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How U.S. Airline Loyalty Programs Compare

Published May 15, 2024, 4:00 a.m. EDT by Soo Kim for Newsweek

Eager to travel more this year? Well, you’re certainly not alone.

Travel is set to reach record highs in 2024, with global tourism spending expected to reach U.S. $2 trillion, according to a December 2023 survey by market research firm Euromonitor International.

Jet-setters will want to make the most of their many air miles, so which airline loyalty programs offer the best perks?

Len Covello, the chief technology officer at global loyalty technology provider Engage People, told Newsweek that earn rate—how quickly loyalty program members can accumulate points or miles—is a crucial key factor to think about “as high earn rates for flights and partner transactions can incentivize frequent flyer activity.”

It’s equally important to consider how your miles can be used. Covello said: “Providing members with flexibility and a variety of attractive and rewarding options, such as flights, upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals, or merchandise, increases the appeal of the program.”

Sarah Donaldson, a senior travel claims analyst at Fast Cover Travel Insurance, told Newsweek: “Another area to pay attention to is elite status benefits, as the perks associated with achieving different tiers of status can significantly enhance the travel experience. These can include priority boarding, free checked bags, lounge access, and bonus earnings on flights.”

Major U.S. Airline Loyalty Programs Compared

Here, we unpack what customers can expect to get by joining a loyalty program at some of the country’s popular airlines.

Delta Air Lines

Last year, Delta’s SkyMiles program was reported to be the most valuable airline loyalty program worldwide, valued at nearly $28 billion, according to data compiled by Statista, the global data and research firm.

Miles don’t expire and can be used to pay for Delta flights, hotel stays and vacation packages. Blockout dates may apply for some flights with partner airlines.

  • Flights: Customers can earn miles on Delta flights and the company’s more than 20 partner airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Air France. Miles can only be earned for flights in the main cabin class and above, basic economy tickets are not eligible.
  • Airline credit card: Travelers with a Delta SkyMiles blue, gold, platinum or reserve American Express credit card can bag around two to three miles per $1 spent, depending on the purchase and type of card membership. Card members can also achieve “medallion” status, which comes with exclusive benefits such as eligibility for unlimited complimentary upgrades. Medallion status is awarded based on medallion qualification dollars (MQD) earned on select card purchases.
  • Other purchases: Some of Delta’s other major partners through which miles can be earned include Starbucks, the ride-sharing app Lyft and Ticketmaster, through which customers can earn around one to two miles per $1 spent.
American Airlines

The airline’s AAdvantage program ranked second last year among the most valuable airline loyalty programs worldwide, valued at $23.9 billion, according to data compiled by Statista.

It allows members to earn miles as well as “loyalty points” towards reaching gold, platinum or platinum pro status, which come with added benefits, such as priority check-in and free cabin upgrades on select flights. One mile earns you one loyalty point. Miles can be used for AA flights and flights with partner airlines, as well as flight upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals, vacation packages and experiences.

Miles can expire but customers can keep them from expiring by earning or redeeming miles on American Airlines or with one of their partners at least once every 24 months. “We’ll automatically extend your mileage expiration date 24 months from the date of your most recent qualifying activity,” the airline says.

  • Flights: Passengers are given five miles per $1 spent on flights marketed by American, with basic economy flights offering two miles per $1 spent, excluding government-imposed taxes and fees. From July 11 this year, miles and loyalty points can only be earned on flights book directly with either AA, eligible partner airlines or travel agencies.
  • Airline credit card: Customers can choose from four credit cards. The most basic one offers you 15,000 miles after $500 spent within the first three months of opening the card account, as well as one to two miles per $1 spent on select purchases.
  • Other purchases: Travelers can earn miles from their hotel stays, bagging a mile per $1 spent at a venue from the Hyatt hotel group. Guests can also earn up to two miles per $1 spent on qualifying charges at select hotels. Five miles per $1 spent is awarded by thousands of participating restaurants when paying with their linked credit card. Miles can also be earned through purchases at more than 1,200 online stores. Get one mile and loyalty point for every $1 spent on concerts and other events booked from Ticketmaster.
United Airlines

United claims that its MileagePlus program offers the most ways to earn and use miles, and the most award destinations (flights that can be paid for and upgraded using miles) among all the U.S. airline loyalty programs. Miles also don’t expire and can be used for United flights, hotels, cruises, as well as shopping and in-flight dining/Wi-Fi and experiences such as concerts, sporting events and Broadway shows.

  • Flights: Travelers can earn miles through booking a flight with United or one of its partner airlines (five miles per $1 spent on the fare). Members with premier status, awarded from premier qualifying points (PQP) acquired via flights flown and purchases, can earn around seven to 11 miles per $1 spent on their ticket.
  • Airline credit card: United also offers a host of different credit cards. Its most basic, the United Gateway Card, offers seven miles per $1 spent on United flights, three miles per $1 spent on United hotel stays as well as 20,000 bonus miles after $1,000 is spent within the first three months of opening the credit card.
  • Other purchases: Customers can also bag miles through hotel stays, either around two to three miles per $1 spent or 250 miles per stay at United’s hotels as well as various hotels from Marriott and IHG. Customers can also get miles via a range of other purchases, from shopping and dining to car rentals and household-related purchases.
Southwest Airlines

The carrier’s Rapid Rewards program allows travelers to earn miles (referred to as “points” at Southwest) through flights, credit cards and purchases at participating venues. Points don’t expire and there are no blackout dates for using points for flights. Customers can also use their points on hotel stays, car rentals, merchandise and experiences including cruises and spa packages. Travelers can also enjoy additional perks, depending on their tier status (A-List, A-List Preferred or Companion Pass), which is based on the number of qualifying flights or tier qualifying points earned.

  • Flights: The cost of your flight, the type of fare, your tier status as well as your chosen payment method will determine how many points you can earn on flights. For example, “Business Select” fares earn twice the points per $1 per qualifying flight than “Wanna Get Away” fares, and A-List Preferred members get a “100 percent earning bonus” for every qualifying flight, meaning they get double the number of points.
  • Airline credit card: The airline has three card options (Plus, Priority and Premier) that each offer around two to three points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines purchases and other purchases, such as hotels and car rentals with partner venues. Each card offers 50,000 points after you spend $1,000 within the first three months of opening the account.
  • Other purchases: Passengers can bag points through hotel stays (at least one point per $1 spent on Southwest hotels) and shopping at more than 1,100 online stores, from Macy’s to Best Buy and Walmart. Those eating at one of the participating restaurants can earn three points per $1 spent (if you opt-in for email communication) or one point per $2 spent if you opt out of emails. Customers can also earn 10 bonus points per restaurant review submitted.
Alaska Airlines

The carrier claims that members of its Mileage Plan program earn more miles on average than other airlines. “Elite” status members, divided across four categories based on the number of eligible miles earned, enjoy extra benefits, from priority boarding to flight upgrades. Miles can be used for flights with Alaska and its partner airlines, seat upgrades and hotel stays. Miles don’t expire but their usage is “subject to certain restrictions including blackout dates and other capacity controls,” the airline says.

  • Flights: Travelers earn one mile for every mile flown in main cabin, premium class, or first class on an Alaska Airlines flight. Passengers can also earn miles for flights with the company’s 30 global partner airlines, including American Airlines and British Airways. Elite members can also bag a range of 25 to 150 percent bonus miles, depending on their membership status.
  • Airline credit card: The carrier’s credit card offers around one to three miles per $1 spent on Alaska Airlines purchases and other purchases such as select gas options, cable, streaming services and local transport. Customers can currently bag an online offer of 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 90 days of opening the account.
  • Other purchases: Travelers can earn up to 10,000 miles per night at an Alaska Airlines hotel and around two miles per $1 spent or 250 to 10,000 miles per stay at other select hotels. Customers can also get around 50 to 200 miles per day for car rentals or up to 1,250 miles per qualifying rental. Passengers can also earn up to five miles for every $1 spent at more than 32,000 participating restaurants across the country, and a range of miles for purchases at over 1,100 stores, including Macy’s, Best Buy and Walmart.
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