Traveler’s guide to the best frequent flyer programs

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For the well-traveled, there’s no better value than a frequent flyer program. The more you fly, the more you earn.

Better yet, there are a ton of perks that come with “elite status” from many of the airline frequent flyer programs. Upgrades, free checked baggage, priority boarding and even discounts on snacks are all benefits of being an airline loyalist.

Though they may look similar from the outside, not all frequent flyer programs are created equal. We took it upon ourselves to evaluate the biggest names in the industry, and while we can’t tell you which one to pick, we can give you a better understanding of what makes the most sense for your wallet based on your travel habits.

What is a frequent flyer program?

A good starting point is to understand the difference between an airline’s frequent flyer program and a rewards program from your credit card company. In brief, a frequent flyer program is a stand-alone mile-tracking system that rewards customers for their loyalty. Passengers who commonly fly on select airlines enroll in the program to collect a designated number of points (sometimes known as “miles”) for every flight they take. Your credit card’s loyalty program may, in fact, be able to fast-track your status or miles within your airline’s program, but more on that later.

The most popular (and lucrative) frequent flyer programs:

How to become a member

Enrolling in frequent flyer programs are typically a breeze on most airline websites. Scroll to your preferred airline’s homepage, and look around the navigation bar to find a signup link. Once you’ve clicked it, you’ll typically be asked for a few pieces of identifying information: phone, email, address and any TSA PreCheck info you might have.

Once you’ve submitted your information, you’re set. You’ll receive an email and/or letter with a unique frequent flyer number. You’ll need to reference that number for every flight hereafter to have the miles count toward your account.

We strongly suggest that you pick a program and stick with it. Find the airline that travels the routes that you use most often, and stay loyal to that airline. It’s difficult to reap any serious rewards when your points are spread across multiple programs from multiple airlines.

Which is the best frequent flyer program?

The better question is which frequent flyer program is the best for you. Here’s a recap of the five programs we mentioned earlier alongside their pros, cons and finer points. We urge you to look at our list as a jumping off point.

JetBlue Airways TrueBlue

Status: TrueBlue membership falls into two categories: basic membership and Mosaic. The path to Mosaic is fairly straightforward: Take 30 JetBlue flights and earn 12,000 flight points within a calendar year, or go all out and earn 15,000 flight points in a single year on any number of flights.
Perks: Mosaic certainly has its benefits: free checked bags, priority boarding, expedited security and the potential for complimentary alcoholic beverages. Check their site for the full scoop.

Value: Right from the get-go, TrueBlue offers some perks that other programs won’t — for example, points that never expire and exemption from blackout dates. That’s great value for even the least frequent of flyers.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Status: A-List and A-List Preferred are the crème de la crème of the Rapid Rewards program. To reach either, you’ll need to hit a number of tier qualifying points via eligible flights.
Perks: A-List members receive benefits like a dedicated hotline, priority check-in, and free same-day standby. A-List preferred members get all the same, plus free in-flight WiFi and a supercharged 100% earning bonus for every qualifying flight.
Value: Southwest makes it easy to stack up the points on the front end. Most domestic flights are eligible to help you earn. Plus, Southwest partners with a number of hotels, car rental and retail outlets that will count toward your total, as well.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Status: Elite status starts at 20,000 miles, which is one of the most generous qualifiers in the industry. Once you’re there, you can work your way up through additional membership tiers.
Perks: Elite flyers are greeted with the chance at first-class upgrades and free checked bags. From there, participants can earn their way to lounge access and special earnings bonuses.
Value: For the west coast, few loyalty programs can top the Mileage Plan. With eligible flights stretching the Pacific Northwest and mythical long-term perks like Million Miler status, it’s got plenty to benefit you today, tomorrow and every flight after.

Delta Air Lines SkyMiles

Status: SkyMiles members reach for Medallion status, which begins with 25,000 miles flown or $25,000 or more in eligible purchases with a Delta SkyMiles Credit Card. However you like to spend, it can help your case.
Perks: Qualifying members start with Silver Medallion status, which offers a miles-earning bonus and potential day-of-departure first-class upgrades for you and a companion. Gold, Platinum and Diamond status follow after that, providing everything from travel vouchers to gift cards to a CLEAR membership for expedited security.
Value: If you like to share the wealth, SkyMiles is a great candidate. The perks stretch the board and parlay nicely with co-branded credit cards (again – more on those later).

American Airlines AAdvantage

Status: The trick is qualifying yourself for elite status as quickly as possible. That can be done via flying or spending. The program page itself has the breakdown on what it takes to get to the top.
Perks: Once you’ve reached elite status, you’ll be eligible for free upgrades on flights under 500 miles, as well as a number of discounts and the ability to start earning with partner airlines.
Value: AAdvantage gets you solid value for your loyalty, but only once you’ve reached elite status (and beyond). The faster you climb, the greater the value. Elite is where the free flights, seat upgrades and special fare earnings kick in.

How credit cards help you earn rewards faster

Get bonus rewards. Apply for a credit card that’s either co-branded or heavily favors that airline. As long as you’re not overextending your credit, an airline card is a must-have for any frequent flyer.

Your credit card typically offers a separate points structure to reward you for your spending. That said, airlines often team up with credit card issuers to offer co-branded cards and point systems that allow transference between loyalty programs. They may even dangle sign-up bonuses and seasonal incentives that benefit even the least frequent of flyers.

For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is currently offering a 60,000 point bonus to new customers who spend $4,000 within their first 3 months as an account holder. And those 60,000 points equate to $750 in travel when redeemed via Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Enough to get you a roundtrip flight nearly anywhere in the states, no matter how many points you’ve collected to date.