Air travel is set to boom this year as Americans tired of being cooped up in Covid lockdown look to finally take long-delayed vacations.
But for many, money is tight, and the bargain airfares we’ve seen over the past year may soon disappear as demand spikes.
Cashing in unused frequent flyer miles and loyalty points for travel could help some would-be vacationers cut costs. In fact, the average airline rewards program — free to join — gives members 11% off air travel spending, personal finance site WalletHub has found.
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“The best way to save on airfare is to join your favorite airlines’ frequent flyer programs for free and then comparison shop for flights well ahead of your trip,” said WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, in a statement.
The site recently ranked the best U.S. frequent flyer programs for everything from overall excellence to best value for dollar spent.
“The hierarchy of the best frequent flyer programs has changed a bit since the coronavirus pandemic began, so travelers shouldn’t assume they can just pick up where they left off,” Gonzalez said.
Topping WalletHub’s ranking for best frequent flyer program of 2021 is United Airlines’ Mileage Plus program, unseating Delta Air Lines’ SkyMiles after its five-year run at No. 1. Programs were scored in some 25 categories, ranging from number of domestic and international destinations and partner airlines to booking fees, membership perks and ease of achieving elite status.
United Mileage Plus earned top scores in categories such as value earned for flyers with average annual travel budgets to ease of advance booking of reward travel and fewer layovers. United’s program was followed by those of Alaska Airlines, Delta, American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines.
Hawaiian’s HawaiianMiles program, meanwhile, is No. 1 when it comes to rewards value, providing $24.19 in benefits for every $100 spent. Low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines’ Frontier Miles comes in second, at $20.99 per $100 spent.
WalletHub also found the five of the 10 largest U.S. carriers are offering more program rewards this year than they did in 2020, “sweetening the pot” for flyers by an average 30%. “Major airlines are also offering more rewards value in an attempt to lure people back into their planes,” Gonzalez said.
WalletHub has developed an online Frequent Flyer Miles Calculator to offer users the best program match based on annual spending.