Best Frequent Flyer Programs of 2020

Airlines want more than just your business — they want your loyalty. But with so many great options for travel, chances are you won’t fly with the same airline every time.

Your loyalty is hard to earn, and airlines know this. To convince you that they are better than their competition, airlines offer frequent flyer programs to reward you for flying with them and entice you to come back the next time you travel. If you’re looking for a new favorite airline, the ones with the best frequent flyer programs should be at the top of your list.

In this article

    What are frequent flyer programs?

    Frequent flyer programs reward you for your loyalty to one airline. Every time you fly, you earn points or miles that you can use for free flights, seat upgrades and other perks that make traveling even more fun. Great rewards and experiences make happy, loyal customers — which is a win for both you and the airline.

    You might think that the only way to earn miles and take advantage of the best frequent flyer programs is to just fly all the time, but there’s another, better way. Many of the best credit cards reward you with airline miles for your normal spending. Whether you choose a co-branded airline credit card or a general travel credit card, you can earn frequent flyer miles for your favorite airline quickly through your normal spending and earning valuable sign up bonuses.

    The best frequent flyer programs

    There are far too many airline loyalty programs to explore them all in detail, so we chose four of the best for our shortlist. They each include a combination of strong customer service, extensive rewards flight options, great redemption rates for miles and the ability to earn miles or points with rewards credit cards.

    Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

    Southwest leads the pack for flights within the United States. Known for its great customer service, generous checked-baggage policy and open seating on every flight, Southwest’s frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards, makes flying on Southwest easy.

    While many airline loyalty programs rely on an award chart for determining how many miles a flight will cost, Southwest rewards tickets are loosely based on the ticket’s cash price — meaning cheaper flights will generally cost fewer Rapid Rewards points and more expensive flights will cost more.

    Southwest has no blackout dates for rewards tickets. If a seat is available on a flight, you can purchase a ticket with points just as you would with cash.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards also features the Southwest Companion Pass — one of the best frequent flyer perks you’ll find. With Companion Pass, you can bring one designated person (your “companion”) with you for free any time you buy a ticket on a Southwest flight. To qualify, you either need to fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year.

    How to earn Southwest Rapid Rewards points

    You can earn Rapid Rewards points with one of the Southwest credit cards from Chase. Our favorite is the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, which earns two points for every dollar you spend on Southwest purchases, plus one point per dollar on everything else for an annual fee of $69 You’ll also earn up to 80,000 points. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first 9 months.

    Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card Learn more

    Delta SkyMiles

    Operating more than 5,000 daily departures to over 300 different airports, Delta is one of the best-connected airlines in the world. Its frequent flyer program, Delta SkyMiles, is the best way to enjoy flying Delta or one of its partner airlines.

    As a member of the SkyTeam alliance, Delta lets you use your SkyMiles for flights on a partner airline like Air France, Alitalia and Aeromexico. You can also earn medallion status as a SkyMiles member, entitling you to free seat upgrades, priority boarding and free checked bags, among other perks.

    Like Southwest, Delta doesn’t follow an award chart for redeeming points for flights. You’ll find that the cost of Delta rewards flights can vary widely depending on when you book and the demand for that specific flight. The best way to take advantage of Delta SkyMiles is to be flexible with your travel dates so you can choose one with the best redemption values.

    How to earn Delta SkyMiles

    The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card is the best way to earn SkyMiles quickly. You’ll get 40,000 bonus miles and 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Plus, earn a $100 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. You also earn three miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases, two miles per dollar at U.S. restaurants and supermarkets and one point per dollar on all other purchases. You’ll also enjoy your first bag checked for free on every flight and a free pass for a companion to use once a year.

    Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
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    United MileagePlus

    United Airlines flies to every continent except Antarctica, giving you plenty of options to use your United MileagePlus miles. While United has seen some major rewards devaluations over the last few years, its frequent flyer program is still a great option for both foreign and domestic travel. United has moved away from a published chart for set award redemptions. Instead, it publishes the minimum cost of a flight on its interactive award map. You’ll have to check specific reservations to see the actual cost of an award flight.

    One benefit of United MileagePlus that sets it apart from other frequent flyer programs is its Excursionist perk. This perk gives you one leg of a multi-city itinerary for free if your trip meets the perk’s qualifications. The details can get a little complicated, but you can use this perk to make your United miles take you a long way. It’s definitely worth checking out if you plan to take a round-trip international flight.

    How to earn United miles

    There are a couple of great credit card options for earning United miles. The United℠ Explorer Card earns you a sign up bonus of 60k bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 10k bonus miles after you spend $6,000 in the first 6 months. You’ll also enjoy some cool perks like a free checked bag and a credit for either Global Entry or TSA Precheck. Another great option is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which earns Ultimate Rewards points that you can transfer to United MileagePlus along with several other partner programs.

    United℠ Explorer Card Learn more
    Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Learn more

    American Airlines AAdvantage

    According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ airline rankings, American Airlines is neck-and-neck with Delta for the largest airline in the world. Its AAdvantage frequent flyer program allows you to fly all over the world with either American or a partner in the Oneworld alliance. This means you can use your American miles on airlines like British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.

    Of the four best frequent flyer programs, American is the only one to still publish a standard award chart. American’s chart is very helpful when planning a trip because you’ll know exactly how many points you’ll need for your ticket.

    Earning American Airlines AAdvantage miles

    You can earn American miles with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®. As a new cardmember, you can earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,500 on purchases within your first three months — all while earning two miles for every dollar you spend with American and at restaurants and gas stations. As an AAdvantage member and cardholder, you’ll be able to check your first bag for free on domestic American Airlines itineraries and enjoy a 25% discount on in-flight food and drink purchases.

    Making the most of your airline miles

    With the major airlines fighting for your loyalty, picking a clear winner can be tough. Each of the best frequent flyer programs has unique benefits that put it at the top, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s best for you. Your first criterion for choosing a program is availability. After all, your points are only valuable to you if you can use them. Check the airlines that fly from your nearest airport to help you make your decision.

    If you live near a major airport, you might even find that all of the programs would make sense for you. In that case, don’t hesitate to diversify for your miles by using credit cards for multiple airlines. You can then pick and choose your airlines based on your destination and the award cost of each flight. Frequent flyer programs make traveling easier and more enjoyable. If you can learn which programs fit you best, you’ll have even more control of where you go and how much you spend.

    For rates and fees of Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, please click here .

    Please Note: Information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® has been collected independently by TheSimpleDollar.com. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

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    Holly Johnson

    Contributing Writer

    Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.