Other than shopping around, there are few ways to save money on airfare – that’s where the best frequent flyer programs come in. Fortunately, many airlines have created and implemented frequent flyer programs that aim to foster a sense of loyalty among their clients- and reward them with airline miles that can be redeemed for free airfare, upgrades, and more.
Best Frequent Frequent Flyer Programs: Top Picks
Here are my top picks for snagging all sorts of miles, bonus points and perks. A more detailed analysis follows on each program.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards – Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
- Delta SkyMiles – Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- British Airways Avios – British Airways Visa Signature® Card
- United – United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
One common misconception surrounding airline miles is that you need to fly frequently to earn them. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. Most of the time, scoring a stash of frequent flier miles is as easy as signing up for a co-branded airline credit card, meeting the minimum spending requirement, and earning a sign-up bonus. This post aims to explain a few of the most popular airline miles programs that are out there, as well as introduce you to the credit cards that can help you “double dip” on points to score airfare for free or next-to-nothing.
Frequent Flyer Program Details
When it comes to scoring free or almost-free domestic flights, Southwest Airlines frequent flyer program is in a league of its own. Generally speaking, Southwest Airlines is the easiest airline to redeem miles with, and also has one of the easiest to understand redemption policies.
Unlike most other airlines, Southwest award flight redemptions are based on the cost of the ticket in most cases. In other words, cheaper tickets cost generally fewer miles to book, although there are some exceptions since Southwest reserves the right to require more miles for their most popular routes. However, Southwest offers no blackout dates for reward travel, so if there is an open seat on the plane and you have the miles to book it, it’s yours.
And due to Southwest’s recent merger with AirTran, in addition to flying all over the United States, Southwest has also picked up routes to several locations in the Caribbean and Mexico. Currently included on their international flight schedule are Aruba, Mexico City, Cancun, Nassau, Punta Cana, Montego Bay, and San Jose, and San Juan, although that list is expected to grow in the near future.
What to Remember When Using Southwest Rapid Rewards Points
Since Southwest redemptions are mostly fare-based, it is crucial that you shop around when it comes time to redeem your miles. Fares often vary greatly from one day to the next, or even for different flights during the same day, so it’s important to “price shop” even though you’re using miles to pay. That way you’re not spending more miles than you need to.
In addition, it’s also important to remember that, even though you are paying your fare with airline miles, you will need to pay any applicable taxes and fees. For domestic flights, it should will typically be less than $12 round-trip. However, taxes and fees on international flights can run upwards of $100 or more. It really depends on where you’re going.
Earning Southwest Rapid Rewards Points
Earning Southwest Rapid Rewards points is easy once you sign up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card. Doing so will enable you to earn enough miles to score at least two round-trip flight within the United States or to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, you’ll earn 2 points/$1 spent on Southwest® purchases and participating Hotel and Car Rental partners and 1 point/$1 spent on all other purchases, making it easy to rack up some serious miles in a short amount of time. If you’re interested in learning more, here are the details:
- Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
- Earn unlimited points that don't expire as long as your account is open
- 3,000 points after your Cardmember anniversary every year
- 2 points/$1 spent on Southwest® and participating Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental partners purchases
- 1 point/$1 spent on all other purchases
- No blackout dates or seat restrictions
- Bags fly free®
- No change fees
With hubs in Atlanta, New York JFK/ LGA, Detroit, Memphis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, Delta Airlines is an excellent place to start planning travel within, or outside, of the United States. However, Delta is known for its overly complicated award chart, so it’s important to understand what Delta SkyMiles are really worth before diving right in.
If you plan on using Delta miles to fly outside of the United States, you may be happy to hear that Delta partners with several international airlines including Air France, Aeroflot, China Southern, Air Europa, Malaysian, and others. This award chart will hopefully give you a rough idea of how many miles it may take to create your ideal itinerary. All redemption rates on this chart are from Continental US, Alaska, Canada in economy class:
|Level 1 (Formerly Saver)||Level 2||Level 3 (Formerly Standard)||Level 4||Level 5 (Formerly Peak)|
|Within the Continental US, Alaska, Canada||12,500||17,500||20,000||25,000||32,500|
|To Central America||17,500||22,500||27,500||32,500||37,500|
|To Northern South America||22,500||27,500||32,500||37,500||45,000|
|To Southern South America||30,000||37,500||47,500||55,000||65,000|
|To South Africa||50,000||60,000||70,000||85,000||95,000|
|To Middle East||40,000||50,000||62,500||75,000||85,000|
|To South Asian Subcontinent||40,000||50,000||62,500||75,000||85,000|
|To North Asia||35,000||45,000||55,000||65,000||75,000|
|To Southeast Asia||40,000||50,000||62,500||75,000||85,000|
|To Southwest Pacific||50,000||60,000||70,000||85,000||95,000|
What to Remember When Using Delta SkyMiles
Although earning SkyMiles is relatively easy, redeeming them can prove to be a challenge. That’s because, much to the chagrin of their frequent fliers and clients, Delta’s online search engine can be almost impossible to navigate and doesn’t always reflect award travel that is actually available. When you’re ready to redeem your SkyMiles, try searching for fares that are one-way and check for fares on partner airlines as much as possible. You can also call the customer service center for help if you’re lost. Although there are exceptions, most representatives are happy to search for an award fare that makes sense with your itinerary and stash of miles.
How to Earn Delta SkyMiles
Although you can earn SkyMiles by signing up for their frequent flier program and purchasing airfare, the hands-down easiest way to start racking up miles is to sign up for the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. Signing up for the card and meeting the $1,000 minimum spending requirement within 90 days of account opening could easily net you 30,000 miles, or enough for a round-trip Level 1 domestic flight. Here are the details:
- Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 3 months and a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
- Earn 2 Miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta. Earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on all other eligible purchases.
- Check your first bag free on every Delta flight - that's a savings of up to $200 per round trip for a family of four.
- Settle in sooner with Priority Boarding.
- Enjoy a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Terms and Conditions apply.
- See Rates & Fees
The British Airways Avios program is extremely popular for overseas travel. However, many people might be surprised to find that you can also use Avios for domestic flights within the continental U.S.
As part of the oneworld® alliance, British Airways also offers award travel on a vast array of partner airlines, including American and U.S. Airways, of course. Even though British Airways is known for imposing huge fuel charges on international flights, that isn’t necessarily the case for domestic flights. In fact, domestic flights on partner airlines such as American and U.S. Airways can cost as little as 7,500 Avios one-way, plus around $6.
What to Remember When Using British Airways Avios
Unlike many of the other frequent flier programs, British Airways redemptions are distance-based. In other words, the cost of your flight will depend heavily on how many miles you are traveling, with longer flights obviously costing more. Short-haul flights, or flights that travel less than 650 miles, are the cheapest to redeem at only 7,500 Avios. So if you want to fly from Chicago to Detroit, you could fly round-trip for as little as 15,000 Avios. Meanwhile, flights that span up to 1,150 miles long still cost just 7,500 Avios per leg even after the changes made to this program in early February of 2016.
For international flights, it’s important to keep fuel surcharges in mind when booking with Avios. However, you can sometimes avoid surcharges altogether by booking award travel with one of British Airways partner airlines that doesn’t charge fuel surcharges, such as Aer Lingus. Although you may not see the availability for these flights on the British Airways website, you may be able to find them by searching on United.com or calling the airline directly.
Earning British Airways Avios
The easiest way to begin earning Avios is to sign up for a co-branded British Airways credit card such as the British Airways Visa Signature® Card. Doing so will currently net you 50,000 Avios after spending only $2,000 within three months of account opening.
The American AAdvantage frequent flyer program is one of the largest and most popular frequent flyer programs in the world. As part of the Oneworld® alliance, American partners with several different airlines to transport passengers to over 1,000 destinations all over the planet.
American Airline miles are easy to earn and remain fairly easy to redeem. And with major hubs in several destinations across the United States and the world, American is a prime airline to fly domestically or abroad.
American’s frequent flyer program also makes it easy to figure out how many miles you will need to fly to any location from the U.S. This chart shows you exactly how many miles you’ll need to travel from nearly any starting position in the continental United States:
|Destination||Off-Peak Dates||MileSAAver Off Peak||MileSAAver||AAnytime Level 1||AAnytime Level 2|
|Contiguous 48 U.S. states||12,500||20,000||30,000|
|Canada and Alaska||12,500||25,000||40,000|
|Hawaii||January 12 — March 13 and|
August 22 — December 15
|Caribbean and Mexico||September 7 — November 14||12,500||17,500||27,500||37,500|
|Central America, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Veneuela||January 16 – June 14; September 7 – November 14||15,000||17,500||27,500||37,500|
|Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay||March 1 – May 31; August 16 – November 30||20,000||30,000||55,000||75,000|
|Europe||October 15 — May 15||20,000||30,000||45,000||65,000|
What to Remember When Using American Airlines Miles
When using this chart for reference, it’s important to remember that the number of miles listed are for a one-way fare. So, for example, flying from the United States to Mexico during the off-peak season will cost 12,500 miles each way, or 25,000 miles. Meanwhile, a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe from October 15th – May 15th should cost only 80,000 American miles, plus taxes and fees.
And when it comes to those government mandated taxes and fees, it is important to remember that airline miles cannot be used to pay them. In addition, some American partners often charge fuel surcharges on international flights that must be paid in addition to those taxes and fees. Fortunately, American’s search engine does a pretty good job of helping you find flights that fit your itinerary and also lists all fuel surcharges and taxes clearly before asking you to book.
Earning American Airlines Miles
Like I mentioned before, you don’t necessarily have to fly American to rack up a tidy sum of American Airlines miles. In fact, one of the easiest ways to earn American miles is to sign up for one of the co-branded credit cards. The Citi Executive® / AAdvantage® World Elite™ MasterCard® is one option, but there are several other cards that can help you earn American miles as well.
After a major devaluation in 2014, United Airlines miles are becoming harder (and more expensive) to use. However, there are still plenty of bright spots if you are willing to get creative with your travel plans and booking process.
It can be difficult to figure out how many United miles you will need for your trip, which is why they created an interactive redemption chart for their website. It’s also important to remember that United miles can be used on a vast array of international partner airlines such as Thai Airlines, Lufthansa, ANA, and Asiana. Using partner airlines can improve your strategy if you’re hoping to use United miles for a trip to any one of the international regions United Airlines flies to.
What to Remember When Using United Miles
One-way Saver Awards for domestic flights can cost as little as 10,000 miles each way with United. Meanwhile, one-way economy awards between most destinations in the U.S. and Europe can run as little as 30,000 miles each way.
United is also well-known for allowing stop-overs, or extra stops, in cities within certain regions. Meanwhile, they also allow open-jaws in certain cases, or exceptions where you may complete a certain segment of your trip on your own before picking up your flight elsewhere. It all sounds complicated, but the point is, there are a ton of creative ways you can use United miles if you take the time to understand how they work.
Earning United Miles
Earning United miles becomes effortless if you pick up a co-branded United Airlines credit card like the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card. Doing so will currently net you 50,000 United miles after spending $3,000 on the card within the first three months from account opening, or more than enough for a round-trip Saver Award flight within the continental United States.
Creative Ways to Spend Frequent Flyer Miles
Using airline miles might seem like an overwhelming proposition, but it isn’t that hard to master the art of miles if you learn some basics and are willing to think outside of the box. One way my husband and I get the most out of our miles is to fly during off-peak times when it isn’t as busy and miles are generally worth more. For example, this past November we flew off-peak from the United States to London and home from Paris using a total of 80,000 American Airlines miles we had transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. In addition, we recently flew to St. Maarten during the off-peak season while spending a total of 70,000 American miles to get there and back.
Other creative ways we’ve used miles is with Southwest’s Companion Pass, a perk you can earn if you rack up a total of 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points during one calendar year. The Companion Pass allows your “companion” to fly for free on all of your flights, even if you pay for your own ticket with points. By signing up for both the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and the Plus version, and completing some additional spending on our cards, my husband and I each earned the Companion Pass and flew with or without our kids to Orlando, Denver, New Orleans, Cancun, and Minneapolis in 2014.
Creative Ways to Earn More Frequent Flyer Miles
Although co-branded credit cards provide the easiest path toward a healthy stash of airline miles, a ton of other excellent rewards credit cards can also help you build an arsenal of travel currencies. For example, credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card make it easy to boost your overall balances by allowing you to transfer to the following airlines at a 1:1 ratio:
- British Airways
- Korean Air
- Singapore Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
Here are some additional details that help this card stand out among other travel cards in its niche:
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards
The 50,000 bonus points you earn with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card will nearly double your bonus once you transfer your points through their easy-to-use online interface, allowing you to travel more- or perhaps bring a friend or two along.
How to Get the Most Out of Airline Miles
It is easy to look at this list of cards and programs and find it entirely overwhelming. After all, each program has its own unique redemption rules and rates, and it can be difficult to know which program is best for your situation. Here are some tips that can help you get the most out of your airline miles, and thus, your travel budget:
•Choose airlines that operate in your preferred airport- If you want to redeem your airline miles with as little hassle as possible, the smartest thing to do is sign up for frequent flier programs and rewards credit cards that are affiliated with airlines that operate in your area. If you’re unsure, check out your local airport’s website for information on frequent flights and hubs, or call or check with your airline of choice. The last thing you need is a stash of miles you will never be able to use.
•Diversify your holdings- It’s never wise to put all of your eggs into one basket, even when it comes to airline miles. If you want to ensure you’ll have the miles you need to travel when and where you want, it might be wise to start racking up miles with several airlines that operate in your area. You can even choose one that seems like a good fit for domestic travel and another for international flights. The more miles you have, the more likely you will be able to use them.
•Get your spouse involved- What’s better than one miles-earning rewards credit card? Two, of course! If you want to boost your miles balance enough to travel often or purchase multiple tickets, it makes sense to get your spouse or significant other involved. Doing so will essentially double any points you manage to earn and make it that much easier to book the award flights you’re after.