How Understanding Airline Flight Routes Can Score You Better Rewards


Would you want to earn rewards that can only be used at a store that has no locations near you? Of course not. Likewise, the best airline rewards program for you may depend on where you live, what airlines service your local airport, and where you want to go. (See also: Best Sign-up Bonuses for Airline Miles Credit Cards)

Understanding airline routes

Nearly all airlines today operate with a so-called hub and spoke network. This means almost all of their flights go to or from one or more of their key cities, called hubs. If you live in a hub city, then you'll have access to nonstop flights to dozens of destinations using that airline. But if you live in a city without a hub, you'll only have direct service to some or all of their hub cities. That means that if you want to travel to a destination other than a hub, you'll have to change planes.

Most of the time, having to change planes is the difference between taking a quick morning or evening flight, and having to dedicate an entire day to travel. And that's when everything goes smoothly. Every time you change planes, you increase the chances of missing a flight or having your luggage delayed or lost. (See also: Best Credit Cards That Transfer Points to Airline Miles)

A short list of airline hubs:


  • Charlotte

  • Chicago O'Hare

  • Dallas-Fort Worth

  • Los Angeles

  • Miami

  • New York La Guardia

  • New York JFK

  • Philadelphia

  • Phoenix

  • Washington National


  • Atlanta

  • Boston

  • Cincinnati

  • Detroit

  • Los Angeles

  • Minneapolis

  • New York La Guardia

  • New York JFK

  • Salt Lake City

  • Seattle


  • Chicago O'Hare

  • Denver

  • Houston Bush Intercontinental

  • Los Angeles

  • Newark

  • San Francisco

  • Washington Dulles

In addition to these major airline hubs, there are plenty of smaller airlines that offer service from focus cities. For example, JetBlue offers many flights out of New York JFK, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale, while Alaska Airlines has a large presence in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Also, Frontier is a discount carrier with a hub in Denver.

Finally, Southwest is the only major carrier that doesn't offer a hub and spoke route system. Instead, it operates to numerous destinations from each city it serves. Nevertheless, its largest operations are in secondary airports where it dominates traffic, such as Chicago Midway, Houston Hobby, Baltimore Washington International, and Dallas Love Field. In addition, it has major hub-like operations in airports such as Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, Oakland, Phoenix, and Orlando. (See also: Best Credit Cards With Airline Companion Tickets)

How to find out which airlines best serve your city

You could look up the route maps of every airline and compare them, but that would be impractical. Instead, the best tool for this job is actually Wikipedia. If you go to the Wikipedia page for any airport, it will include a table of airlines and the destinations served nonstop from that airport. For example, if you go to the Wikipedia page for Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, you'll notice that Delta operates a hub that serves over 300 destinations, while American and United only serve less than 10 cities each. However, you might also see that Southwest serves over 30 cities from Atlanta as well.

Wikipedia pages also list the top destinations for flights from that airport. For other destinations, you could determine the number of flights between two cities by doing a search on the airline's website. This is important because you may need to know if a city is just served seasonally, or very infrequently, or if the airline offers multiple flights per day.

By understanding how airline flight routes work, you can choose to participate in the frequent flyer programs that best meet your needs. (See also: How to Maximize Your Airline Mileage Redemptions)

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