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Conventional wisdom dictates that the best use of airline miles is first or business-class travel.
And while business class comes with plenty of comfy perks, not everyone likes to spend their hard-earned miles on a seat up front. Frequent flier programs also offer fantastic value for everyday travelers just hoping to go from A to B cheaply.
A good frequent flyer program for budget-conscious travelers will offer low redemption rates for economy-class rewards and allow you to stretch your miles even further. Here’s our take on the six best airline reward programs for those who care more about maximizing value than flying business class.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
The Southwest Rapid Rewards stands out for multiple reasons, including the Southwest Companion Pass, one of the best twofer deals offered by any airline loyalty program. Low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines isn’t a member of any airline alliance, but there are numerous opportunities to earn points on travel. Members earn anywhere from 6X to 12X points per dollar spent with Southwest or its partners, such as Marriott Bonvoy, Alamo, Hertz and other popular retailers. Additionally, you can shop through the Southwest Rapid Rewards program or join the Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining program. Boost your points even further when using a Chase credit card eligible for the Chase Ultimate Rewards program and then converting your rewards to the Southwest program.
According to Bankrate’s valuations, points are valued around 1.5 cents each, and the number of points it takes to book a flight depends on the dollar value of the ticket. When the ticket price drops, so does the redemption amount. That makes it much more straightforward to redeem points versus trying to guess if you have enough for a ticket.
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 may be one of the most cutting-edge domestic business 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.
Program members earn JetBlue TrueBlue points anytime they fly JetBlue or its partners, including Hawaiian Airlines. Even better, you can pool points with up to 7 friends and family members to accelerate earnings.
Earn anywhere from 1X to 3X points per dollar spent on flights, airline partners, shopping partners, TrueBlue dining or even by taking surveys. Currently, JetBlue TrueBlue points are worth about 1.3 cents each.
The number of points required to redeem for flights is tied to the fare price. That gives you more opportunities to book affordable flights, whether one-way or round-trip.
Delta SkyMiles members taking any Delta flights earn at least 5X miles per dollar spent, but the earnings rate varies when flying with a Delta airline partner. Plus, you can earn a substantial number of miles through Delta’s partnership with American Express, which offers several co-branded Delta credit cards.
As with other programs, there are multiple redemption options, but your best bet is with Delta Air Lines or its partner carriers. Delta’s dynamic pricing model means you can expect higher redemption rates on domestic and international fares, but there are still great deals, especially for economy fares. For example, 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 taxes.
Another area where the Delta SkyMiles program stands out is its large number of eligible airline partners. There are 21 airline partners, including Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and Korean Air. Spontaneous travelers can even search for and book last-minute economy tickets through the SkyMiles Deals page, further stretching your miles.
Alaska Mileage Plan
Don’t let the name fool you. The Alaska Mileage Plan from Alaska Airlines covers 115 destinations within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and the Bahamas. This number increases to over 1,000 destinations worldwide when you factor in the destinations of its multiple airline travel partners. You earn miles through flights, hotel stays or car rentals with partners, shopping through the member portal, joining the dining program or signing up for one of Alaska Airline travel credit cards.
Redemption rates start at 5,000 miles for one-way flights under 700 miles, making the Alaska Mileage Plan an excellent value for those who don’t mind traveling in economy. This works to your advantage because some frequent flier programs still price out awards based on the region flown, which isn’t always ideal for short-haul flights that typically cost less.
Alaska Airlines offers this easy-to-use mileage tool, so you can easily see how many miles it takes to earn an economy-class (or business class) ticket, making it easy to search for great deals.
Air France/KLM Flying Blue
FlyingBlue is the joint loyalty program of Air France and KLM. Not only do you earn miles through flying with AirFrance, KLM and multiple other airline partners, but you also earn miles as a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. That’s in addition to shopping through the portal and booking with hotel partners.
Whether you want to redeem miles for domestic tickets or travel abroad, you’ll find plenty of options. 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. For comparison, most other loyalty programs require at least 30,000 miles for similar bookings.
For even more value, you can browse the Promo rewards program to look at discounted reward flight offers that take fewer miles than usual.
Avios is the program for British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling. It may not be as well known as some other programs on the list, but its redemption value and extensive partner network make it well worth considering.
As with other programs, not only can you earn Avios through flights but also by transferring points from Amex Membership Rewards, Capital One, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards.
Once you’re ready to redeem, you may be surprised by the deals you can find. For example, flights between the East Coast and Europe go for as little as 13,000 Avios each way, when most award tickets to Europe cost around 30,000 miles or more. Flights between the West Coast and Hawaii also cost 13,000 Avios each way when you redeem with airline partners American and Alaska Airlines.
The bottom line
Business class certainly has its appeal, but if you’re hoping to get more travel for the least amount of money, an economy-class ticket is likely the better choice. Some airline programs, such as the ones mentioned above, not only offer plenty of economy ticket redemption options, but they make it easier for members to earn and redeem.