In 2015, Delta made the term award “mile” a misnomer when it transitioned to a revenue-based program, awarding fliers according to how much money they spend on flights instead of how many miles they fly. It didn’t take long for United and American to follow suit. Only one major U.S. carrier, Alaska, still sticks to the traditional award structure.
So in this brave new world of award miles, which airline will give you the most miles per flight? Well, that all depends on how far you fly, how much you spend and whether you have elite status. Here’s how the five biggest U.S. airlines stack up when it comes to earning miles:
Delta: Delta awards a range of SkyMiles depending on a flier’s status. All SkyMiles members earn five points per dollar spent, while elites will earn between seven and 11.
Delta even has a handy calculator on its site that will let you compare how much you would have earned prior to the program shift in 2015 to how much you’ll earn now. The new system was designed to reward big spenders, particularly elite business travelers.
For example, a flight from
New York JFK to Los Angeles International prior to 2015 would have earned a general member 4,936 points for a round trip. Spending $300 on that flight today would only amount to 1,500 SkyMiles for general SkyMiles members.
To earn those same 4,938 points now, a general member would have to spend almost $1,000 — way more than the average cost of that flight. Even a platinum member now has to spend $550 to earn about the same number of pre-2015 miles.
United: United followed Delta’s earning structure identically, with five tiers of awards ranging between five and 11 points per dollar.
If you want to compare how much you’ll earn on your flight compared to how much you would have earned prior to its switch in 2015, Delta’s calculator also works for United’s program.
With all of the Big 3, travelers either spending huge amounts of money on flights (see: business class) or those flying on moderately expensive short-haul flights might actually come out on top with the new system.
A New York-to-D.C. flight in 2014 would earn 1,000 miles for a general member and 2,250 for a platinum flier no matter the cost of that trip. Today, as long as that flight costs more than $200, a traveler will earn more under the new system.
American: American Aadvantage just announced major changes to its program that will kick in on Aug. 1, 2016. Among them is an updated earning structure that is identical to United and Delta. Members either earn five, seven, eight, nine or 11 points depending on status.
So what if, using the example above, you’re a business traveler who needs to fly from New York to D.C. for an inflexible last-minute trip that winds up costing you $1,000? Well, you can take solace in knowing that while your flight may be pricey, at least you’re earning roughly five times as many miles as you would have two years ago.
Southwest: Like the Big 3, Southwest has a revenue-based earning program, but rather than awarding fliers based on their status with the airline, Southwest doles out
Rapid Rewards based only on fare type. The lowest fares, “Wanna Get Away," earn six Rapid Rewards Points while Anytime and Business Select fares are worth 10 and 12 points per dollar, respectively.
Another unique feature of Southwest is that its redemptions are also revenue-based, and can start below 2,000 points for a one-way flight. So even spending $300 on a Wanna Get Away flight could be good enough for a future free one-way ticket.
Alaska Airlines: Alaska’s Mileage Plan is the only major loyalty program that still has a traditional miles-based system. So, just like the good old days, you still get one award mile per actual one mile flown. Simple enough, right?
On top of those award miles, members who fly certain classes of service get additional bonuses.
As illustrated by Delta’s award calculator, the traditional loyalty program is vastly superior for fliers who are traveling long distances with relatively low fares. For example, a $500 round-trip flight from Alaska’s hub in Seattle to Honolulu would earn fliers without status more than 5,000 miles (compared to about 2,500 on any of the Big 3). On the other hand, expensive intra-Alaska flights would earn relatively few miles compared to airlines using a revenue-based system.
By Brad Cohen, Special for USA TODAY