How to travel more with less stress
The sky’s the limit for these great programs.
People are flying more than ever before, and they’re always looking to score good deals. Data released Wednesday from U.S. News & World Report lists the nation’s best airline rewards programs, with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan topping the list. The researchers looked at two key factors when evaluating programs: ease of earning (the number of points you earn for a flight), and ease of redemption (the number of points required to earn rewards, as well as the availability, quality, and diversity of those rewards).
The rankings will be a welcome relief to many travelers: According to Skift, some people are so confused by complex airline rewards programs that they’re willing to shell out up to $200 for a travel consultant to redeem their points instead. And the American Institute of CPAs found that only 7% of Americans even use free airline rewards. By contrast, they found that 14% have suffered negative financial consequences from a vacation, even after attempting to cover the costs with rewards points.
And according to market research firm J.D. Power, fewer than half of travelers would recommend their airline rewards program. So it’s important to do your research before choosing an airline rewards program, and choose the one that’s right for you. Start with the five very best airline rewards programs:
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Alaska Airlines earns the top spot for its third consecutive year. “Its mileage-based earning structure makes it easier for travelers to earn miles at a faster pace than with revenue-based earning programs,” according to U.S. News & World Report. In addition to credit card use, passengers earn rewards points from the distance between the origin and destination of their flights. Points can be redeemed for free flights on Alaska Airlines as well as its partner airlines, which include Virgin America, American Airlines, British Airways, Emirates, and more. This plan will soon be merging with the Virgin America Elevate Program.
Delta Skymiles: Delta comes in second on the U.S. News & World Report list — and is well known for its diversity of benefits. In addition to free flights, customers can earn “hotel stays, cabin upgrades, experiences,” and more, according to U.S. News’ statement.
JetBlue TrueBlue: In addition to flights, JetBlue TrueBlue customers can earn points on purchasing “Getaways” vacation packages, including hotels and car rentals, according to JetBlue’s website. You can also earn points by engaging with JetBlue on social media. Rewards can cover flights on JetBlue, as well as Hawaiian Airlines.
Southwest Rapid Rewards: Customers earn Southwest Rapid Rewards points for every dollar spent on a Southwest flight, rather than its distance. Certain airline seats are available only for Rapid Rewards members. In addition to flights and hotels, customers can earn points on certain shopping deals, from school supplies to iMacs and Rosetta Stone software. But this one’s only for the most loyal: Points cannot be combined with cash to pay for Southwest flights.
United MileagePlus: This one’s complicated: By flying United, you accrue Miles, Segments, and Dollars, which can all be spent on different travel perks. Business owners can also earn points through their companies. MileagePlus also holds auctions (with miles etc. as the currency) for travel luxuries such as wine tours and sporting event tickets.
Should you get an airline credit card? If you’re very loyal to an airline or if you often fly a specific route or want frequent free upgrades and airline-specific perks, cards that are tied to a specific airline could garner extra perks you won’t find elsewhere. For example, if you often fly to and from Alaska, Alaska Airlines Mileage members get free checked bags and discounted companion tickets. If you frequently fly around the U.S., but not much internationally, Southwest’s credit card could be for you.
But for the majority of people an airline specific card won’t make sense, experts say. Indeed, it’s typically better for people who aren’t loyal to one airline or who don’t fly a lot to get a general rewards credit card.
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