You don’t need a travel credit card to accrue points or miles, but having one can change the way you travel.
You don’t need a travel credit card to accrue points or miles, but having one can multiply and quicken your earnings
While all airlines have frequent flier programs, targeting one program makes it more likely you’ll accrue status and other benefits. All programs are free to join.
You don’t need a travel credit card to accrue points or miles, but having one can multiply and quicken your earnings. Not all frequent flier programs are created equal, however, and the best one for you will vary depending on your needs.
Here’s a breakdown of the frequent flier programs, rewards, and point valuations of six major U.S. airlines.
United Airlines is one of the country’s three legacy airlines and offers the MileagePlus program. They’re part of the Star Alliance, with global partners like Turkish Airlines, Avianca, and Egyptair. United has hubs in eight destinations: Chicago, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
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The Points Guy estimates that MileagePlus miles are worth 1.45 cents each, while NerdWallet estimates they’re worth 1.2 cents each. MileagePlus miles are not at the top of the charts when it comes to valuation, but United has something no other airline program offers.
The United Excursionist Perk gives travelers a free one-way segment on a roundtrip flight. The rules are specific and include different regions on a map, but essentially, the perk allows you to add an extra stop to your itinerary and fly back from that extra stop with no additional fees or miles required.
The first level of United’s status, Silver Elite, is available with 5,000 Premier Qualifying Points (“PQP”) or 4,000 PQP and 12 flight segments. This status level comes with a complimentary checked bag, complimentary Premier upgrades, and complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in. Unfortunately, United’s co-branded credit cards only earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 spent.
The next level of status requires 10,000 PQP, and comes with an extra free checked bag and Star Alliance Gold Status which gets you into the United Club Lounge. Alternatively, you can purchase a one-time pass for $59/person depending on availability.
If you’re located in a hub city, are interested in United’s transfer partners, or want to take advantage of the Excursionist Perk to see more of the world on a limited points or cash allowance, the United MileagePlus program is for you.
American Airlines is the second of the country’s three legacy carriers and offers the AAdvantage program. They have hub cities in Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix.
The Points Guy estimates AAdvantage miles are worth 1.5 cents each while NerdWallet estimates they’re worth 1.7 cents each. American Airlines is part of the Oneworld Alliance with partners like Iberia and British Airways. The sweet spot for points transfer redemption is with Qatar Airways, in the luxurious QSuite. They are also a transfer partner with Bilt, card that helps you earn points on rent.
American has popular dining and online shopping portals where travelers earn miles by making online purchases and eating at local restaurants. Of the programs listed, AAdvantage are the only miles that expire, triggered by inactivity after 24 months. There is an exemption for program members under 21 and co-branded credit card holders still making purchases on their cards.
American’s first level of status is Gold and requires earning Loyalty Points, which can be awarded through the online shopping and dining portals, flights on American and partner airlines, co-branded spending, and more. Note: most co-branded multipliers net extra miles towards a free flight redemption but only one loyalty point per dollar to redeem towards status. Gold Status comes with six Admirals Club day passes a year. You need 200,000 loyalty points or 125,000 loyalty points and 30 flight segments to qualify.
If you’re interested in flying QSuites, are a Bilt card holder, or want to earn points and miles easily for everyday purchases to redeem on free flights, consider the AAdvantage program.
Delta Air Lines
Delta is the last of the legacy carriers on this list, offering the SkyMiles Program. Delta is part of the SkyTeam Airline Alliance, with partners like Virgin Atlantic, Air France, and Aeromexico. They are headquartered in Atlanta.
Both The Points Guy and NerdWallet estimate Delta SkyMiles are worth 1.2 cents each. Of the programs listed, Delta has the least valuable miles. Moreover, basic economy seats are not eligible to earn miles in the SkyMiles Program, are not eligible to earn credit towards status, and American Express cardholders traveling in basic economy will not have access to Delta Sky Club Lounges.
The first status level is Silver Medallion, which comes with a free checked bag and complimentary first class and Comfort+ upgrades within 24 hours of departure. As of January 2024, the only way to earn status is through Medallion Qualifying Dollars. You need 5,000 MQDs for Silver Medallion and 10,000 MQDs for Gold Medallion, which comes with Delta Sky Club membership.
Delta co-branded credit cards accrue 1 MQD for every $10-$20 spent, depending on the card. Credit card holders get a set bonus of 2,500 MQDs towards status at the beginning of each year, per card. They also get a minimum 15% discount on award flights.
Where Delta SkyMiles really shines is in their partnerships. For instance, you can get Delta miles by linking your accounts and purchases with brands like Lyft and Starbucks. They also have SkyMiles Shopping and SkyMiles dining, allowing you to get points for purchases made through Ticketmaster.
If you are loyal to Delta and their partners, are interested in one of their co-branded credit cards, and never fly basic economy, then Delta SkyMiles is worth considering.
Southwest Airlines marches to the beat of its own drum and has developed a loyal customer base as a result. Their frequent flier program is called Southwest Rapid Rewards. They are one of the few airlines that isn’t part of any alliance. It is not possible to earn Rapid Rewards points on another airline.
Southwest does have partnerships with select brands. For instance, instead of getting Marriott Bonvoy points, you can opt to earn 600 Rapid Rewards points for every qualifying stay. Chase Ultimate Rewards Points also transfer to Southwest.
The Points Guy estimates Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.4 cents each, while NerdWallet estimates they’re worth 1.5 cents each.
Southwest’s first level of status is the A-List, which gets you and everyone in your party priority boarding. Since there are no seat assignments, this is the best way to get your preferred seat. Travelers earn A-List status with 20 flight segments or 35,000 tier qualifying points in a calendar year.
Similar to United, Southwest has a unique perk called the Southwest Companion Pass. This pass is ideal for couples or families, as it allows the holder to bring a guest for free every time they fly with Southwest Airlines for the duration of the pass. You have to designate the guest ahead of time and can switch the name twice to allow a total of three people to travel for free. The guest just pays taxes and fees on the flight, which can be as low as $5. People work hard to time this benefit just right since it’s valid through the following calendar year when you receive it.
If you’re interested in the companion pass or you like that Southwest does things differently, the Rapid Rewards program is your best bet.
JetBlue is a highly awarded budget airline that offers the most legroom in coach. Their loyalty program is called the TrueBlue Program.
Like Southwest, JetBlue is not part of any airline alliance but they do have one-off partnerships with select airlines that allow you to earn and redeem points with other brands, specifically Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Silver Airways, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, JSX, and South African Airways. Their primary hub is in John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.
The Points Guy estimates that TrueBlue points are worth 1.4 cents each while NerdWallet estimates they are worth 1.5 cents each.
Their lowest status tier is Mosaic 1, which includes two free checked bags, three free alcoholic drinks on board, an Even More Space seat upgrade as available, and Avis status match. JetBlue does not operate any lounges. You need 50 tiles to reach Mosaic 1, and co-branded credit card holders get one tile per $1,000 spent. You also earn one tile for every $100 spent on JetBlue, so $5,000 spent on JetBlue flights, vacation packages, add-ons, rental cars, or cruises would earn status.
In June 2023, JetBlue began nonstop flights to Paris from New York City. Their transatlantic expansion will continue into 2024 to cities like Dublin, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh.
The most luxurious cabin option when flying JetBlue is Mint Suites, which features lay-flat seats, sliding privacy doors, and direct aisle access. It’s designed to be your own mini apartment in the air.
If you’re hoping to fly Mint Suites to Europe, often connect through or are based near New York City, or simply enjoy the added comforts like seatback screens on every seat, JetBlue’s TrueBlue program may be right for you.
Alaska Airlines offers a Mileage Plan. It’s headquartered in Seattle with hubs in Anchorage, Alaska and Portland, Oregon. Like American Airlines, it is part of the Oneworld Alliance.
Both The Points Guy and NerdWallet estimate that Alaska Airlines miles are worth 1.4 cents each. They have a generous points accrual process, giving one mile per dollar spent on basic economy seats, a bonus of 25% for upgradable economy, 50% for standard economy, and 75% for first-class seats.
Their elite status is called MVP. To qualify for the first tier, you need 20,000 miles or 30 segments with Alaska Airlines or its Oneworld Alliance partners, with at least 2 of those segments being on Alaska Airlines. MVP status comes with premium and first-class upgrades and 2 free checked bags. Alaska Airlines operates the Alaska Lounge in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and Anchorage. To access it, you need at least MVP Gold, the second tier of status.
Alaska Airlines’ co-branded credit cards come with a single companion fare every year. Unfortunately, miles earned through credit card spending don’t count toward MVP status.
Alaska Airlines is a gem for finding international flight deals since you can use Alaska points for flights on partner airlines, getting you to destinations like Japan, Australia, Fiji, or Tahiti at a steal.
If you’re based on the West Coast or are looking to redeem points for award flights to Asia and Oceania, Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is a great choice.