Joining an airline loyalty program can provide amazing perks, but a new study reveals that all programs are not created equal.
The Points Guy (TPG) has selected Alaska Airlines (ALK) as the best domestic airline for Elite Status. The travel site, which specializes in credit card and airline reviews, also released a tool to help consumers find the best elite program for their lifestyle. Alaska is the only airline that awards frequent flyer miles based on distance flown instead of how much money the traveler spends. This makes earning Elite Status slightly easier.
In fact, travelers who fly 25,000 miles in a year on Alaska Airlines or one of its partners, qualify for the lowest elite tier called “Mileage Plan MVP.” For reaching this level, members receive a 50% bonus on miles. This equals 12,500 miles worth $237.50.
For comparison, the three legacy carriers (United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines) have revenue-based loyalty programs, so things get more confusing. On Delta, for instance, travelers must fly 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and spend $3,000 to qualify for lowest Silver Medallion level. Once there, members are only given two miles for every dollar spent. So if you spend $3,000, that equals 6,000 bonus miles worth just $72.
The other airlines have similar point structures, so If you multiply the number of miles awarded by the airline and the TPG valuation of those miles, you will see that Alaska continues to come out on top.
- Delta: 6,000 SkyMiles x 1.2 cents/mile = $72
- American: 6,000 AAdvantage miles x 1.4 cents/mile = $84
- United: 6,000 MileagePlus miles x 1.5 cents/mile = $90
- Alaska: 12,500 MileagePlan miles x 1.9 cents/mile = $237.50
The Points Guy evaluated the six largest U.S.-based airlines and judged them on eight categories, including in-flight perks, fee waivers, bonuses, airport perks, flexible perks, non-flying perks, partner perks, and reservation perks.
The second best frequent flyer program is United, which actually carries more benefits than Alaska when it comes to busy travelers who fly more than 125,000 miles or spend $15,000 annually. At that level, United is able to offer 12 premier upgrades (six regional and six global) and enhanced award availability.
Delta came in third place, followed by American in fourth, JetBlue Airways in fifth, and Southwest Airlines in sixth.
Finding the right program for you
After weighing the pros and cons of each program, there’s a chance that none of the frequent flyer programs are a good fit for your travel habits.
The fact is, most travelers will fly less than 25,000 miles a year or spend less than $3,000. For these casual flyers, the Elite Status will continue to be elusive.
Still, if you want to analyze your own frequent flyer prospects, The Points Guy has developed an interactive tool where you can input your flying and spending levels and adjust for those eight categories mentioned above.
Ultimately, you may find that staying loyal to a specific airline doesn’t offer real benefits. In fact, it might be a better idea to sign up for a co-branded credit card from one of the airlines. These routinely offer perks like free checked bags, priority boarding and discounted in-flight purchases, reliable perks that you can expect and depend on.
Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.