plane flying over golden gate bridge
You’ll soon be navigating the programs like a pro. | Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines
You’ll soon be navigating the programs like a pro. | Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Which Airlines Have the Best Frequent-Flier Program?

Hint: It’s not Spirit.

Frequent-flier programs are almost like gambling—once you start playing, you’re hooked. Only in this case, you’re guaranteed to come out on top. But you’ve still got to know the rules of the game if you want to reap the rewards. Pretty soon you’ll be one of those people who takes enough short flights to earn miles to achieve ​​Super Platinum MVP Elite status.

Now that almost every major domestic airline (except Alaska and Hawaiian) has switched to a revenue-based program (where points are generated not on miles flown but by ticket cost), the differences between frequent-flier programs have seriously grown. Once upon a time, airlines would hand members a free ticket at 25,000 miles—but these days, it’s not that easy.

That's why the money-saving mavens at WalletHub, a personal finance site dedicated to helping people be smarter with their finances, crunched some numbers to find the best (and worst) frequent-flier programs of 2022 among 10 of the major domestic airlines. The study used 21 key metrics—including number of U.S. destinations, value earned by each purchase, extent of blackout dates, miles expiration, and ease of achieving elite status— to calculate a final score based on a 100-point scale. And they did so for three categories of travelers: frequent flyer (people who spend an average of $6,994 annually on airline travel), average flyer ($3,658 per year), and light flyer ($321).

So, which programs topped the list? Actually, it kinda depends. Here are five that came out on top:

  1. HawaiianMiles
    Best for: Most additional features & rewards value
  2. Alaska Mileage Plan
    Best for: Rewards value
  3. Delta SkyMiles
    Best for: Redemption policies
  4. United MileagePlus
    Best for: Airline coverage & partner coverage
  5. American Airlines AAdvantage
    Best for: Airline coverage

But, if you only consider which airline gives you the most rewards value, Hawaiian Airlines comes in first for all three categories of travelers, and Alaska Airlines follows closely behind.

And while the pandemic changed a lot of the rules with loyalty programs, the plus side is that three of the ten largest airlines are offering more rewards this year than in 2021—an average of 10% more. A few other interesting things to keep in mind when racking up miles:

  • Seven major airlines offer miles that don’t expire: Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines.
  • If American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, or Alaska Airline needs to bump someone off an overbooked flight, frequent-flyers may be spared.
  • Spirit Airlines has the highest markup on purchased miles, clocking in at a whopping 233%.
  • Five carriers will credit members with missed miles up to a year after the flight.
  • Six of the largest airlines participate in partnerships where you can earn miles on other airlines you fly.

Here’s the full breakdown (math people, you’ll love this), plus a pretty handy calculator that allows you to type in how much you spend on airfare annually to determine which airline's program is best for you. Not that any of it matters when you book based on cheapest fare, but who knows, sometimes loyalty can have its perks—which you’ll truly appreciate when you have lounge access the next time your flight is delayed.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, former pageant judge in the Miss Florida America system, and past contributor to Cosmopolitan magazine. Matt graduated with a BBA from University of Miami and holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Florida. He currently lives in Miami with his Betta fish, Bob.