Airline loyalty is a fickle phenomenon, with even the small percentage of travelers who choose flights based on brand loyalty saying they would jump jet if a competitor offered savings of at least $51. The airline industry is known for its cutthroat competition, after all, and this dynamic actually extends well beyond the realm of ticket prices. Rewards programs in particular loom large for both consumers and carriers alike. Roughly 7% of all miles flown are also paid for with miles by the 300-million-or-so members of domestic-airline frequent flyer programs, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Airline rewards programs also seem to make travelers happier. In fact, the higher you climb in a program’s hierarchy, the more satisfied you are likely to be, according to J.D. Power. With that in mind and considering that air-passenger complaints have been on the rise as of late, it’s fair to wonder which major airline’s loyalty-rewards program stands to put your wallet in the best mood.
In an attempt to provide guidance in that regard, CardHub subjected the 10 largest domestic airlines to a rigorous rewards program review. We examined each based on 23 key metrics – from destination and transfer-partner totals to earnings-expiration and blackout-date policies – that collectively account for the myriad intricacies that differentiate these programs. Furthermore, we did so through the prism of three distinct consumer profiles, which reflect the spending habits of Light, Average and Frequent flyers. You can find our analysis below, along with a tool that enables you to customize the results based on your particular airline budget.
- JetBlue Airways is the best airline rewards program for frequent flyers, while Delta Air Lines is the top choice for average and light travelers.
CardHub Score By Flyer Type
- When you only consider the average redemption value of miles earned through each program, without taking into account any other important characteristics such as blackout dates and miles-expiration policies, Frontier, Hawaiian and Alaska are the best airlines for light, average and frequent flyers, respectively.
Rewards Value Per $100 Spent
- Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways are the only two major airlines whose miles do not expire because of inactivity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines miles expire after just 3 and 6 months of account inactivity, respectively.
- United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines are the only carriers that impose blackout dates for tickets purchased with miles.
- American, JetBlue, Frontier and Hawaiian do not allow rewards program members to redeem miles for flights that include layovers.
- Except for Southwest, all of the major airlines charge a very high fee, up to $200, to redeposit miles in the event of changes to or the cancellation of an award ticket.
- 7 out of the 10 major airlines are part of global partnerships that allow you to earn or redeem miles with certain other carriers.
- Half of the major U.S. airlines have switched to spend based programs in the last 6 years (starting with JetBlue in 2009) awarding miles to passengers based on the amount spent rather than distance travelled. All of these airlines have a tiered earning rate based on the fare class and status level thus benefiting passengers who spend more.
- The average airline earns a profit of 46.91% on the sale of miles to rewards program members, with Spirit (80.86%), Delta (65.96%) and Hawaiian (62.14%) making the most.
- United Airlines flies to more destinations (350) than the 5 smallest carriers combined (290).
You can obtain a more-personalized recommendation by inputting your annual air travel budget below. We’ll apply the same methodology used in this report to see which airline rewards programs will prove most valuable in terms of your particular circumstances.
The following table illustrates the number of points that 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||Virgin America|
|Number of daily flights||7.00||7.00||5.61||3.68||4.83||0.79||0.77||0.20||0.20||0.04||0.02|
|Number of countries served||5.00||4.64||4.91||0.46||5.00||1.89||0.20||1.35||0.20||0.55||0.02|
|Number of destinations served||5.00||4.97||4.46||1.14||5.00||1.11||1.31||0.52||0.81||0.08||0.04|
|Partner airlines earning and redemption||3.00||1.42||1.96||0.00||3.00||0.23||1.08||0.00||0.00||0.62||0.31|
|Number of daily flights (partner airlines)||3.00||1.20||1.79||0.00||2.31||2.86||3.00||0.00||0.00||1.66||2.40|
|Number of countries served (partner airlines)||1.00||0.37||0.49||0.00||0.70||1.00||0.64||0.00||0.00||0.42||0.75|
|Number of destinations served (partner airlines)||1.00||0.43||0.53||0.00||0.78||1.00||0.50||0.00||0.00||0.17||0.82|
|Value earned -Frequent Flyer||20.00||4.93||4.25||6.83||3.86||18.12||20.00||2.19||13.21||14.51||18.66|
|Value earned – Average Flyer||20.00||6.37||10.83||13.14||10.48||1.18||16.03||8.99||18.84||20.00||16.85|
|Value earned – Light Flyer||20.00||7.91||6.30||14.47||6.06||2.88||8.67||0.95||20.00||9.49||18.07|
|Booking blackout dates||7.00||7.00||7.00||7.00||0.00||7.00||0.00||7.00||0.00||7.00||7.00|
|Short-notice booking fee||3.00||0.00||3.00||3.00||0.00||3.00||3.00||0.00||0.00||3.00||3.00|
|Earn miles when booking through 3rd party websites||6.00||6.00||6.00||0.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00||6.00|
|Layover in award flight||5.00||0.00||5.00||5.00||5.00||0.00||5.00||5.00||0.00||0.00||5.00|
|Retroactive flight credit for members||3.00||1.29||0.86||1.29||0.43||1.29||1.29||0.00||0.43||0.14||1.29|
|Retroactive flight credit for non-members||1.00||0.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||1.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Award-ticket redeposit fee||3.00||0.00||0.00||3.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Ease of achieving elite status||3.00||0.32||0.83||1.37||1.31||2.44||1.98||2.47||3.00||2.32||1.64|
|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 – Frequent Flyer||5.00||3.50||3.67||1.50||4.50||3.00||4.00||0.67||1.00||3.00||4.50|
|Membership perks – Average Flyer||5.00||0.00||3.67||1.50||4.50||0.50||3.17||0.67||1.00||3.00||0.00|
|Membership perks – Light Flyer||5.00||0.00||0.00||1.50||0.00||0.50||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Frequent Flyer Score||100.00||49.57||60.99||43.00||47.29||65.53||55.99||29.84||27.68||45.99||57.94|
|Average Flyer Score||100.00||47.51||67.57||49.30||53.91||46.09||51.18||36.63||33.31||51.48||51.62|
|Light Flyer Score||100.00||49.05||59.37||50.64||44.99||47.79||40.65||27.93||33.48||37.97||52.85|
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 frequent flyer 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?
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, only JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest and Frontier did so. The other airlines that we evaluated – namely, American, Delta, United, Alaska, Frontier and Hawaiian – 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 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 is accurate as of November 10.
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” flyer’s budgets. Exact values can be found below.
- Light Flyer: Spends roughly $467 on annual airline travel.
- Average Flyer: Spends roughly $3,105 on annual airline travel.
- Frequent Flyer: Spends $5,743 on annual airline travel.
1. Airline Coverage (total score: 17 points)
a. Number of daily flights (max score: 7 points)
We collected the average number of daily flights by the individual airlines according to their official websites.
b. Number of countries served (max score: 5 points)
We tabulated the total number of countries served by each airline directly (i.e., not including countries served by partners/alliances).
c. Number of destinations served (max score: 5 points)
We determined the total number of destinations served by each airline directly (i.e., not including destinations by with partners/alliances).
2. Partner Coverage (total score: 8 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 daily flights (max score: 3 points)
We added together each partner airline’s average number of total daily flights.
c. Number of countries served (max score: 1 point)
We tabulated the total number of countries served by each airline’s partners/alliance-mates.
d. Number of destinations served (max score: 1 point)
We determined the total number of destinations served by each airline’s partners/alliance-mates.
3. Value Earned per $100 Spent (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 the 12 most popular routes (based on number of enplaned passengers): 6 domestic (with both the departure and destination in the U.S.) and 6 international (beginning in the U.S.). Ticket prices were obtained for weekday and 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 $28.02 in free airfare over the course of a year ($467 * 3 *0.02). And that translates to $6 in value per $100 spent ($28.02 / $467 *100).
4. Miles Restrictions (total score: 33 points)
a. Miles expiration (max score: 7 points)
- If a rewards program does not have blackout dates for award flights = Full points
- If a rewards program has blackout dates = No 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
- 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
- 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
- If miles can be used to book flights that include layovers = Full points
- If miles cannot be used to book flights that include layovers = No points
We determined if and when miles expire due to account inactivity with each loyalty rewards program.
b. Booking blackout dates (max score: 7 points)
c. 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.
d. Short-notice booking fee (max score: 3 points)
e. Earning limits (max score: 2 points)
f. Earn miles booking through third-party websites (max score: 6 points)
g. Layovers in award flight (max score: 5 points)
5. Additional Features & Policies (total score: 22 points)
a. 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Free checked baggage = 1.5 points
- Complimentary upgrades = 1 point
- Priority check-in/security/boarding = 1 point
- Complimentary companion upgrades = 0.5 point
- Expedited baggage services = 0.5 points
- Free in-flight Wi-Fi = 0.5 points
- 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
b. Retroactive flight credit for members (max score: 3 points)
c. Retroactive flight credit for non-members (max score: 1 point)
d. Award-ticket redeposit fee (max score: 3 points)
e. 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 for the top 6 domestic airline routes of 2015.
f. Transferring miles between accounts (max score: 1 point)
g. Valuable membership perks (max score: 5 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.
h. Purchasing Miles (max score: 5 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.