Many of us are restarting our travels in 2021 so we’re sharing our recommendations on the best frequent flyer programs and tips to help you pick which one to focus on. We’re all feeling like we have some traveling to make up for, so the quicker you can earn points the sooner you’ll be able to redeem free flights.
Taking advantage of a great frequent flyer program is one of the best travel tips for casual and frequent travelers. Last year we highlighted the best frequent flyer programs of 2020 by airline with details on the 6 major programs to help you choose which one was best for you. This year we’re taking the opposite approach and highlighting the best airline rewards program for 4 specific types of travelers.
Benefits of an Awesome Frequent Flyer Program
First and foremost, free flights! Many travelers are surprised at just how quickly their frequent flyer points add up to free flights. Even if you only fly a few times a year, if you’re strategic about choosing your flights it will be worth signing up for at least one of these programs. This isn’t even taking into account all the methods to accelerate your points earning like credit cards and loyalty status.
All frequent flyer programs are free and get synced to your account with the airline. So it's worth signing up if you think there’s even a chance you’ll fly with the airline again, and you won’t need to add anything next time because it will be saved to your profile.
Depending on the airline there are 100s to 1000s of destinations available for redemption flights. In many cases flights can be redeemed (and earned) with partner airlines greatly expanding the range of destinations. Points can be used towards upgrades as well like a bump up to first class.
Other than the free flights and upgrades the largest benefit of a great frequent flyer program is the perks that come with loyalty status. Once you fly enough to meet the threshold, or in some cases open the right branded credit card, you can earn a loyalty status that increases the rate you earn points, reduces or waives fees for things like checked bags, and often includes lounge access and free upgrades.
Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Frequent Flyer Program
Consider how you will earn points, how often and where you are traveling, and what benefits are most important to you to help narrow down the best frequent flyer program. Once you have these considerations in mind, make sure you’re strategic about using that airline as often as possible to get those rewards quicker.
How Will You Earn Points Quickly:
The quickest route to earning points is regularly flying the same airline so begin here.
A great place to start is checking if your nearest airport is a hub for any of the airlines you're considering. If it is, you’re automatically going to be able to fly that airline regularly.
Some programs offer points through partnerships with other companies like hotels and rideshare programs. Check the partners available with a program to see if there are other services or businesses you use often.
Airline branded credit cards are another great way to accelerate points earnings but this isn't necessarily something everyone wants to do. Airline credit card rewards are more limited on what they can be used for unlike true travel rewards credit cards. Credit card points can offer a boost but will never compare to the earnings potential of flying regularly, and in some cases you may be better off earning separate travel rewards with a top rated travel rewards credit card.
How Often & Where You Travel:
Some programs have expirations dates on points so if you’re an infrequent traveler look for a program with points that last forever so you can play the long game. But frequency of travel isn't the only consideration here, think about where you travel. 3 round trip flights to Hong Kong offers way more points than 3 round trip flights to New York. So it's possible that an infrequent international traveler could earn more points than a frequent domestic traveler.
Review what’s redeemable and what’s not to see if it's worth it. Certain airlines only offer certain flights for points redemption and in some cases you can never redeem 100% of the flight cost so you’ll still have to pay something for your “free” flight. This isn’t always a deal breaker, just make sure the airline you’re choosing to focus on actually offers flights or perks you want.
Of course, you’ll want to consider where the airline actually flies to and have an idea if it's better to save up for a long haul flight or use points for short domestic trips.
The best strategy to make your frequent flying points worthwhile is to choose one airline and focus on it. If you fly 5 times a year and take different airlines for each of those flights you’re not going to see the benefits very quickly. Conversely, if you take the same airlines for all 5 of those flights you could have perks and free flights immediately.
Use this guide to choose the best frequent flyer program to suit your travels and once you’ve narrowed it down, double down and focus on flying that airline (or their partners) as often as you can.
Before you know it your points will be taking off as well!
Best Frequent Flyer Programs for Business Travelers
Two airline frequent flyer programs top our recommendation for business travelers; United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles. Both are great for fast earners who can quickly rack up the points with frequent short haul flights. Earning status in both programs take a lot of segments so it's much more attainable for business travelers who take to the skies regularly. Both programs offer co-branded credit cards that can accelerate points earnings and in some cases get you closer to elite status faster. If you can attain elite status in either program, a business traveler will really get the best benefits with these programs including frequent seat upgrades and priority boarding.
So how do you choose between the two programs? Our recommendation is to base it off which airline is easiest to fly frequently. If your primary airport is a hub for one of these airlines (such as Atlanta for Delta or Chicago O’Hare for United) then the answer is easy. If your primary airport is not a hub, consider which airport you regularly connect through and see if it's a hub for either Delta or United.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for Domestic Travelers
Southwest only offers flights in the US, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean so its destinations are a great fit for travelers who stay domestic or at least in North America. Their Rapid Rewards program is a good bet for both casual and frequent travelers. Because Southwest is a budget airline there are fewer frills. If first class or booking your favorite seat are important this isn’t the airline for you. If rapid earning potential and easy redemption is important, Rapid Rewards is a great option.
There are no blackout dates on points and they never expire. Plus redemptions start incredibly low for many US destinations, perfect for long weekends out of town. There are fewer perks with the Rapid Rewards program but you can easily accelerate your earnings with a Visa branded credit card.
If you aren’t a budget-minded traveler either of our recommendations for the best frequent flyer program for business travelers are well suited as an alternative; either Delta SkyMiles or United MileagePlus. Just keep in mind both those programs are more beneficial for frequent travelers.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for International Travelers
Delta’s SkyMiles program is great for slower earners who travel internationally or frequent flyers based in one of their hub cities like Atlanta or New York. In this case we’re recommending Delta as the best option for international travelers. Miles never expire so if you only take a few trips a year you can take your time accruing miles. We love the SkyMiles program because the points really rack up for long haul flights so it doesn't take many international trips before you have enough points for a free flight. The SkyTeam global alliance means miles can be earned and redeemed with over 20 international partner airlines with destinations around the world.
The SkyMiles program is consistently rated highly for additional perks and benefits including easy redemption of rewards flights. The benefits are especially favorable if you can get elite status for free upgrades and checked bags. Earning elite status does take a lot of segments and it is really only realistic for a casual traveler when coupled with a co-branded credit card. Plus, when you do fly internationally and connect to a partner airline you’ll still have all the benefits.
Best Frequent Flyer Program for Digital Nomads
American Airlines AAdvantage program is our top recommendation for digital nomads. Most importantly, American offers the best coverage with the most destinations - perfect for nomadic lifestyles. This is particularly true when you factor in their partner airlines. You also earn miles and status qualifying dollars through their codeshare partners like Hawaiin Airlines and Alaska Airlines plus the extensive list of AA affiliated OneWorld alliance members. So if your work and travel takes you to Europe you can earn and redeem with British Airways, a stint in Australia is covered by Qantas, and cross the globe flights can be taken on Qatar Airways.
Yes, points do expire after a period of inactivity but that shouldn’t be a concern for jet setting digital nomads. Reward points also don’t cover the taxes on flights so you’ll always end up paying at least something for redemptions but when you’re working and traveling this shouldn't matter as much, you’ll be consistently reducing flights costs by 100s of dollars.
How has Covid affected Frequent Flyer Programs?
While Covid has absolutely changed the way we travel it hasn’t dramatically changed these frequent flyer programs themselves. Adjustments have been made for achieving status, other than that, the biggest changes for airlines have come from two main areas.
First, routes have been cut to and from thousands of destinations around the world due to massive spending cutbacks. This does impact which program is best suited for your travel style. When choosing a rewards program don’t only look at past or current routes, make sure you’re getting the true picture of where that airline currently flies and where they’ll likely reopen routes in the future.
Second, change and cancelation fees have practically vanished. With nearly every major airline you can now cancel or change a flight a few hours before take off with zero penalties. This added flexibility is great and makes it much easier for last minute planning.
When choosing your frequent flyer program make sure you consider these two factors. On the surface a program itself might seem the best, but if that airline has slashed key routes or doesn't offer the same flexibility as others, this might outweigh the benefits of the program.
Throughout 2021, all the major carriers have made changes to their loyalty programs to reflect the reduction in travel due to Covid. It varies by program but most airlines have either reduced the thresholds to earning status or added accelerators to help you get there quicker. It can still feel daunting to fly enough to earn status but these changes have made it much more attainable in a year where we're all flying less.
Best Frequent Flyer Program Overall
We’re taking a different approach this year. Instead of crowning one best airline loyalty program of 2021 we want you to decide which one is best for you based on two factors.
1 - Which airline loyalty program suits your travel style
It's hard to name an objective winner when a person’s individual travel style has such a big impact on the best option. Factor in how you want to earn points, what’s redeemable, where you travel, and how often you travel combined with our suggestions for the 4 types of travelers to choose the best program.
2 - Which airlines will allow you to travel safely
This isn’t a normal travel year we’re rolling into. With heightened Covid safety precautions and restrictions around the world things are constantly changing, and much different than how we remember them. Nearly all airlines are doing a great job keeping passengers and crew safe during flight. But routes are being cut and certain destinations are handling Covid much better than others. So before you commit to an airline program make sure it fits into your plans to travel safely during Covid and covers destinations where Americans can travel right now.
Best Frequent Flyer Programs in 2021
We’re gradually seeing more travelers return to the skies as vaccination efforts in the US and abroad have ramped up dramatically since the beginning of 2021. We’re not completely through Covid yet, and it will likely be years before travel is back to what we considered normal, so make sure you’re taking precautions to travel safely during Covid.
Balance these factors to maximize your earnings potential and before we know it, we’ll all be redeeming flights again. Having a great frequent flyer program that’s well suited to your travel style is a ton of fun. There’s nothing better than saving money on travel by traveling more! Combine your rewards program with our recommendations on the best travel credit cards and tips to find cheap flights so that you can get back into the air in no time!