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Best Major Airline Frequent Flyer Programs of 2017

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which SmartAsset.com receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). SmartAsset.com does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.
Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

Picking the right credit card can be hard. You have so many options to choose from, ranging from big earning rewards cards to simple fee-free cards. The right credit card for you will depend on your spending habits. But every frequent flyer knows that an airline card can help you save on flying, one of the biggest and most expensive categories. Check out some of the frequent flyer programs from the world’s most-trusted airlines.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

This rewards program is great for the world travelers among us. United has one of the biggest networks of any airline, serving 78 domestic destinations and 108 international destinations in 73 countries. The miles you earn as a member can be used on any United flight, as well as flights on any of the other airlines in the Star Alliance. United Airlines also partners with more than 1,500 hotels worldwide, so you can earn rewards as you stay in top hotels and resorts all over the world. For a limited time, you will also have the chance to receive 40,000 bonus miles by spending $2,000 in the first three months of being a cardholder.

Highlights: United and its partners fly to more than 1,000 destinations worldwide and you can earn and redeem miles on more than 28 different airlines.

Keep in mind: United has mixed customer service ratings and United miles recently went through devaluation.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

The United Airlines card is our favorite when it comes to major American airlines. Cardholders earn two miles per dollar spent on United ticket purchases and one mile per dollar spent everywhere else. You will also have the chance to receive 40,000 bonus miles by spending $2,000 during your first three months as a cardholder.

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card comes with great perks, like you and one companion checking your bag free (a savings of up to $100 per round trip), priority boarding and two free United Club℠ passes per year. Plus, you’ll never be charged foreign transaction fees. And as long as your account is open, your points never expire.

Annual fee: $0 introductory fee for the first year, then $95

Credit needed: Excellent

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 miles

Delta SkyMiles®

Best Major Airline Frequent Flyer Programs of 2017

Delta’s loyalty program is especially great for those who fly from Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, L.A. and New York. For every dollar you spend on Delta flights, you earn five SkyMiles. SkyMiles members also earn miles for flights with any of Delta’s partner airlines, like KLM, Air France and Virgin Atlantic. You can also earn miles on everyday purchases made with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express. Miles can be redeemed for air travel, upgrades and even merchandise through the SkyMiles Marketplace. Plus, Medallion members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades.

Highlights: Miles can be earned and used with more than 20 participating airlines, and points never expire.

Keep in mind: There’s limited seating available for reward travel, and you’ll have to fly and spend a lot to reach Medallion status.

Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express

Regular Delta flyers will want to check out this card. Once you have the card, your next trip won’t be far since you can earn 30,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in purchases on your card in the first three months. Beyond the bonus, you’ll earn two miles per dollar spent on purchases made directly with Delta and one mile per dollar spent on anything else. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express also provides Delta Sky Club® lounge access at a discounted rate of $29 a person. And though some partners don’t honor the same deal, there are no blackout dates for cardholders using miles on Delta flights.

Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95

Credit needed: Good – Excellent

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 points

American Airlines AAdvantage®

Members of the AAdvantage® program earn miles whenever they fly on American and its 34 airline partners. You can use miles toward flights to more than 1,000 destinations worldwide, upgrades, vacations, car rentals, hotels and other retail products. You can also use miles for rewards like free flights, gift cards and membership club dues.

The program has four elite status levels: AAdvantage Gold, AAdvantage Platinum, AAdvantage Executive Platinum and AAdvantage Platinum Pro. You can qualify for these cards based on your purchase pattern. Elite perks include free checked bags, a 25% elite mileage bonus and 50% off main cabin extra seats.

Highlights: There are no blackout dates and so long as a seat is available, cardholders can book it using miles.

Keep in mind: Your points expire if you don’t earn or redeem miles in 18 months.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard® provides an offer of 50,000 miles as long as you spend at least $2,500 in the first three months. Cardholders earn two miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and one mile for every other purchase. When you redeem your miles for flights, you can receive 10% of those miles back on up to 10,000 miles per year.

Your AAdvantage® Platinum Select® card provides you with priority boarding on American Airlines flights. You’ll also get your first bag checked free for you and up to four travel companions. When you’re flying on an American Airlines flight, you’ll even receive 25% off in-flight food and beverage purchases when you use your card.

Annual fee: $95, waived for the first 12 months

Credit needed: Good – Excellent

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®

Best Major Airline Frequent Flyer Programs of 2017

Perhaps best known for its unique seating policy, in which guests seat themselves based on boarding group instead of being assigned a seat, Southwest has been a popular domestic airline ever since flights began in 1971. Their Rapid Rewards® program is a great option for those who fly often within the U.S. and Mexico, but spend less than $10,000 a year. Rapid Rewards points work toward any Southwest flight. If you are a Southwest credit card holder, you can also use Rapid Rewards towards the cost of hotel stays, cruises, car rentals and gift cards.

Highlights: There are unlimited rewards seats on every flight, no blackout dates and points no longer expire.

Keep in mind: Southwest flies to fewer destinations than most other airlines.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

The biggest perk of Southwest Rapid Rewards® card is probably the sign-up bonus. If you spend $1,000 in your first three months, you’ll earn 40,000 points. Members earn two points for every dollar spent on Southwest® purchases or on purchases with the airline’s hotel, car rental and retail partners. You earn one point for every dollar spent elsewhere. You’ll also get 3,000 bonus points each year on the anniversary of your card opening.

When flying with Southwest, your first and second checked bags will be free of charge. Plus, there’s an unlimited Companion Pass, where you can bring a friend to fly with you for free for up to two years. You must fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 110,000 points in a calendar year to earn the Companion Pass.

Annual fee: $69

Credit needed: Excellent

Sign-up bonus: 40,000 points

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/nateemee, ©iStock.com/martin-dm, ©iStock.com/littlehenrabi

Editorial Note: This content is not provided by the credit card issuer. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are from companies from which SmartAsset.com receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). SmartAsset.com does not include all card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Liz Smith Liz Smith is a graduate of New York University and has been passionate about helping people make better financial decisions since her college days. Liz has been writing for SmartAsset for more than four years. Her areas of expertise include retirement, credit cards and savings. She also focuses on all money issues for millennials. Liz's articles have been featured across the web, including on AOL Finance, Business Insider and WNBC. The biggest personal finance mistake she sees people making: not contributing to retirement early in their careers.
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