Best airline rewards programs for people who don’t care about flying first class
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Keeping up with the latest frequent flyer program news and rules can sometimes seem like a part-time job. Because of the time and effort involved, conventional wisdom dictates that the best use of airline miles is for first-class travel. While that’s certainly an appealing option, there are plenty of programs that offer outsized value to members willing to fly in economy class.
These programs offer low redemption rates for economy class awards, in conjunction with their co-branded airline credit cards. Not only does this make it easier to save up miles for an award ticket, but you can also stretch your existing frequent flyer balances further. If more travel is the goal and you don’t care about flying in a premium cabin, here’s our take on the six best airline programs to rack up points with:
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Southwest has hit the frequent flyer program trifecta. It has a great hard product, simplifies the earning and redemption process and offers a valuable benefit to its most frequent flyers (the Southwest Companion Pass). Not to mention, Southwest has a very straightforward structure for earning and redeeming points: Members earn 6 to 12 points per $1 spent on flights, and points are worth about 1.4 cents each towards flights.
The great thing about Southwest is that you can book award tickets online in a straightforward, hassle-free process. The downside is that Southwest doesn’t offer a business or first-class cabin, so the Rapid Rewards program is not for everyone. But if you don’t mind flying economy class with a low-cost carrier and Southwest flies out of your hub city, then Rapid Rewards can offer you tremendous value. If you favor Rapid Rewards, you have several Southwest Airlines credit cards to help you accumulate miles.
While Southwest is focused primarily on the West Coast of the U.S., JetBlue has several hubs on the East Coast, making it especially ideal for those who fly out of New York, Boston and Orlando. JetBlue’s Mint class happens to be one of the most cutting-edge domestic first-class products, but it’s only available on select routes. If you’re not flying one of these routes, you’ll end up in a recliner-style seat that doesn’t differ all that much from economy class.
However, if flying in first class isn’t essential to you, then JetBlue TrueBlue is a great loyalty program to consider. Not only are their economy class seats some of the most spacious in the air, but you’ll enjoy a simple rewards program. Members earn 1 to 3 base points per dollar spent, plus a 1 to 3 point direct booking bonus. Points are worth around 1.3 cents each towards award flights. Sometimes this translates to incredibly cheap award tickets, like 15,000-point round-trip transcontinental fares between Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK).
JetBlue also allows members to earn top-tier TrueBlue Mosaic status without stepping on a plane. If you can spend $50,000 on the JetBlue Plus Card, you’ll earn top-tier elite status. Granted, Mosaic members don’t receive seat upgrades like top-tier elites at other airlines, but they still get practical perks like free same-day changes, checked bags and upgrades to Even More Space seats. In addition, the JetBlue Plus Card has a relatively small spending requirement compared to other airlines’ top-tier requirements.
Delta SkyMiles doesn’t always have the best deals when it comes to first-class fares. Thanks to Delta’s dynamic pricing model, you can expect high redemption rates on domestic and international fares. However, Delta SkyMiles can be great if you don’t mind flying economy class. Delta partners with American Express to offer several co-branded Delta credit cards and frequently offers deeply discounted economy award tickets through SkyMiles Deals.
Depending on the time of year, you might find a round-trip economy fare between the East Coast and West Coast for as low as 10,000 miles round-trip, plus $11.20 in taxes. Considering the same ticket typically costs at least 12,500 miles round-trip, this is a fantastic deal. If you don’t mind flying in economy class, SkyMiles can offer outsized value compared to competitors like American AAdvantage and United MileagePlus.
Alaska Mileage Plan
Alaska Airlines is a regional carrier primarily serving the West Coast, but it packs a punch with its impressive line-up of international partners. After joining the Oneworld Alliance in March 2021, Alaska Airline’s Mileage Plan became even more valuable because many of its redemption rates are cheaper than fellow Oneworld member American AAdvantage. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is one of the best cards for earning Alaska Airlines miles, and you can now use them to book flights on Oneworld partner airlines including American, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Japan.
Alaska Mileage Plan is also a great program if you’re looking for cheap economy class tickets. Award tickets start at just 5,000 miles one-way for flights under 700 miles. This is great because some frequent flyer programs still price out awards based on region flown, which isn’t always ideal for short-haul flights that tend to price out cheaper. Alaska also hasn’t implemented dynamic pricing like other airlines. That means the cost of an award ticket won’t be impacted by the cash fare, ensuring a bit more predictability when you’re saving up miles for a trip.
Air France/KLM FlyingBlue
FlyingBlue is Air France and KLM’s joint loyalty program, and it’s great for cheap economy class awards. Whether you want to redeem miles for domestic awards or to travel abroad, you’ll find plenty of sweet spots. For example, you can fly from the U.S. to Europe or Israel for as little as 21,500 miles each way in economy class. That’s a bargain, considering most other loyalty programs require at least 30,000 miles for the same award.
Flights to the Caribbean are also a great deal, starting at just 14,500 miles each way. If you’re looking for reasonable economy class fares to both domestic and international destinations, Flying Blue is a great program. Throw in a partnership with Delta and the rest of the SkyTeam alliance, and you’ve got plenty of options for using your miles. The Air France KLM Elite Mastercard® is the airline’s flagship card. But Air France is also one of Capital One’s travel partners, which means you can access FlyingBlue via the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.
As the frequent flyer currency of British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, Avios gets a bad reputation because of the high fuel surcharges imposed on business and first-class flights transiting through the UK. But if you don’t care about flying in first class, Avios offer incredible deals on economy class award tickets.
For example, you can fly between the East Coast and Europe for as little as 13,000 Avios each way. Considering most award tickets to Europe cost around 30,000 miles or more, this is an outstanding redemption rate. Flights between the West Coast and Hawaii also cost just 13,000 Avios each way on Oneworld partners American and Alaska Airlines. If that doesn’t sound like much of a deal, keep in mind it’s low enough that the welcome bonus from the British Airways Visa Signature® Card will cover up to four round-trip award tickets.
In addition to some incredible sweet spot awards, Avios are very easy to earn. You can transfer points from Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou rewards to Avios at a 1:1 ratio. Other airline cards earn Avios besides British Airways Visa, including the Visa Signature® Card and Aer Lingus Visa Signature® Card.
The bottom line
As you can see, airline miles don’t have to be redeemed for first-class travel to provide value. You can get plenty of bang for your miles by focusing on programs that offer low award redemption rates alongside the occasional flash sale. You’ll be able to travel more without acquiring more credit cards or finding creative ways to top off your frequent flyer balance. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.