The best airline rewards programs of 2019

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In a Nutshell

Most airlines have rewards programs aimed at fostering a sense of loyalty among customers. Frequent flyers can receive free flights, upgrades and other perks. Is there a best airline rewards program? That depends on your lifestyle and location.

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Are you interested in earning free flights?

We combed through dozens of airline rewards programs to find our favorites and help you find yours.

Our favorite airline rewards programs in 2019

Best for simplicity of earning and using points Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™
Best for no blackout dates JetBlue TrueBlue Program
Best for domestic and international travel Delta SkyMiles® Loyalty Program
Highest value points Southwest Rapid Rewards®
Access to the most destinations  United MileagePlus® Program

How can I choose the right airline rewards program? 

Many airlines offer a rewards program, but not all airline awards programs are created equal. You’ll need to do some research to find the one best suited for your lifestyle and location.

You’ll also want to consider how good your chances are of earning and redeeming significant rewards.

When choosing the best airline rewards program, there are three factors you should probably consider:

  • How simple it is to earn a flight with your rewards.
  • Whether you get perks other than flights.
  • Whether blackout dates apply to the program.

Best for simplicity of earning and using points: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™

David Feldman, director of loyalty and reward program strategy with Catchit Loyalty, says the Alaska Airlines loyalty program is his top pick for frequent travelers because you can earn miles by traveling on Alaska, Virgin America, American Airlines and several global airline partners.

Through those global airline partnerships, you can also use your miles for travel to Europe, Asia and Australia.

Mileage Plan members earn points based on the distance between origin and destination cities on qualifying flights. You’ll earn a minimum of 500 miles on flights shorter than 500 miles.

You can also earn miles by:

  • Purchasing vacation packages through the Alaska Airlines website.
  • Booking hotel stays with any of their 11 hotel partners.
  • Reserving a rental car with one of their seven rental car partners.

You can start redeeming for flights at just 5,000 miles, and members can achieve elite status with as little as 20,000 miles earned on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.

Elite members receive additional perks such as free upgrades, complimentary beverages and in-flight entertainment, priority check-in and boarding, free checked bags, and discounts on lounge memberships.

One caveat: Alaska Airlines makes it easy to earn and use your miles, but rewards travel is subject to blackout dates. Also, your mileage balance may expire if your Mileage Plan is inactive for two years.

Earn more with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card

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If you want to earn more Alaska Airlines miles through everyday purchases, check out the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card. New cardholders can earn 40,000 bonus miles by making $2,000 or more in purchases on the card within 90 days of account opening. If you earn the sign-up bonus, you’ll also qualify for Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare from $121 ($99 base fare plus taxes and fees from $22).

You’ll also earn three miles for every $1 spent directly on Alaska Airlines and Virgin America purchases and one mile for every $1 spent on other purchases.


Best for no blackout dates: JetBlue TrueBlue Program 

Alex Cohen, founder of Birch Finance, a platform for optimizing credit card rewards, says his favorite airline rewards program is JetBlue’s TrueBlue program because it doesn’t make you jump through hoops. “There are no blackout dates,” he says.

TrueBlue members earn three TrueBlue points per $1 spent on JetBlue flights or earn at least double with 6 points per $1 spent if you book directly on JetBlue’s website.

You can also earn points through more than 40 JetBlue partners, which include airlines, rental car companies and Amazon.com.

TrueBlue points can be used to cover the base fare on JetBlue flights. The amount of points required is tied to current fares, so when fares are low, so are the points needed to redeem flights with your TrueBlue points.

You can also redeem your TrueBlue points on Hawaiian Airlines flights.

Another huge perk: JetBlue miles never expire.

Earn more with the JetBlue Card

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JetBlue Card

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You may be able to earn flights faster with the JetBlue Card. If you’re a new cardholder, you’ll receive 5,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.

You’ll also get three points per $1 spent on JetBlue purchases, two points per $1 spent at restaurants and grocery stores, and one point per $1 spent on other purchases.


Best for domestic and international travel: Delta SkyMiles® Loyalty Program

With 337 destinations in more than 60 countries as of May 2017, the Delta SkyMiles® program is an excellent choice for domestic and international travelers.

SkyMiles members earn five miles for every $1 spent on flights with Delta and you can earn miles when you fly with any of their 20+ partner airlines.

You can start redeeming your miles for flights at 10,000 miles. You can also redeem miles for Delta Private Jets®, upgrades and shopping at SkyMiles Marketplace.

Even better, there are no blackout dates for any Delta Air Lines flights, and miles never expire.

Earn more with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

From our partner

Open up more travel rewards with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express.

If you’re a new cardholder, you’ll earn 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months on your new card. You can also earn a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your card in the first three months of account opening.

You’ll also earn two miles per $1 spent directly with Delta and one mile per $1 spent on other purchases.


Highest value points: Southwest Rapid Rewards®

Feldman says Southwest Rapid Rewards® program is a great option for casual flyers who just want good value and discounts on their miles.

Members earn 12 points per $1 spent on Business Select® fares, 10 points per $1 on Anytime fares and six points per $1 on Wanna Get Away?® fares.

You can also earn points by spending money with dozens of travel, dining and retail partners.

Points can be redeemed for flights, and like JetBlue TrueBlue program, the number of points needed for a rewards flight depends on the fare. To redeem points for anything other than flights, you must be a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Credit Cardmember.

Frequent travelers on Southwest Airlines can earn A-List status, giving them access to priority boarding, bonus points, priority check-in and security lane access, and more.

Rapid Rewards® travel is not subject to blackout dates, and points don’t expire if you earn points through flights or partners every 24 months.

Earn more with the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

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Get away faster with the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. You’ll earn 40,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

You’ll also earn two points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and rental car partner purchases and one point per $1 on all other purchases.


Access to the most destinations: United MileagePlus® Program

According to Business Insider, as of February 2016 United Airlines is the world’s largest airline in terms of the number of destinations served. It travels to 370 airports in 60 countries across six continents.

The MileagePlus® program may have the most options in terms of places to earn and redeem rewards, but earnings are a little trickier to decode.

Members receive awards based on flight distance, fare class and/or MileagePlus status on any United or United Express flights at a rate of five base miles per $1. Premier status members can earn up to 11 miles per $1, depending on their Premier status.

Members can earn up to 75,000 award miles per ticket on United flights, excluding Award Accelerator® purchases or bonuses from certain promotions. They can also earn award miles through United’s airline, hotel, car-rental and vacation partners.

Miles can be redeemed for one-way flights for as little as 10,000 miles. Points can also be redeemed with other partner airlines, hotels, rental car partners, cruise lines, airport lounges, in-flight Wi-Fi and TSA PreCheck applications.

The downside: Reward flights are subject to blackout dates, and points expire after 18 months of inactivity. That’s one of the shortest expiration timelines among the major airline rewards programs, although you can have them reinstated for a fee.

Earn more with the United℠ Explorer Card

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United℠ Explorer Card

From cardholders in the last year

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You can earn two miles per $1 spent on all tickets from United, at restaurants and hotel stays, and one mile per $1 spent on other purchases.


Bottom line

No matter how generous an airline’s rewards program is, make sure it travels to the places you want to go — or partner with other airlines that do. After all, what good is a stockpile of miles you’ll never be able to use?

To really maximize earnings, consider signing up for the airline’s co-branded credit card.

Building loyalty with that airline by spending more with its brand will put you in the best position to earn free flights, upgrades and other perks.