What Is The Best Airline Rewards Program For Domestic Travel

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best airline rewards program

What Is The Best Airline Rewards Program For Domestic Travel

The all important question, what is the best airline rewards program for domestic travel?  There are so many ways to look at it.  Do you care solely about having the cheapest awards or is having more direct flights most important?  How about the frequent flyer program or how easily it is to accrue the airlines’ miles?  These are all important things we need to consider when ranking the best airline rewards program.

This exercise is intended to look at “free” travel only.  That means it will neglect butt in seat miles and status perks etc. Remember that this is just an exercise and that a lot depends on the airline presence of your home airport.

Categories

The award prices category will be weighted at 3X the other categories since it is the most important one in my opinion. You can weight things differently according to your preferences.  First place in each category will receive 6 points, second 4 points, third 2 points, and fourth will receive 0 points.

The categories are as follows:

  • Award Prices
  • Travel Time
  • Earning Rates
  • Welcome Bonuses
  • Route Coverage
  • Frequent Flyer Program
  • Airline Partnerships

Now let’s get to it!

Award Prices

I could talk to you about saver awards and dynamic pricing etc. but I wanted to take a look at practical stats. I searched 5 different routes on 2 separate dates for each airline. The only hub cities involved in the search was the NYC to LAX flight since each airline has a hub in the NYC area. Each search was for 2 award seats.

The dates selected were 11/8-11/11/18 and 3/21-3/24/19. The flight routes selected were:

  • Louisville to Orlando
  • NYC Area to LAX
  • Portland to San Antonio
  • Cleveland to New Orleans
  • Kansas City to Jacksonville

I would select the least expensive award flight unless a direct flight was close in price.  Any red-eye flights were ignored. The bookings were focused on economy unless business class was cheaper, which was the case on 40% of the American Airlines flights.  There was one United flight where business class was the only option for all flights.

Here are the results:

AirlineAward Average CostPoints Earned
Southwest Airlines23,06018 points
Delta Airlines35,85012 points
United Airlines44,5006 points
American Airlines46,0000 points earned

best airline rewards program

Travel Time

Award redemptions tell a lot of the story but they don’t tell the whole story.  If a saver award has 2 stops it is not as valuable as a direct flight. Here is the average round trip flight time for each airline during my search:

AirlineTravel TimePoints
Delta Airlines10 Hours, 20 Minutes6 points
Southwest Airlines10 Hours, 52 Minutes4 points
United Airlines13 Hours, 9 Minutes2 points
American Airlines13 Hours, 17 Minutes0 points

best airline rewards program

Earning Rates

Award prices and travel time is one side of the equation but what about racking up miles for the award flights?

Transferable currencies are the easiest way to earn airline miles.  Southwest and United are are both a part of Ultimate Rewards.  Delta flyers rely on the Membership Rewards program.  American Airlines only has Marriott since they merged with SPG.

United Airlines/Southwest Airlines

Earning 5X Ultimate Rewards on a variety of purchases with Ink cards is about as good as it gets. Being able to earn 5X on up to $25-$50K per year plays a roll as well.

Delta Airlines

Membership Rewards offers the most bonus categories. From 2X on everything with the Blue Business Plus to 4.5X on groceries with the American Express Everyday Preferred. Low caps on some of their categories, like $6K per year on groceries, get in the way though.

American Airlines

SPG used to be a viable option for American Airlines until Marriott slashed the earning rates on their cards by 33%. Now the earning rates on the co-branded cards are your best bet.

AirlinePlacePoints Earned
Southwest AirlinesTie 1st5 points
United AirlinesTie 1st5 points
Delta Airlines3rd2 points
American Airlines4th0 points

best airline rewards program

Welcome Offers

Earning points through everyday spend is great but the best way to earn gobs of points is welcome offers. How easily you can earn the welcome offers is just as important as the amounts too.

Delta Airlines

Delta has 7 co-branded cards that offer up to 410,000 miles in welcome offers.  Once you include Membership Rewards cards, like the 100,000 point Platinum card, you have over 1 million miles available to you.  There is a once per lifetime rule for American Express but there are a variety of cards to chose from.

American Airlines

American offers 6 co-branded cards from 2 different banks.  These come with welcome offers of up to 355,000 miles.  Marriott/SPG cards are another option but the payoff for those is on the smaller side because of the 3 to 1 conversion rates.

United & Southwest Airlines

Southwest & United have 3 co-branded cards each that fall under Chase’s 5/24 rule.  This makes them the most difficult to get on the list.  Southwest has even more restrictions with the one personal card at a time rule.  You have to factor in Ultimate Rewards earning cards as well but these also fall under Chase’s 5/24 rule.  Having more restrictions on the Southwest cards puts them just below United.

AirlinePlacePoints Earned
Delta Airlines1st6 points
American Airlines2nd4 points
United Airlines3rd2 points
Southwest Airlines4th0 points

best airline rewards program

Route Coverage

Overall route coverage must be taken into consideration.  If you can not fly the airline what good are cheap prices?  I decided to look at how many airports each airline covers to determine this.

AirlineUS Airports ServedPoints Earned
Delta Airlines175+6 points
United Airlines109+4 points
Southwest Airlines992 points
American Airlines950 points

I put a + sign next to United and Delta since I counted the airports on their Wikipedia page.  These numbers did not include smaller airports serviced by their regional partners so the figures are higher.  The Southwest and American numbers were provided by the airlines’ twitter team.

Frequent Flyer Program

We should also be concerned with how customer friendly each frequent flyer program is as well as the overall rules of the airline.

Southwest –

Southwest, by far, has the most customer friendly program.  They offer free flight changes, cancellations, and price reductions.  They allow you to fly 2 bags free and have no close in booking fee.

American Airlines –

American has a nasty $75 close in booking fee that is billed when you book award travel within 21 days of the flight. They do offer free changes to your flight if the departure and destination airport remain the same. This is great if a direct flight opens space later on down the road or you need to change your dates. You can also upgrade to a higher class and simply pay the difference in miles.

United Airlines –

United also has the $75 close in booking fee. Their redeposit fee, only $75 if over 60 days out, is one the cheaper side.

Delta Airlines –

There is not much good to say about Delta’s policies except that they do not have close in booking fees.  Everything else comes with a $150 cost unless you have status.

AirlineRankPoints
Southwest Airlines1st6 points
American Airlines2nd4 points
United Airlines3rd2 points
Delta Airlines4th0 points

best airline rewards program

Airline Partnerships

Airline partnerships are a good way to maximize a particular airline’s program.  I spoke about Virgin Atlantic’s partnership with Delta and how it can save you a ton of miles in certain situations.  Here are the partnerships that each airline has:

Delta Airlines

They have partnerships with Flying Blue, Virgin Atlantic, and Korean Air.  You need saver awards available (if you can tell what that is on Delta) to be able to book flights with these other programs.  If you can find the space then these partnerships can offer you cheaper redemptions.

American Airlines

American flights are bookable with Alaska Airlines miles and British Airways Avios.  Alaska Airlines miles are more valuable than American Airlines miles so this is not a great option.  British Airways has a distance based award chart which can save you miles from time to time on American flights.  Saver space is needed to book the flights. Avios are a good way to avoid American Airlines’ close in booking fee too.

United Airlines

United is partners with Singapore Airlines and some deals can be had, like flights to Hawaii for example.

Southwest

Southwest does not have partner airlines.

AirlinePartner Airline RankPoints Earned
Delta Airlines1st6 points
American Airlines2nd4 points
United Airlines3rd2 points
Southwest4th0 points

best airline rewards program

Best Airline Rewards Program Final Tally

Here are the final numbers ranking the best airline rewards program for domestic travel:

AirlinePlacePoints
Delta Airlines1st38
Southwest Airlines2nd35
United Airlines3rd23
American Airlines4th12

Conclusion

Remember that this is not a one size fits all equation.  If your airport is an American or United hub then they will probably be your best option. However, if you live in a non hub city or fly to places unknown then this could help you make your decision.

It is also important to consider what you value the most.  Do you prefer cheap awards and a great frequent flyer program, then Southwest is best for you.  Do you want quicker flights with a robust route map, then Delta has you covered.

I am sure most people reading this are surprised to see Delta finish in first. I am less surprised because I knew that they covered a lot of ground and that their miles were the easiest to accrue.  That is why you need to look at both sides of the equation when picking the best airlines rewards program for you. Less surprising is American Airlines finishing in last…

Share your thoughts below.

 


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18 COMMENTS

  1. You didn’t factor in the companion pass on SW. I think if someone is a frequent domestic traveler and earns the companion pass, that would clearly put SW on top of Delta. Exceptions being if you are based at SLC, DTW, or MSP. SW has pretty good coverage out of ATL these days. It doesn’t match Delta there, of course.

    • The companion pass is technically considered status and is why I left it off. You could also place it in their overall rewards network.

      It is an amazing program if you are able to get it and it will have you flying Southwest 9 out of 10 times when you do have it. But it has been getting tougher and tougher to get lately. 3-4 years ago it would have been more of a factor imo.

      I guess I look at it like hub airports – if you have it then it heavily swings the pendulum.

  2. I don’t think you considered American Airline’s reduced cost awards and 10% miles rebates for credit card holders

    • The tricky thing with the reduced mileage awards is that they require saver awards which can be tough to find for AA. But if you are in an AA hub they can be very valuable.

  3. Same as above for the delta companion certificate.

    And, shouldn’t you consider the fact that you can earn 120k AAmiles from Barclays through basically just 2*$95 annual fee? I feel like along with that, as long as you can book in advance and are flexible on when you want to travel (AKA avoid Fridays and Sundays), American should be at the top of the list.

    • That is factored in to the overall bonuses category. They are the easiest bonuses for sure but Delta offers 120K with no annual fee the first year. Some would rather have no spend and others would rather save the $190 so I don’t think it swings things in any way.

      Those are some big caveats in your final sentence. I think AA has a great program for partner awards and offers value domestically for first class redemptions but for everyday economy travel it is the worst of the 4.

  4. Alaska airlines takes the cake for me – have been MVP for 6 years, just last year made 75k and will do so again this year. To me there is no comparison

    • If you are on the west coast then Alaska is great but their overall lack of coverage is why I kept them off the list.

  5. I am PHL based so it is all AA for me, despite the results. In a way, I guess there is no downside and the only direction to go is up. (I’m sure someone will chime in and point out that AA could get even worse before getting better.)

  6. I am a United Premier Gold member. Granted it is still far away from a super flyer status, but I know my airlines and FF programs well. There is no program better that Southwest’s. The pros of Rapid Rewards so outweigh cons that it’s incredible. No other airline comes close.

    • Their Frequent Flyer program is very customer friendly and that is why I ranked it first in that category and said it wasn’t really close. They have a great program for domestic travel.

  7. I saw this “Best Domestic … airline” headline and I wondered who needs such a review? I mean really? Who doesn’t know this already? I know the carrier who is best for me these days and it’s Alaska. Yes, I live on the West Coast but flew into DFW last weekend. Flew into Chicago when I had work nearby. Flew into New Orleans for the same reason. Been flying into Calgary from PDX for months. Will do two personal trips to Hawaii this year. Often fly to Dubai on Alaska partner Emirates.

    By the way, I am lifetime Gold with Delta (3.3 Million) and like those people. Flew them for years. Good people.

    It seems so obvious to me. Sorry I am venting I guess. Carry on.
    Mickey

    • Thanks for the comment Mickey. With PDX being an Alaska hub it would make a lot of sense for you. Not everyone lives in a hub airport though.

    • All airlines almost always have availability but it just isn’t always at saver levels. Each flight I searched had some kind of availability.

  8. Hard for me to see Delta at the top. I live 4 hours from Atlanta and out of my local city or Atlanta I can rarely find a good saver rewards flight. As they say in the south, those Delta saver rewards are rarer than hen’s teeth. I do most of my flights to the north on either AA or UA. I can find nonstops out of my little airport for both of those. I use the BA avios on AA and Avianca miles for UA, each at 7500 pts each way. Not bad for a flight that typical runs $400+.

    I am about 35,000 miles short of million miler on Delta and could care less if I ever get it. If I fly Delta it will be using one of Delta’s partners.

    • I was surprised Southwest didn’t come out on top myself.

      I am surprised to hear you don’t find saver awards out of Atlanta. I find flights for under 20K roundtrip out of Detroit often. Flying to Denver next month roundtrip for 14K. Going to Orlando in a week and booked 4 one ways at 10K a piece. I would think it would be even easier out of Atlanta.

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