Pros and cons of the 6 major frequent flyer programs
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This post is not about mileage programs and top-tier status. Instead, this is about the pros and cons of the miles that are popular to earn via airline credit card bonuses and similar promotions. Some airlines pass on fuel surcharges, some are great for first class, some have fees for booking last minute, etc.
Below are things you may want to know about your miles before fully investing in a program.
American Airlines AAdvantage
Pros of American Airlines miles
Easy to earn
I think I’ve earned more American Airlines miles than any other airline. Citi has just been ridiculously generous over the years. Current options for earning American miles are:
- Citi American Airlines Platinum Select
- Citibusiness American Airlines Platinum Select
- Citi AAdvantage Executive
- All Marriott credit cards (you can transfer them to airlines at a ratio of 3:1, or 60,000 to 25,000)
Economy Web Specials
American Airlines doesn’t have an official award chart (you’re going to find this is the case with nearly all of these airlines). What this means is that American charges whatever they want, whenever they want for their own award flights. Partner awards do have an award chart (you can check that out here).
The fact that American doesn’t have a fixed price for their own flights is a two-edged sword – it’s difficult to predict exactly how many miles you’ll need for your desired route and date, but you can also find some absolute steals.
Economy Web Specials are promotional fares that are often heavily discounted. We’ve seen:
- Domestic coach flights for 5,000 miles one-way
- Transpacific coach flights for 6,000 miles one-way
- Flights to Central America for 7,000 miles one-way
- Transatlantic business class flights for 20,000 miles one-way
It’s ridiculous the things that you can find with Economy Web Specials. They’re not always advertised, though, so you may find yourself stumbling upon a thriller during your vacation prep.
Cons of American Airlines miles
This is a little picky as their prices can be good enough that sometimes booking one-ways is cheaper than using stopovers. However, years and years ago they actually allowed stopovers on one-ways, and now they don’t. And all things being equal, I try to choose a loyalty program that lets me book a stopover.
Fuel surcharges on two partners
American doesn’t usually pass along fuel surcharges when using miles – but there are two glaring exceptions:
- If part/all of your journey occurs on British Airways planes (an avoidable option 95% of the time)
- If you’re part/all of your journey occurs on Iberia (these surcharges are very mild, but you’ll notice them)
Despite those being two big vehicles to Europe, this isn’t a big deal considering that American has 20+ airline partners to choose from.
United Airlines MileagePlus
Pros of United miles
Stopovers are a major reason I love United so much. You can book really neat stopovers hassle-free online (unlike some programs that make you call). United’s routing rules are generous and allow one stopover and two open-jaws. United refers to this as the “Excursionist Perk.”
A stopover is when you turn a layover/connection into a stop lasting more than 24 hours. It’s basically a second destination on your ticket – and they can be as long as you want! And an open-jaw is when you fly into one airport and continue your journey out of another (e.g. if you were to fly New York to Paris and then Athens to New York, you would have had an open-jaw in Europe).
Read our guide to United stopovers and open-jaw tickets to learn the power of the Excursionist Perk!
No fuel surcharges
United passes on zero fuel surcharges on all of its partners. This is a very rare thing, and it saves lots of money.
Earning United miles is easy
Similar to AA miles, there are a number of great ways to earn United miles. In fact, they’re significantly easier because they are a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. If you’ve got a travel credit card that earns Chase points, you can easily rack up United miles by transferring them at a 1:1 ratio
Here are the best cards to earn United miles:
- United Explorer
- United Club Infinite
- United Business Card
- Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Chase Sapphire Reserve
- Ink Business Preferred Card
Note: You can also combine Chase points from your Chase Freedom cards or your no-annual-fee or Chase Ink cards.
Cons of United miles
Not many award sweet spots
Aside from the open jaw/stopover stuff, United is pretty straightforward. Its lack of award chart makes it pretty vanilla, with no alert-the-media kinds of sweet spots. It’s a good program for beginners, as you can get just about anywhere thanks to United’s array of partners. But if you’ve been in this game for a while, you know there are cheaper ways to fly United than with United miles.
Close-in booking penalties
United used to charge $75 when booking an award flight within 21 days of travel. At long last, they rid themselves of that ridiculous fee – but they’ve now adopted a method of increasing the award price by a few thousand miles if you’re looking for travel in the near future. This is just as dastardly as a $75 fee, in my opinion.
Delta Airlines SkyMiles
Pros of Delta miles
Easy to earn miles
Delta has a slew of credit cards that you can open to quickly accrue miles via their massive welcome bonuses. They’ve even got increased offers through April 28, 2021:
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Gold Business American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card
Great flash sales
Delta SkyMiles deals are abnormally cheap award flights to random locations – in the same vein as AA’s Economy Web Specials. I find Delta’s deals to be better deals most of the time, and to fun destinations, as well. We’ve recently seen flights to Peru for just 9,000 Delta miles one-way.
Miles have a base value of 1 cent
Delta has a program called Pay With Miles. It’s exclusive for Delta cardholders. If you’ve got one of the cards listed above, you can use this feature.
Pay With Miles is a flexible and simple way to redeem your miles for paid flights with Delta. You’ll even earn miles for your ticket — and you won’t have to worry about blackout dates. Using Pay With Miles, your Delta miles are worth 1 cent each to partially or completely pay for your ticket. So if you can’t find an award flight you like, you can simply “buy” your ticket with Delta miles for 1 cent each.
Cons of Delta miles
Delta SkyMiles are a volatile currency
Delta is addicted to devaluing its airline miles. They raise the prices on awards with little to no notice, meaning collecting Delta miles is a bit of a gamble. Joseph detests them because of their dynamic award chart, and also because they continue to increase prices when flying partner airlines.
If you collect Delta miles, temper your expectations for an overnight devaluation.
International award prices are offensive
Going hand-in-hand with the above point, most international award flights cost significantly more than other competing programs. Think 160,000 miles one-way to reach Southeast Asia in business class.
And depending on where your home airport is, you may have a hard time finding business class award seats to Europe that cost under 200,000 miles each-way. It’s a real struggle to get any kind of value for your points in premium cabins. Perhaps not a big deal for you, but that’s a large reason many of us collect miles – so we can enjoy the extended plane rides instead of touching knees with strangers for 13 hours inside a sardine can with airfoils.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
Pros of Southwest miles
Companion Pass is a killer deal
If you haven’t heard about the Southwest Companion Pass, it is one of the best airline deals for those of us who can take advantage of Southwest routes as a couple. You can bring a travel buddy for free. Not just once, but for every flight. It works for both paid and award tickets, too!
You can earn the Companion Pass by accruing 125,000 Southwest points in a calendar year – which is easier than it seems because the welcome offers that come with Southwest credit cards count toward this requirement.
Great sale prices
Southwest doesn’t have an award chart. Instead, its award prices are directly tied to its cash prices. If the cash price goes down, so does the award price! We generally find Southwest points to be worth 1.5 cents each.
Southwest frequently publishes amazing sales on cash tickets, making some of our flights as cheap as 3,000 points, or even a ticket to Mexico for 6,000 points. We flew to Cancun a few years ago for about 6,000 points one-way – but because we had the Companion Pass, that was 6,000 points total for two people (plus taxes and fees). Have you heard of a better flight deal??
One of my favorite things about Southwest is that they don’t have any booking fees, close-in fees, change fees, or cancelation fees. Each traveler even gets two free checked bags, so you’ll almost certainly not pay checked baggage fees, either!
I’ve canceled and changed plenty of Southwest flights easily online and for $0. You do pay the difference in the price, but often that works in your favor. After booking a Southwest flight, I’ve checked again to find lower prices, and online I change my flight to the lower price and it automatically deposits the miles I saved.
Cons of Southwest miles
No alliance = few international flights
Southwest is not part of a greater alliance, and it doesn’t have tons of global partners, either. Instead, your only reward options are for Southwest flights, which don’t have anywhere near the global route map that other airlines have. You can reach Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Hawaii. But if your goal is to fly to Greece, Bali, New Zealand, Paris, Italy, etc… Southwest points won’t take you there.
However, read this post about how Southwest points can help you reach just about anywhere in the world for cheap!
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Pros of Alaska miles
One of the best award charts
Alaska Airlines has one of the best all-around award charts.
First-class lovers also appreciate Alaska’s program, as they have decently priced awards on bucket-list products like Cathay Pacific.
One of the most amazing routes is flying U.S. to Johannesburg via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific for just 70,000 miles in business/first class. You’ll fly to Hong Kong in first class, and on to Johannesburg in business class. This ticket costs well over $15,000, so it’s an absolute steal for 70,000 miles.
Stopovers (even on oneway awards)
Alaska is super generous in that it allows one stopover on one-way awards and two stopovers on round-trips. I often book in one-ways, so this is super helpful for me. There are a ton of great routes to try this on, like a stopover in Fiji on the way to Sydney.
Their credit cards are issued by Bank of America
The fact that the Alaska card is with Bank of America is good news because it’s not one of the card issuers we normally talk about. If you’ve been in this hobby for any amount of time, you probably have a large number of cards issued by Chase, Amex, Citi, etc.
Cons of Alaska miles
Can’t mix partners
Alaska is unique in that it is part of an alliance and it prices each award out differently depending on the relationship with the partner. This means that you can’t mix partners on one-way flights, which is sometimes inconvenient if you don’t live on the West Coast, where Alaska’s presence is strongest. It also means stopovers are limited to the hubs.
Difficult to earn miles
Alaska miles are not exactly easy to earn. There are only a couple of cobranded credit cards to choose from, and their only transfer partner is Marriott.
British Airways Avios
Pros of British Airways Avios
Best short distance/direct redemptions
No one offers consistently cheap direct award options like British Airways. Short Oneworld flights can be as cheap as 7,500 miles in North America (4,500 miles for flights outside North America), while the same flight could be 12,500 miles using U.S. mileage programs.
A more extreme example is international short flights to which “region-based” award charts don’t do justice. For example, Miami to Cancun may be 17,500 miles with other airlines, but when using British Airways Avios, it’s only 7,500 Avios! This is an incredible redemption.
To tag onto that, because Avios price per segment, short direct flights are super cheap. But the ones where you need a connection are the same price if you book each separately or not. Therefore, you can have a stopover at every connection point if you wanted. Not only are stopovers unlimited and free, sometimes they can save miles.
Easy miles to earn
All the miles I tend to use a lot are easy to earn (since I don’t pay for flights to earn miles), but British Airways is definitely one of the easiest miles currencies to earn.
Several flexible points programs transfer to British Airways, including Chase points, Amex points, and Marriott points.
On top of that, British Airways even has its own card. And if you earn Iberia Avios or Aer Lingus Avios, those can be transferred to British Airways, too!
Cons of British Airways Avios
Fuel Surcharges are outrageous
British Airways is a mileage program that passes on fuel surcharges when you use their miles, and the prices can be high. So I only use British Airways Avios to redeem on airlines that don’t have fuel surcharges to pass on. Otherwise, you may find yourself paying $700+ in fuel surcharges with British Airways if you’re flying a premium cabin!
Now you know the basics of the major airlines, such as:
- United Airlines pros and cons
- Delta pros and cons
- American Airlines pros and cons
Remember, you can earn the miles from all the above programs by earning welcome bonuses or transferring flexible rewards like Chase points (our favorite bank points) or Marriott points (the flexibility of which make them some of the most valuable hotel points ever).
So, which airline is your favorite? Let me know your airline pros and cons in the comments.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more posts like this delivered to your inbox once per day.
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