlapping data and the resulting double counting. However, the strength of a given airline’s partnership network is indeed relevant to the value of its rewards program, so it was important that we take this into account where possible.
a. Partner airline earning and redemption (max score: 3 points)
- We collected the total number of partner airlines that allow you to both earn and redeem miles. Partners with which you can only earn, not redeem, received ½ the points.
b. Number of US destinations of partner airline (max score: 4 points)
- We collected the total number of US destinations including partners/alliances.
c. Number of International destinations of partner airline (max score: 3 points)
We collected the total number of International destinations including partners/alliances.
3. Rewards Value (total score: 20 points)
Three underlying components are required to calculate how much value a user would derive from one year of membership in each airline’s rewards program: i. Amount Spent, ii. Miles Earned and iii. Redemption Value. In other words, if you spend X amount, you will earn Y miles, which can be redeemed for Z dollars in airfare. Below we will explain how we calculated each component.
i. Amount Spent:We used the aforementioned consumer spending profiles to determine how much Light, Average and Frequent flyers spend on airfare each year.
ii. Miles Earned: The task of determining the number of miles that each type of flyer would earn with each airline was complicated by the fact that there are two ways to earn. Some airlines provided a certain number of miles per dollar spent (e.g., 3 miles per every $1 spent), in which case overall earnings can be determined with simple multiplication. But others allocate earnings based on the number of miles a member flies (e.g., 1 rewards mile per 1 mile flown).
For the latter group, we collected the prices of round-trip tickets (economy fares) for popular routes from the airline’s hub. Ticket prices were obtained for weekend travel during each destination’s high and shoulder travel seasons. In all cases, ticket prices were collected at least one month in advance. For each route, we then collected the round-trip distance between the two cities in terms of miles. Finally, we divided the average distance by the average ticket price, thus obtaining per-dollar pay-out rates for the airlines that rely on a mileage-based system. Multiplying these ratios by the amount each type of traveler spends gave us each person’s overall earnings with each airline.
Note: Temporary promotions, such as holiday deals or bonus miles for reservations made on specific websites, were not taken into account. Earning rates were calculated for the second year of program membership.
iii. Redemption Value: In order to determine the redemption value of a mile earned from each airline, we divided each airline’s average ticket price in dollars by the average number of miles needed for an award flight. Taxes and surcharges were deducted from the dollar value of the award flight if miles did not cover them.
iv. Value Per $100 Spent: To calculate the overall value each type of flyer would earn per $1 spent, we multiplied the number of miles earned by the respective airline’s redemption value and divided by the consumer’s annual spend. For example, assuming that an airline offers 3 miles per $1 spent and its miles are worth two cents apiece, a “Light” flyer would earn roughly $19.26 in free airfare over the course of a year ($321 * 3 *0.02). And that translates to $6 in value per $100 spent ($19.26 / $321 *100).
4. Earning Policies (total score: 15 points)
a. Earning limits (max score: 3 points)
- If the airline does not impose any limit on earning miles = Full points
- If the airline imposes an annual or per-transaction limit on earning miles = No points
b. Earn miles booking through third-party websites (max score: 7 points)
- If the airline allows you to earn miles on flights booked through third-party websites = Full points
- If the airline does not let you earn miles on flights booked through third-party websites = No points
c. Retroactive flight credit for members (max score: 4 points)
- If the airline allows retroactive mile credits to be claimed for flights taken in the last 24 months = Full points
- If the airline provides retroactive mile credits only for flights taken less than 3 months ago = No points
d. Retroactive flight credit for non-members (max score: 1 point)
- If the airline allows retroactive mile credits to be claimed for flights taken in the last 12 months = Full points
- If the airline provides retroactive miles credits only for flights taken less than 1 months ago = No points
5. Redemption Policies (total score: 20 points)
a. Booking blackout dates (max score: 6 points)
- If a rewards program does not have blackout dates for award flights = Full points
- If a rewards program has blackout dates = No points
b. Advance booking (max score: 3 points)
- Airlines allowing members to redeem miles up to one year in advance received the highest scores, while those that allow award flights to be booked only 90 days in advance received no points.
c. Short-notice booking fee (max score: 3 points)
- If the airline does not charge a fee for booking an award flight within 6 days of departure = Full points
- If the airline charges a fee for booking an award flight within 6 days of departure = No points
d. Layovers in award flight (max score: 5 points)
- If miles can be used to book flights that include stopovers = Full points
- If miles cannot be used to book flights that include stopovers = No points
e. Award-ticket redeposit/cancellation fee (max score: 3 points)
- If the airline does not charge a fee to re-deposit miles in the event of award ticket cancellation = Full Points
- If the airline charges a fee to re-deposit miles in the event of award ticket cancellation = No points
6. Other Features (total score: 20 points)
a. Miles expiration (max score: 6 points)
- We determined if and when miles expire due to account inactivity with each loyalty rewards program.
b. Expired-mile reactivation (max score: 1 point)
- If the airline allows you to reactivate expired miles for free = Full points
- If the airline allows you to reactivate expired miles for a fee = No points
c. Ease of achieving elite status (max score: 3 points)
- We calculated the amount that a member of each airline’s rewards program would need to spend on a monthly basis in order to accumulate the requisite miles for top membership status. Spending assumptions reflect the lowest economy fares.
d. Transferring miles between accounts (max score: 1 point)
- If the airline allows program members to transfer miles between their accounts for free = Full points
- If the airline only allows spouses to transfer miles between accounts for free = 0.5 points
- If the airline charges a fee to transfer of miles between accounts = No points
e. Valuable membership perks (max score: 6 points)
After examining all of the airline rewards programs, we created a list of membership perks that we believe to be most valuable for consumers. We then used our consumer profiles to determine which perks each type of airline patron would receive based on the membership-status level for which they could expect to qualify.
- Free checked baggage = 1.5 points
- Complimentary upgrades = 1 point
- Priority check-in/security/boarding = 1 point
- Bumping policy favors frequent flyer members = 1 point
- Complimentary companion upgrades = 0.5 point
- Expedited baggage services = 0.5 points
- Free in-flight Wi-Fi = 0.5 points
f. Purchasing Miles (max score: 3 points)
In order to determine whether members of each airline rewards program can purchase miles at fair value, we calculated the cost of buying the maximum number of miles permitted by each program as well as their average redemption value.
- If the airline earns a profit of 25% or less on the transaction = Full points
- If the profit margin is higher than 25% = No points
Files for News Use:
- SKYMILES (DELTA AIR LINES)
- MILES & MORE (THE LUFTHANSA GROUP)
- FLYING BLUE (AIR FRANCE-KLM)
- MILEAGEPLUS (UNITED AIRLINES)
- MILES&SMILES (TURKISH AIRLINES)
- LIFEMILES (AVIANCA)
- SKYPASS (KOREAN AIR)
- EXECUTIVE CLUB (BRITISH AIRWAYS)
Every major U.S. airline has a loyalty program, and if you like, you can join them all. But rather than earning small quantities of miles spread over multiple rewards programs where they may never amount to an award flight, it makes sense to focus your spending and flying to one or two.
Star Alliance Gold status is the highest status level one can achieve through the Star Alliance, and it comes with the most benefits as a result. However, this level of Star Alliance status is more difficult to achieve, as you have to earn the highest levels of elite status with member airlines to get there.
- Focus on Where You Fly. ...
- Consider Airline Partners. ...
- Get a Points or Miles Bonus. ...
- Choose the Right Credit Card. ...
- Dine Out. ...
- Use Shopping Portals. ...
Tom Stuker is the world's most frequent flier having logged over 21 million miles with United.
American Airlines comes out on top if you're looking for the easiest way to spend toward airline elite status. You can spend just $30,000 on an American Airlines card and get AAdvantage Gold elite status without stepping a foot on a plane.
Best overall elite status program
Alaska wins again this year, thanks to strong performance across all of its MVP levels. Whether you're an ultra-frequent flyer or not, you can't go wrong with earning MVP status on Alaska.
Star Alliance. Star Alliance has nearly double the number of member airlines (27) as Oneworld (14). That means you can enjoy perks on a lot more airlines to even more destinations (over 1,300) than Oneworld (around 1,000). With that said, Oneworld offers double the number of U.S.-based airlines.
If your goal is to obtain Star Alliance Gold status as quickly as possible and you have the freedom to choose your own flights, Asiana Club is the program to choose. With only 40,000 miles needed over a 24-month period, Star Alliance Gold status is relatively easily obtained.
For starters, United Premier members are eligible for complimentary upgrades, while Star Alliance Gold members are not. That includes access to Economy Plus seating at the time of booking (even though that's not technically considered an upgrade).
Yes, airline miles are worth it. Whether you earn airline miles through an airline's frequent flyer program or from a credit card with miles, you're earning something of value in return for money you would be spending anyway.
- Get a travel reward credit card. ...
- Earn miles through a frequent flyer program. ...
- Volunteer to get bumped. ...
- Use a companion ticket. ...
- Work for an airline. ...
- Know someone who works for an airline. ...
- Fly on military “Space A” flights.
Some airlines set expiration dates for miles a certain time after they are earned, while others consider any activity to be valid for keeping miles active (earning, redeeming and transferring). In these cases, as long as your account has some mileage activity and isn't inactive, your miles won't expire.
A US businessman has been rewarded for his loyalty to one single airline company after accumulating 10 million air miles. Thomas Stuker, a sales consultant, reached the milestone after a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago.
These are the requirements you must meet with 90 days to earn a status match with United: Fly 7,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 8 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) for Premier Silver. Fly 12,500 PQMs or 15 PQSs for Premier Gold.
Meet the man who has flown more than 1 million miles in a single year and is one of the biggest names in the automotive industry. The average American flies 2.1 times a year and averages 1,500 miles on those trips.
Buying & Gifting Status
With some American-based airlines you can earn elite miles with the purchase and use of a credit card (like Delta and United) and with others (US Airways) you can buy status out-right for a set price. US Airways values their lowest level of status at $1,299 and their highest at around $4,000.
In the competition of Delta versus United, there isn't a clear winner. Delta charges less baggage fees and makes basic economy more tolerable for a frugal traveler. United, on other hand, has a stronger loyalty program and a stronger presence when it comes to global connections.
The quick answer is that Delta is the superior airline in terms of customer service, free flight changes, and overall experience. United is the more budget-friendly option, depending on what extras you need. Both airlines are enormous and have tons of flights around the world.
The straight answer is no, you can't transfer airline miles to another airline. But you can book award flights on other airlines if they're travel partners.
Air Canada, Air India, Air France, Alitalia, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, KLM, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Swiss International Airlines, TAP Portugal, Turkish Airlines, and United Airlines.
It all depends on the frequent flyer program of your choice, its rules and flights, that you take, but the rule of thumb is, that with just 3-4 flights a year you can think about yourself as a frequent flyer, who's entitled to certain perks.
Inside the flight, a member of the loyalty program gets preferential treatment over a non-member. In exchange for reward points (miles), you can avail of in-flight amenities such as extra bags, in-flight purchases, or exclusive services. The amenities vary from carrier to carrier.