The commercial aviation industry is a fiercely competitive one. One way airlines try to differentiate themselves as through their frequent flier programs.
The earliest modern frequent flyer program can be traced to Western Direct Marketing, who in 1972 set up a customer loyalty initiative for United Airlines. Members got prizes like plaques for their patronage. In 1979, Texas International Airlines debuted a program that tracked passengers’ mileage and gave rewards based on travel.
The programs have come a long way since then, with fliers qualifying for all kinds of perks like hotel stays and car rentals. But with the rise of discount airfares, it’s also gotten harder for elite fliers to cash in on their status. With airlines increasingly trying to get their most loyal patrons to spend more, frequent flyer members are seeing their seat availability decrease.
The 2018 survey on airline awards availability by consumer research and marketing firm IdeaWorks listed carriers that had the most seats open for their best customers, which is a better barometer for how practical a frequent flyer program is.
“Earning miles or points is rapidly shifting to spend-based methods rather than distance flown,” the IdeaWorks press release says. “Of the 25 airlines in the 2018 survey, 11 now use ticket prices to determine mileage and points accrual.”
Gauging how difficult it is to redeem frequent flyer perks, IdeaWorks analyzed 7,000 trips from 25 carriers on domestic as well as international flights. Here are the results of the survey, which was sponsored by travel-technology firm CarTrawler.
Here’s a look at some of the best frequent flier programs from your favorite airlines:
Southwest Airlines topped IdeaWorks’ survey for frequent flyer programs with the most seat availability. Other American carriers that ranked in the top 15 were JetBlue, followed by American Airlines, United and Delta. Let’s look at them separately:
Southwest Airlines: Rapid Rewards
Southwest’s rewards program stands out because in addition to having no blackout dates, there’s no charge to change or cancel your flights. As the IdeaWorks survey shows, Southwest offers its Rapid Rewards members more seats than any other airline.
In addition to earning points on flights and hotel stays, members can use their miles on any Southwest flight. Read more about Southwest here.
JetBlue Airlines: TrueBlue
JetBlue’s loyalty program is also top-rated as it lets you earn points from flying on a number of partner carriers. The airline’s membership plan also has no blackout dates.
Bucking a recent trend among frequent flyer programs, JetBlue’s TrueBlue points don’t expire. Members can use points to sit anywhere on the plane on any flight. They can also share points with family. See how to earn TrueBlue points here.
American Airlines: AAdvantage
AAnytime Awards allow you to transfer miles to anyone you like. American made the largest leap in making seat perks easier to attain in the IdeaWorks survey. The airline moved from last to #3 among domestic carriers. Like other programs, AAdvantage offers flying with no blackout dates
Members can take advantage of perks like hotel stays, vacation packages and shopping.
United Airlines: MileagePlus
United’s MileagePlus program gives fliers the opportunity to earn points from flying on United or United Express.
The thing about MileagePlus miles is that they expire if you go 18 months without using them by flying or redeeming miles on a United flight or that of a partner. If you have a MileagePlus credit card, your miles won’t expire.
Delta Air Lines: SkyMiles
Delta’s SkyMiles is one of the oldest frequent flyer programs out there. If you live around Atlanta, Minneapolis or New York City, Delta’s rewards program might be right for you.
SkyMiles has no blackout dates, plentiful upgrade opportunities and, for elite fliers, premium drinks at Delta Sky Club. Partners include KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and other airlines.