Key takeaways

  • Frequent flyer programs are airline loyalty programs that offer rewards to encourage customer loyalty
  • Rewards are issued in the form of miles or points, and you can also earn elite status to qualify for upgrades and other perks
  • Although all frequent flyer programs are free to join, you should focus on one primary program for earning rewards and status
  • When determining which frequent flyer program is best for you, consider your hub city, travel habits and goals

Frequent flyer programs have gained popularity since they were introduced three decades ago, with savvy travel hackers figuring out how to leverage them for heavily discounted (and upgraded) travel. But you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to get started with these programs. All it takes is a quick sign-up process, a bit of research into the different ways to earn miles and remembering to credit your flights to your account.

While frequent flyer programs are free to join — and you can certainly sign up for all of them — you should focus on one primary program to earn status with. But with so many options, how do you choose? Here’s a look at some of the best airline rewards programs and how to choose one that suits your needs.

What is a frequent flyer program?

Frequent flyer programs are airline loyalty programs that offer rewards to encourage customer loyalty. Rewards are issued in the form of miles or points, and you can also earn elite status to qualify for upgrades and other perks.

Until recently, members were limited to earning miles based on fare class and distance flown. However, in recent years, airlines have moved toward a revenue-based system, where the number of miles you earn depends largely on the cost of airfare, and achieving elite status comes with spending requirements.

The good news is that despite the difficulty of earning miles and status through flights, most airlines have partnerships that make it easy to earn miles (and, in some cases, elite status) through other means. Co-branded credit cards, dining rewards programs and shopping portals all offer viable (and lucrative) ways to earn frequent flyer miles without flying.

What is the best frequent flyer program?

The best frequent flyer program depends on your hub city, travel habits and goals. As hub cities go, if you’re based in Atlanta, Delta SkyMiles might be a good fit, while American AAdvantage is better suited to those living in Dallas. If your goals involve using miles to travel abroad, the allure of Southwest Rapid Rewards might be lost on you.

All that aside, some frequent flyer programs are more rewarding than others. They make earning miles and elite status easy while offering reasonable redemption rates. While some programs are affiliated with foreign carriers, you don’t have to fly with them to earn status or miles. You can travel on domestic partner airlines and credit your flight to the foreign rewards program for better value.

Here’s a look at the best frequent flyer programs within oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance.

Alaska Mileage Plan

As part of the oneworld Alliance, Alaska Mileage Plan is one of the best frequent flyer programs for domestic travelers. The program has reasonable elite status requirements and is one of the few airlines still publishing an award chart. This makes it easy for members to figure out how many miles they need for a flight. Alaska Mileage Plan’s free stopover allowance on one-way awards allows you to stretch your miles further by working multiple trips into one award redemption.

American Airlines

The American Airlines AAdvantage program isn’t perfect, but it has several things going for it. For starters, the program still publishes an award chart, with several off-peak and sweet spots redemptions on the table.

American Airlines is also one of the only frequent flyer programs that counts nearly all rewards earned toward elite status. This includes purchases made through credit card spending, shopping portals and dining rewards. In other words, with AAdvantage, you could earn top-tier elite status without ever stepping on a plane.

All Nippon Airlines (ANA) Mileage Club

If you’re looking for cheap award flights, ANA Mileage Club is one of the best frequent flyer programs out there. ANA is part of the Star Alliance, which has the most comprehensive routing network of all the alliances. That means you can travel virtually anywhere with your ANA miles. Plus, ANA requires fewer miles for long-haul awards to popular destinations.

Notably, you need just 88,000 miles for a round-trip business class award to Europe. Compare that to United MileagePlus, which often charges 62,400 miles or more each way for the same award. Once Japan reopens to tourists, your ANA miles will get you there during the low season for just 40,000 miles round-trip in economy and 75,000 miles in business class. Again, this is about half of what some other Star Alliance members require for the same award.

ANA Mileage Club is a 1:1 transfer partner of the Amex Membership Rewards program. That means you can convert points earned from The Platinum Card® from American Express and American Express® Gold Card into some incredible award redemptions.

Turkish Miles&Smiles

The Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles program has two notable attributes. It has some incredible sweet spot awards that are significantly cheaper than most other loyalty programs. For example, you can fly to Hawaii on United Airlines for just 10,000 miles round-trip in economy class. United Airlines charges that many miles for a one-way ticket, making Miles&Smiles a much better option.

Miles&Smiles also offers one of the easiest ways to earn Star Alliance’s elite status. It takes just 25,000 miles to earn Classic Plus status, equivalent to Star Alliance Silver. There’s no revenue requirement, making earning status from cheaper flights possible.

Best of all, Turkish often runs status match promotions, so elite members from other programs can leverage existing status for a leg up.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Air France and KLM’s joint Flying Blue program is one of the best options in the SkyTeam alliance. The program partners with four transferable rewards programs:

Not only are Flying Blue miles easy to earn, but they’ll go a long way thanks to generous sweet spot awards. For example, economy-class tickets to Europe start at just 20,000 miles each way. Business-class flights to North Africa are also a bargain, at just 55,000 miles each way. Most programs charge at least 70,000 miles for the same award, making this a terrific use of miles.

If you prefer to travel stateside, flights to Hawaii typically cost just 17,500 miles each way in economy class. Flying Blue’s monthly Promo Rewards offers value beyond its standard award chart, with discounts of up to 50 percent.

Southwest Rapid Rewards

The Southwest Rapid Rewards program is great for domestic travelers who want a straightforward loyalty program that offers practical rewards. Members earn points based on the fare type and cost. In addition to making their way toward higher status, members can qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass after earning 125,000 miles. Points earned from Southwest credit card sign-up bonuses also qualify toward the Companion Pass.

Further, Southwest famously offers two free checked bags per passenger, making this a preferred airline for value travelers who want a no-frills travel experience with practical perks and easy redemptions.

How to choose the best frequent flyer program for you

Choosing the right program comes down to which airline services your area and your travel and status goals. You should also take into account how easy it is to earn miles.

For example, the Asiana Club loyalty program is one of the best for earning elite status fast. But their miles aren’t easy to acquire for most people, so we left it off this list. If your goal is to fly international first class, then Southwest Rapid Rewards probably isn’t the best program for you. While you should claim your miles when flying Southwest, you can probably skip the co-branded credit card.

Ultimately, frequent flyer miles should be rewarding. Think about what that means to you and which program might best serve those needs.

For more travel tips and tricks, check out Bankrate’s travel toolkit.