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Navigating the frequent flyer maze

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August 24th, 2017
View from an airport lounge of an airplane taking off at night with city lights in the background.

Retirement and travel often go hand in hand. But the cost of trotting the globe can really add up. 

That’s why many avid travelers enroll in frequent flyer programs to help offset the cost of airfare. With so many different programs out there, however, it can be hard to determine which ones are worth your time, money, and loyalty. Fortunately, there are travel industry experts who make it their business to evaluate airlines’ rewards programs.

Earlier this year, WalletHub published a report on 2017’s Best Frequent Flyer Program. They ranked the 11 largest domestic airlines based on 23 metrics. Delta’s SkyMiles was ranked the best frequent flyer program for the second year in a row. As for the points programs with the best value, Hawaiian Airlines came in on top with $0.21 per $1 spent. Alaska Airlines was a close second at $0.20 per $1 spent. 

Calculating your travel budget

Of course, frequent flyer programs aren’t one-size-fits-all. That’s why WalletHub has a custom calculator that will tell you the best program for you based on your annual travel budget.

Lou Haverty (thefirstclasstravelguide.com) also likes Delta’s SkyMiles. His goal is to fly first class as often as possible, and he says the Delta program enables him to do that. 

“In terms of reaching that level of status, I still think Delta offers the best shortcut, because they allow you to earn top level status partly through spending on Delta credit cards,” Haverty says. “It doesn’t get you all the way there, but it does get you close.”

Not all industry experts are a fan of WalletHub’s number one pick, Delta SkyMiles, however. Ariana Arghandewal, founder of travel rewards information site PointChaser.com, says Delta has eliminated its award chart, making it difficult to save up miles for a flight. She also cautions travelers that some foreign airlines may add fuel surcharges on award bookings.

Arghandewal’s top pick is Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. She says Alaska partners with many domestic international carriers, which means members can redeem miles to travel to almost any destination worldwide. And she says Alaska Airlines requires fewer miles to book an award flight than most other frequent flyer programs.

“For example, Alaska and American Airlines both partner with Cathay Pacific. American Airlines requires 70,000 miles each way for a business class ticket to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific,” she says. “Meanwhile, Alaska requires just 60,000 miles for the same ticket.”

As an alternative to enrolling in a traditional frequent flyer program, Haverty recommends the Southwest Airlines companion pass, which lets you choose one person to fly free with you on every flight you book for an entire year. You can earn a companion pass by spending on a Southwest credit card or flying 100 one-way flights in a year. Haverty says couples can really take advantage of the companion pass program.

“By opening two credit cards in January, a person would be able to retain a companion pass for two years,” he says. “They could alternate with the husband or wife using this strategy after year two so that they could hold it for a full four years.”

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