Which Frequent Flyer Program Is Actually the Best?

Published On 04/28/2015 Published On 04/28/2015

Frequent flyer points sound great on paper. But once black-out dates, limited seating, and extra fees come to light, they start to feel about as useless as the 10 points given to the “Q” tile in Scrabble. Some airlines obviously have more flexibility and better routes than others -- but who's the best? 

Well, Consumer Reports just released a comprehensive guide to frequent flyer programs, and determined Southwest Airlines has the best in the US. CR sorted through 70 million trips and a pile of US Department of Transportation ticket data to determine the real value of frequent flyer miles on the five largest American airlines, including the most desirable award seats, routes, and which airline charges the most in extra fees. 
Southwest's program recently won a fan vote, and now the numbers back it up. The airline offers 11.9 million tickets to frequent flyer customers, which comes out to 11.5 percent of all passenger seats. And they're not just on flights to places like Bland, MO (a real place). Consumer Reports' analysis factored in in-demand routes, and Southwest still came out on top, offering award seats on 72% of the 25 most booked routes in the country. Those routes include New York, Las Vegas, Miami, and Orlando. The only place Southwest lost out was in routes to Los Angeles, where Delta offers the most award seats to LAX.

Of the five largest US carriers, JetBlue books the lowest percentage of award seats on in-demand routes. In addition, United won (or lost, perhaps) the title for most extra fees. A passenger can potentially pay $475 in extra fees on United. In contrast, Southwest charges no fees, while every airline fell in between. 
In addition to the rankings, the report offered advice on how to book with frequent flyer miles. Booking early is generally the best strategy, but sometimes airlines offer last-minute deals. Specifically, United adds more award seats closer to departure. And harkening back to the Stone Age, Consumer Reports suggests actually calling the airline. Although 90% of award bookings are made online, a live ticket agent can often grab a better seat. Finally, the report advises against buying points to cover the remainder of trip costs, as points average about three cents per mile, whereas redeeming averages out to about two cents per mile. The play: just purchase a one-way ticket with points and pay cash for the journey home. 

Check out the full report here and try to focus on the positives. Just kidding, it's fun to bust on crappy airlines.

Kara King is a Thrillist intern and SoCal native. She is still trying to make sense of this strange, worldwide phenomenon called “weather.” Follow her attempts to live without all that sunshine at @karatillie.



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