Air travel is on the rise as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, and flights figure to be increasingly crowded as more and more people get vaccinated. We’ve got a year’s 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.
Here are the best frequent flyer programs:
- United Airlines - MileagePlus
- Alaska Airlines - Mileage Plan
- Hawaiian Airlines - HawaiianMiles
- Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles
- American Airlines - AAdvantage
The rankings for the best airline rewards programs are based on a trio of annual airfare budgets: Light ($574), Average ($3,038) and Frequent ($5,503). 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.
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: 64.93
WalletHub Score: 57.32
- United MileagePlus is the best frequent flyer program of 2021, ending a five-year streak for Delta SkyMiles atop the rankings.
- Delta Air Lines SkyMiles ranks #1 for having the most additional features.
Hawaiian Airlines offers the most rewards value, at $24.19 per $100 spent. Frontier Airlines comes in second, with $20.99 per $100 spent.
Five of the 10 largest airlines are offering more rewards value in 2021 than in 2020, sweetening the pot by an average of 30%.
Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are the six major airlines whose miles do not expire because of inactivity.
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 of 10 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.
Airline miles cost an average of 2.24X more than they’re worth when purchased rather than earned.
Best Frequent Flyer Programs for 2021
|Airline Rewards Program||Best For||Overall WalletHub Score||Number of Destinations|
|United MileagePlus||Overall, Airline & Partner Coverage||68.81||370|
|Alaska Mileage Plan||Redemption Policies & Partner Coverage||63.08||119|
|Hawaiian Miles||Rewards value & Redemption Policies||60.32||33|
|Delta SkyMiles||Most Additional Features||59.65||290|
|American Airlines AAdvantage||Airline Coverage||54.53||352|
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 2021’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||9.47||8.62||3.56||10.00||1.88||3.70||1.12||3.48||0.10||1.57|
|Number of International Destinations||5.00||4.74||2.91||0.13||5.00||1.24||0.34||0.98||0.13||0.13||0.30|
|Partner airlines earning and redemption||3.00||1.71||2.10||0.00||3.00||0.26||1.97||0.00||0.00||0.47||0.00|
|Number of US destinations of partner airline||4.00||1.74||1.58||0.00||4.00||2.54||2.77||0.00||0.15||0.71||0.25|
|Number of International destinations of partner airline||3.00||1.62||1.01||0.00||3.00||0.44||2.08||0.00||0.05||0.35||0.14|
|Value earned - Light Flyer||20.00||6.19||6.75||10.79||8.14||7.21||10.93||5.67||20.00||13.73||0.27|
|Value earned - Average Flyer||20.00||7.52||8.13||8.43||9.65||5.64||13.75||6.53||20.00||17.03||0.21|
|Value earned -Frequent Flyer||20.00||7.59||8.20||9.43||8.27||4.83||16.25||7.40||17.14||20.00||0.18|
|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||0.00||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||0.00||0.00||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||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Ease of achieving elite status||3.00||0.46||2.51||0.28||0.00||2.29||1.83||2.60||2.32||2.87||0.00|
|Transferring miles between accounts||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Membership perks - Light Flyer||6.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.50||0.00||0.00||0.00||2.50||0.00|
|Membership perks - Average Flyer||6.00||4.99||4.66||0.00||4.99||0.50||4.16||0.66||2.49||3.49||0.00|
|Membership perks - Frequent Flyer||6.00||5.49||5.49||0.99||4.99||0.50||4.99||2.16||2.49||3.99||0.00|
|Score not based on consumer spending||74.00||43.94||48.58||36.01||56.79||45.32||46.39||28.20||31.70||40.07||38.44|
|Light Flyer Score||100.00||50.12||55.33||46.80||64.93||53.04||57.32||33.87||51.70||56.31||38.70|
|Average Flyer Score||100.00||56.44||61.37||44.44||71.44||51.46||64.29||35.39||54.19||60.59||38.65|
|Frequent Flyer Score||100.00||57.02||62.27||46.44||70.06||50.66||67.62||37.76||51.34||64.06||38.62"|
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
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 2021 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 $574 on annual airline travel.
- Average Flyer: Spends roughly $3,038 on annual airline travel.
- Frequent Flyer: Spends $5,503 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 $34.4 in free airfare over the course of a year ($574 * 3 *0.02). And that translates to $6 in value per $100 spent ($34.4 / $574 *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
Note: On 4/28/21, we updated the scoring to reflect Delta's new qualifying-miles earning rate and Hawaiian Airlines' new miles expiration policy.