Once upon a time, frequent flyer programs seemed like a pretty straightforward deal. Book a flight, earn miles, then redeem those miles for a future trip. Easy peasy. But what started out as a marketing effort to reward and retain the business of frequent travelers quickly ballooned into a big and complicated business.
“The larger schemes have become profit centers unto themselves,” explained frequent flyer expert Tim Winship in an article for ABC News. Airlines actually make money by selling miles to partners, earning up to $1 billion a year by doing so. Now, people can earn miles from credit card purchases, hotel stays, and more, and redeem them for everything from flights to gift cards. The result is an increasingly confusing and complex system for consumers. How can you know which frequent flyer program is best for you, or whether it’s worth signing up at all?
The answer depends a lot on how you travel and what you want from a program. Some people want to earn free flights, but others are more interested in elite status and the associated perks, like early boarding and complimentary bag check. Choosing the airline that offers the most flights out of your home airport to places you want to go usually makes sense, but you should also look at other factors, like how easy it is to earn miles, redeem rewards, or transfer miles to other programs.
To help people evaluate which airline loyalty offering is right for them, U.S. News & World Report recently ranked 10 major frequent flyer programs in the United States. The list encompassed all major U.S. airlines, though a handful of smaller and regional carriers weren’t ranked.
Alaska, American, and Southwest all earned strong scores, but other big airlines didn’t perform so well. That doesn’t mean you should write off their loyalty programs, but you should read the fine print closely before you sign up, so you know exactly what benefits you’re getting.
Here are the five bottom-ranked frequent flyer programs in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report.