The Best Airline Rewards Programs With Points You Can Actually Use

Compare cards to find the best frequent flyer program for you.

It’s hard to choose the best airline rewards program because most airlines reward their best customers with miles or points to redeem for free flights or other rewards. How do you determine which airline has the best frequent flyer program in 2018 or the best airline rewards program for 2018 and beyond?

To help you decide which airline has the best frequent flyer program based on your individual needs, check out this airline loyalty programs comparison.

American Airlines AAdvantage

Here’s a quick look at the pros and cons of American Airlines AAdvantage:

Pros

  • Earn miles for everyday purchases and activities
  • No blackout dates
  • Basic credit card has no annual fee

Cons

  • Miles expire after 18 months of inactivity

American Airlines Credit Card Comparison: Which One Is Right for You?

Earning Flights and More With American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines AAdvantage lets you earn miles for flights with American Airlines and over 20 partner airlines, and you can redeem them with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Qantas Airways and six other partners. Redemption starts at 7,500 miles each way.

You earn American Airlines AAdvantage miles based on your ticket price and status, with a cap of $75,000 per ticket. The levels are:

  • Advantage member — 5 miles per dollar
  • Gold member — 7 miles per dollar
  • Platinum member — 8 miles per dollar
  • Platinum Pro member — 9 miles per dollar
  • Executive Platinum member — 11 miles per dollar

The formula for gaining status considers either your elite qualifying dollars and miles or your elite qualifying segments and dollars. Perks start at the Gold level, and as you work your way up, they include priority security lanes, waived baggage fees, priority baggage delivery, free preferred seats, and free snacks and beverages. You also earn American Airlines AAdvantage miles by booking hotel stays and vacations, renting cars, shopping and dining with partner companies. You can purchase a Mileage Multiplier that gives you more miles on your flights. Miles earned from partner purchases vary depending on the individual partner.

American has four mileage credit cards: AAdvantage Executive, Platinum Select, MileUp and CitiBusiness Platinum Select. Depending on the card, you earn double miles at businesses like grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. The MileUp card has no annual fee; however, fees for the other cards start at $99 and go up to $450. Welcome offers let you earn between 10,000 and 75,000 miles and a $50 credit, based on the card and your spending in the first three months.

Delta SkyMiles

Here’s a quick look at Delta SkyMiles:

Pros

  • Miles never expire
  • No blackout dates
  • The basic credit card has no annual fee

Cons

  • A complicated formula for earning status

Earning Flights and More With Delta SkyMiles

Delta SkyMiles lets you earn miles for flying on Delta Airlines or spending money at participating hotels, stores, restaurants, car rental companies and other partners, including Lyft and Airbnb. You get five miles for each dollar spent on your ticket. You can also convert points earned from partners like American Express, Hertz and Hilton to SkyMiles. Use the website to determine the miles required for redemption on a particular flight.

Frequent Delta flyers achieve Medallion status based on a combination of money spent on Delta and partner flights, miles flown, fare class and number of flights taken. You can also achieve Medallion status by spending at least $25,000 in one year on your Delta SkyMiles credit card. The program has four tiers with the following requirements:

  • Silver — 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQM) or 30 Medallion Qualification Segments (MQS) and $3,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) or MQD waiver
  • Gold — 50,000 MQM or 60 MQS and $6,000 MQD or MQD waiver
  • Platinum — 75,000 MQM or 100 MQS and $9,000 MQD or MQD waiver
  • Diamond — 125,000 MQM or 140 MQS and $15,000 MQD or MQD waiver

Each level has increasing perks such as waived baggage fees, priority security line access, a CLEAR membership, free upgrades and priority boarding.

Delta offers four SkyMiles American Express credit cards: Blue, Gold, Platinum and Reserve. Those cards earn two miles per dollar on Delta purchases and one mile per dollar spent on all other purchases, with no mileage cap. The cards offer from 10,000 to 70,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs based on the card and your spending in the first three months.

There’s no annual fee for the Blue card, but the fee goes as high as $450 for Reserve.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Take a look at the pros and cons of the Southwest Rapids Rewards card:

Pros

  • No blackout dates
  • Ability to earn a companion pass

Cons

  • Points expire after 24 months of inactivity
  • Cheapest fares earn only half as many points as Business Select
  • Credit cards all have annual fees

Check Out: Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card Review

Earning Flights and More With Southwest Rapid Rewards

Southwest Rapid Rewards gives you points based on the type of fare you choose and the amount you pay for your ticket. You can also earn points for booking rental cars and vacation packages, dining, shopping with partner companies or taking surveys. Use the website to determine the points required for redemption on a particular flight. You can also redeem points for gift cards, merchandise, rental cars, cruises, hotel stays and international flights on other carriers.

Southwest also has tiered benefits for its most frequent flyers:

  • A-List — 25 one-way qualifying flights or 35,000 qualifying points
  • A-List Preferred — 50 one-way qualifying flights or 70,000 qualifying points
  • Companion Pass Holder — 100 one-way qualifying flights or 110,000 qualifying points

Benefits start at priority boarding, free standby and a dedicated phone line, and you get to bring one person to fly with you for free once you hit the highest status.

Southwest Airlines also offers the Rapid Rewards Plus, Premier, Premier Business and Priority Visa cards that let you earn points more quickly and get other perks — such as like WiFi discounts and upgraded boarding — depending on the card. Annual fees start at $69, and you earn 40,000 points for spending at least $1,000 in the first three months.

United MileagePlus

Check out the basics of United MileagePlus:

Pros

  • Good earnings bonuses as status tiers increase

Cons

  • Miles expire after 18 months of inactivity
  • Credit card with no annual fee earns cash, not miles
  • Possible blackout dates

United Airlines Credit Card Comparison: Travel Rewards for Business and Personal Spending

Earning Flights and More With United MileagePlus

United MileagePlus lets you earn miles for flying on United Airlines. The exact number of miles earned depends on the fare for United flights and Star Alliance flights with tickets issued by United, or the purchased fare class and flight distance on Star Alliance flights with tickets issued by another airline. You earn five miles per dollar spent on fare-based flights, and Premier members get additional bonuses based on their standing in the program. Free flight redemptions start at 10,000 miles, and you can also redeem for things like hotel stays, gift cards, cruises and activity tickets.

United MileagePlus has four premium tiers with the following requirements starting in 2019:

  • Premier Silver — 25,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQS) (and $3,000)
  • Premier Gold — 50,000 PQMs or 60 PQSs (and $6,000)
  • Premier Platinum — 75,000 PQMs or 90 PQSs (and $9,000)
  • Premier 1K — 100,000 PQMs or 120 PQSs (and $15,000)

Benefits improve at each tier and include things like free Economy Plus and upgrades, priority security screening and boarding, a dedicated phone line, lounge access, at least one free checked bag and access to most sold-out flights.

United has four Visa cards: TravelBank, Explorer, Explorer Business and Club. TravelBank earns cash rewards, and the others earn miles for all spending, with bonuses for flight, hotel and restaurant purchases. Earn up to 50,000 bonus miles based on your spending in the first three months. TravelBank has no annual fees, but fees on the other cards run from $99 to $450.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Take a look at Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan:

Pros

  • The formula for earning miles is simple

Cons

  • Miles expire after 24 months of inactivity
  • Redemptions are subject to blackout dates
  • The credit card has a $75 annual fee

Earning Flights and More With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is one of the simplest programs, letting you earn one mile for every mile you fly. You earn elite status beginning at 20,000 miles, giving you perks like priority check-in and boarding, two free checked bags and preferred seats. Award redemptions start at as few as 5,000 miles. Alaska residents can join Club 49, a free program that allows two free checked bags and offers travel and freight discounts.

Alaska Airlines offers a Visa card that gives you a free companion fare and 30,000 miles if you spend at least $1,000 within the first 90 days. You also earn three miles per $1 spent on Alaska Airlines purchases and one mile per $1 on other purchases, and you get a $99 companion fare on your anniversary every year. The annual fee is $75.

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JetBlue TrueBlue

Here are some features to look at with JetBlue TrueBlue:

Pros

  • No blackout dates
  • Points do not expire
  • The basic credit card has no annual fee

Cons

  • You must book through the airline website to earn the most points

Compare: JetBlue Card vs. JetBlue Plus Card

Earning Flights and More With JetBue TrueBlue

JetBlue TrueBlue lets you earn three points per dollar for ticket purchases, with bonus points for booking online at JetBlue.com. Partners from whom you can earn points include other airlines, rental car companies, hotels, Lyft and even Amazon. You can also pool your points to earn and share with your family. Check the website for the redemption cost of your selected flight. You can also redeem for vacation packages, newspapers or magazines, or you can donate your points.

Frequent flyers earn badges for bonuses:

  • Take 3 Bonus earns 5,000 bonus points for 3 round-trip flights in a year
  • Lucky 7 Bonus earns 7,000 bonus points for 7 round-trip flights in a year
  • Go Long Bonus earns 10,000 bonus points for 10 one-way flights of at least 1,300 miles in a year

TrueBlue Mosaic, the highest tier, requires either 30 segments and 12,000 flight points or 15,000 points in a year, but it gives you perks like two free bags, cancellation fee waivers, early boarding, a dedicated customer service line and complimentary alcoholic beverages.

JetBlue has three Mastercards: JetBlue, JetBlue Plus and JetBlue Business. These cards earn points on everyday purchases and bonuses for JetBlue purchases. The JetBlue card has no annual fee, but fees for the other cards start at $99. Earn up to 40,000 bonus points, depending on the card, by spending $1,000 in the first 30 days.

Click through to read more about the best airline credit cards.

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GOBankingRates.com identified the best airline rewards programs by analyzing rewards and offers. All fees and rates are subject to change at the airlines’ discretion, and some bonus offers might no longer be available on the airlines’ websites, depending on how you access the web page.

GOBankingRates is a personal finance and consumer interest rate website owned by ConsumerTrack, Inc., an online marketing company serving top-tier banks, credit unions, and other financial services organizations. Some companies mentioned in this article might be clients of ConsumerTrack, Inc., which serves more than 100 national, local and online financial institutions. Rankings and roundups are completely objective, and no institution, client or otherwise, paid for inclusion or specific placement. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of GOBankingRates alone and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the companies included in the article.