This is a guest post from Angie Picardo, a staff writer at NerdWallet.
Choosing which airline’s frequent flyer program to sign up for can be daunting. How to earn miles, how to redeem them, when to redeem them—it’s enough to deter many people from making a choice. Below are some factors that might influence your decision and a comparison of the top rewards programs.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, first consider what airlines fly to airports nearest you. Which airports do you fly in and out of most? Also consider where you will stay in your most frequently visited cities, since many programs’ points also come from partners such as hotels, rental car companies, and credit cards. The key is to make sure each action you take during your trip will earn you points or miles. You will also get the best rewards when you choose a program and stick with it, and when you use that program’s sponsored credit card.
It’s good to be aware of airline alliances, since some rewards programs will allow you to earn or redeem points through partner airlines. The three major alliances are the Star Alliance (27 member airlines, including United and US Airways), One World (11 member airlines including American), and Sky Team (includes Delta airlines). It’s important to realize, though, that airlines in global alliances do not always have transferable rewards programs. You’ll need to double-check individual reward programs for details.
Best Rewards Program Credit Cards
To reap the benefits of these cards, you’ll also need to sign up for these airlines’ respective rewards programs. Regularly using these credit cards can score you some major free travel.
||5- Year Value
||Cost Per Point/Mile
|Barclays Virgin America Visa
|Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Card
|Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card
||Free first year, then $95
Best Rewards for Business/Frequent Flyers
American Airlines AAdvantage: With the best top-tier level services and rewards, AAdvantage is high on the list. It includes a massive list of partner airlines and hotels that provides you with over 1,000 ways to earn your miles. You’ll also be able to register up to six credit or debit cards with the dining program. Although this program only gives you the actual number of miles flown rather than a 500 mile minimum every time, it is the best in overall quality. You’ll need 25,000 miles to reach the lowest frequent flyer status, but this is the only program in which miles earned from any source can get you there.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: You might be wondering how little old Alaska Air made it onto this list, but the benefits are not as limited as you might think. This program is great if you live in or travel frequently in the western United States. Alaska Air has partnered with several big legacy carriers, and has fewer hotel partners, but with a decent price point variety. It also offers car rentals, credit cards, dining and shopping as ways to earn miles. For every flight you take, you’ll get the greater of 500 miles or the actual miles flown. This program also offers good flexibility for non-loyal flyers. Your miles don’t expire but you need to have an active account for 2 years. With 20,000 miles on Alaska Air, or 25,000 miles on Alaska and select partners, you can reach elite status.
Southwest Rapid Rewards: With no blackout or expiration dates, points based on flight fare and class, and points redeemable for free flights, Southwest provides an enticing rewards option. With its Rapid Rewards card, points can also been redeemed for other purchases. If you can’t travel light or your plans are subject to change last minute, Southwest also has a two bags free policy and no flight change penalties. To reach the lowest frequent flyer status, you’ll need to take 25 one-way flights within a year, or earn 35,000 qualifying points.
United MileagePlus: With a long and varied list of partner hotels and airlines, eight different car rental companies, two mileage credit cards, and lots of ways to redeem miles, this program gives you plenty of choices. You will earn miles you fly on United and United Express flights, on the miles flown on airlines in the Star Alliance. Those major partners include Air Canada, US Airways, Lufthansa, and Turkish Airlines, among others. You can redeem miles for travel, upgrades, merchandise, subscriptions, and so on. You will have premier status once you reach 25,000 miles.
US Airways Dividend Miles: Though some consider US Airways to be a stripped-down legacy carrier, it has good airline partners because of the Star Alliance and a huge list of hotel partners. Car rentals, credit cards, shopping, dining, and numerous services are all part of this rewards program. For each trip, you’ll earn the greater of 500 miles or the actual number of miles flown. You can register up to five different credit or debit cards to use with the dining program. Higher levels of this program will enable you to earn more miles.
Delta Airlines SkyMiles: SkyMiles has a long list of partners to help you earn miles, including Hilton and Marriott hotels. You’ll receive either 500 miles a flight or your actual miles flown.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance site dedicated to helping people get the most for their money and start planning for retirement.