Ready to Fly Again? We’ve Got the Lowdown on the Best Frequent Flyer Programs

This illustration shows a packed red suitcase with travel plans to go all over Europe.
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Air travel is expected to soar this summer and beyond as more people get vaccinated and receive the greenlight from the CDC to travel. It’s not likely there will be many deals as the airlines make up for lost revenue — so this is a good time to take advantage of frequent flyer programs.

Here’s everything you need to know about frequent flyer miles and loyalty programs.

Choosing a Frequent Flyer Program

Every major airline has one, and while you can join every single program (it’s usually free to join) — your best bet is to choose one and stick with it. That way, you’ll accrue all the points toward a single flight rather than getting a few points on every airline that may not amount to anything.

The smart move is to find an airline that stops at your hometown airport and has regular and convenient flights to the cities you travel to frequently. Do you plan on using your points toward upgrades? Check out the perks of that given airline (for example, Southwest doesn’t have a first class section).

Best Travel Credit Card

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: This has an annual fee of $95 and an introductory offer of 100,000 points. You earn unlimited 2X miles for every dollar you spend, and you can redeem those miles for any airline, hotel or rental car. When you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first year, you’ll earn up to 100,000 bonus miles. Or, if you spend $3,000 in the first three months, you’ll earn 50,000 miles. APR starts at 17.24% depending on your credit.

Best Frequent Flyer Program, U.S.

Delta Sky Miles: The miles don’t expire, and they can be used on more than 20 partner airlines. You receive five frequent flyer miles for every dollar you spend on a Delta, Delta Connection or Delta Shuttle flight. You also earn miles on Delta’s partner airlines (these vary by carrier). Earn additional points on hotels and credit cards and even Airbnbs. All points can be used for flights, upgrades and hotels. While this rewards program is fantastic, you do need to book ahead, as there are limited seats available on flights for award travel.

Best Frequent Flyer Program, Alaska or Western U.S.

Alaska Airlines: Earn miles based on the distance you travel on Alaska Airlines or its partner airlines. Additionally, earn points through hotel stays and credit cards, which can be used to book flights, upgrade flights and for hotel stays. You can also transfer up to 100,000 miles annually to other mileage plan accounts for $10 per 1,000 miles plus a $25 transaction fee. One con for this program: Points do expire after 2 years of inactivity.

Best program for Holiday Travel

Got kids and don’t want them to miss school to travel? Then Southwest Airlines is for you. That’s because their Rapid Reward program doesn’t have any blackout dates, and your rewards can be used for any available seat. Redeeming your points is super easy, and your points may also be used for hotels or car rentals. Plus, the points never expire.

How Frequent Flyer Programs Work

Each airline runs their loyalty programs a little different so make sure you read the big and small print. The following categories are what you want to pay the most attention to so that you can reap maximum benefits.

Earning Points

You can accrue points on frequent flyer programs by flying, shopping, staying in specific hotels or by using a frequent flyer credit card. Here’s a detailed look at how you can earn frequent flyer miles by doing everything you already do, like shopping online, taking surveys and dining out.

Spending Your Miles

So you’ve racked up some miles. What’s the best way to spend them? Airline miles/points are worth 1 cent. So a fair rate would be using 40,000 miles for a flight that would typically cost $400. A good rate would be booking that $400 flight for 25,000 (this would be 1.6 cents per mile). Before booking, understand how the airline calculates its miles/points. Some require more miles for desirable flights or times. Note that you can’t use your miles through online travel booking sites like Travelocity or Orbitz. You’re also required to pay for the taxes and fees, which could add up to a few hundred dollars for international flights.

Frequent Flyer Miles Expire

Most airlines’ frequent flyer miles do have expiration dates ranging from just a few months to two years. But some airlines, such as Delta and Southwest, have miles that don’t expire. There are also ways you can prevent your frequent flyer miles from expiring, ranging from staying at a hotel to shopping to using your airline credit card. Make sure you look at the fine print.

The Penny Hoarder contributor Danielle Braff is a Chicago writer who specializes in consumer goods and shopping on a budget. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Real Simple and more.