The 2016-17 Best Airline Rewards Programs

U.S. News evaluated 10 major airline rewards programs and identified the best.

U.S. News & World Report

The 2016-17 Best Airline Rewards Programs

Alaska Airlines jets are parked at the C Terminal of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) on June 2, 2013, in Seattle, Washington
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(Getty Images)

1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

For the second year in a row, the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan tops the Best Airline Rewards Programs list. The Mileage Plan is one of the few programs that continues to award miles based on distance flown instead of dollars spent. Plus, members can earn miles with 17 partner airlines as well as 11 hotel partners, such as Wyndham Hotel Group and Marriott. In addition to its multiple elite membership tiers (including one specifically for Alaska residents), the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers four award levels for mile redemption.
A JetBlue plane flies May 1, 2014 in flight over the United States.
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(Getty Images)

2. JetBlue TrueBlue

While JetBlue best serves fliers based on the East Coast who fly to domestic and Caribbean destinations, the carrier offers more limited geographic coverage than other airlines of its size. But TrueBlue continues to rank near the top of this list because it allows members to redeem award flights for a small number of points (some routes require less than 10,000 points). The program also provides unique amenities to fliers, such as family pooling, where families and friends can pool points together and TrueBlue Badges that allow members to earn bonus points on things like social media activity. Though the program only offers one elite tier, TrueBlue makes it easy for members to collect bonus points just by booking through JetBlue.com and purchasing upgraded fare classes, which can be cashed in for free flights.

U.S. News announces the 2016-17 Best Airline Rewards Programs.

Between deciphering complicated earning structures and searching for limited award flight availability, deciding which airline rewards program to devote your loyalty to can seem like a daunting task. And while no one frequent flier program is right for every traveler, finding one that best matches your travel habits will increase your chances of earning and redeeming meaningful rewards. To help you decide which program is best for you, U.S. News assessed 10 leading airline rewards programs using an unbiased methodology that factors in the ease of earning and redeeming free flights, network coverage, award flight availability and added program benefits, among other data points.

10. Free Spirit

To put it simply, the rewards program from Spirit Airlines – Free Spirit – doesn't provide many benefits when compared with other rewards programs. At the basic membership tier, Free Spirit members only earn half a mile for every mile flown. What's more, miles expire after three months of account inactivity. On the upside, the program does offer an affiliated credit card. By making everyday purchases with the Spirit Airlines World MasterCard, members can keep their Free Spirit accounts active and accumulate points at a faster rate, which is crucial since at least 30,000 miles are needed to book a free flight.

9. Frontier EarlyReturns

In addition to flying with Frontier Airlines, members can also earn frequent flier miles through the program's hotel and car rental partners, such as Hertz and Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, and reach elite status with 20,000 miles. But compared to other programs on this list, the perks for elite status members are limited. For example, elite members don't receive any earning bonuses or have the option to check their bags for free, though they can fly with one complimentary carry-on bag. And though the airline offers flights to smaller airports in areas such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Bozeman, Montana, it operates fewer daily flights and provides less coverage and fewer flight options to major cities.

8. HawaiianMiles

Joining the HawaiianMiles program is a no-brainer if you frequently hop between the Hawaiian Islands, the Pacific and the U.S. mainland. But if you want to use award miles for flights to the Midwest or the Caribbean, you may be out of luck due to Hawaiian Airlines' limited coverage area. While the carrier makes up for its lack of geographic diversity by offering partnerships with bigger airlines, such as JetBlue Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways, Hawaiian requires, on average, the largest number of miles to redeem a free flight of any airline rewards program analyzed. That aside, HawaiianMiles does offer numerous award flight categories, allowing members to choose the fare class that best fits their needs.

7. American AAdvantage

Following the lead of other major carriers, such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, American Airlines overhauled the earning structure of its American AAdvantage program in 2016. Miles are now earned based on dollars spent rather than distance flown. These changes may benefit those who spend more on flights (travelers who purchase first-class tickets, for instance), but they hurt the everyday traveler who regularly books the cheapest available fare. Moreover, a minimum spending threshold will be required to reach elite status starting in 2017. As a result, American AAdvantage dropped from the No. 2 spot it held last year.

6. United MileagePlus

Similar to Delta's SkyMiles program, the United MileagePlus program uses a complicated revenue-based earning structure that rewards fliers based on dollars spent rather than distance flown. The program also requires qualifying miles as well as qualifying dollars to reach elite status and earn exclusive perks and obtain free flights. However, according to a U.S. News analysis of award seat availability data, United offers a higher percentage of award seats at a lower point threshold for many of its most popular routes. Even with more award flight options, the program's complex rules, which make it difficult to obtain elite status, bring United MileagePlus in at No. 6.

5. Virgin America Elevate

Virgin America Elevate makes it easy for loyalty members to earn free flights, offering one-way award flights starting at 2,500 points. What's more, members are not restricted by blackout dates when booking award seats on Virgin America flights. The drawbacks: Points cannot be used to cover flight-related costs, like baggage fees, and the program is best suited for those who live or frequently fly to or from West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

4. Delta SkyMiles

Up from No. 9 last year, Delta's SkyMiles program saw the biggest jump in the rankings this year thanks to its lowered redemption rates and increased award seat availability on select popular routes. Although Delta maintains a complicated earning structure that requires qualifying miles plus qualifying dollars that makes it difficult to reach elite status, the airline serves more than 300 destinations in 62 countries, meaning members can fly virtually anywhere in the world. Plus, accumulated miles never expire.

3. Southwest Rapid Rewards

The loyalty program from Southwest Airlines offers members multiple ways to accumulate points, including flights, hotel stays, car rentals and purchases made through the program's shopping portal. Southwest Rapid Rewards also makes it easy to use points: Members can redeem points for any available seat on any flight booked through Southwest Airlines without blackout date restrictions. Though Southwest Rapid Rewards assigns points based on dollars spent, the program awards up to 12 points per dollar, depending on the fare class. But there is one downside: Members can't combine points and cash to purchase flights.

2. JetBlue TrueBlue

While JetBlue best serves fliers based on the East Coast who fly to domestic and Caribbean destinations, the carrier offers more limited geographic coverage than other airlines of its size. But TrueBlue continues to rank near the top of this list because it allows members to redeem award flights for a small number of points (some routes require less than 10,000 points). The program also provides unique amenities to fliers, such as family pooling, where families and friends can pool points together and TrueBlue Badges that allow members to earn bonus points on things like social media activity. Though the program only offers one elite tier, TrueBlue makes it easy for members to collect bonus points just by booking through JetBlue.com and purchasing upgraded fare classes, which can be cashed in for free flights.

1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

For the second year in a row, the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan tops the Best Airline Rewards Programs list. The Mileage Plan is one of the few programs that continues to award miles based on distance flown instead of dollars spent. Plus, members can earn miles with 17 partner airlines as well as 11 hotel partners, such as Wyndham Hotel Group and Marriott. In addition to its multiple elite membership tiers (including one specifically for Alaska residents), the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan offers four award levels for mile redemption.
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