What are the best airline, hotel rewards programs? US News ranks

WASHINGTON — Getting the most out of your travel dollar means using a rewards program, and getting the most out of that rewards program generally involves strategy.

U.S. News & World Report offered some help in that department Tuesday, when it unveiled its best travel rewards programs for 2018—2019.

Marriott Rewards leads the best hotel programs, with its large hotel network in popular vacation destinations (over 6,500 properties), as well as its “high award availability and ample benefits given to members,” according to a statement from U.S. News.

The program’s merger with the Starwood Preferred Guest and Ritz-Carlton Rewards program helped it hang on to the top spot, said U.S. News travel editor Christine Smith.

“One of the great things actually about Marriott Rewards is that you can book a free night at some of their hotels with as few as 7,500 points, which is one of the lower redemption options,” Smith said.

Wyndham Rewards and World of Hyatt claimed the second- and third-best hotel rewards ranks, respectively.

Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan held the top spot as the best airline rewards program for the fourth year in a row. U.S. News cited “its large network of flight routes to popular destinations and its options for cashing in accrued miles for free flights.”

Another Alaskan plus is its mileage-based earning structure.

“A lot of the bigger carriers, you have to spend a certain amount. And then the more you spend, the more miles you get. That’s not the case with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan,” Smith said. Benefits for some members include free checked bags and complimentary upgrades.

Delta SkyMiles and JetBlue TrueBlue round out U.S. News’s top three frequent-flyer programs.

U.S. News evaluated both the hotel and airline categories using a methodology that takes into account benefits, network coverage and “a strong emphasis on the ease of earning and redeeming free flights or nights.” Also factored in: property diversity for hotels and quality scores for airlines.

Rewards programs, Smith said, have evolved with the advent of ride-hailing services and hotel alternatives.

“In the past few years, something interesting has been happening in that a lot of these rewards programs are offering more ways for members to earn and redeem points or miles,” she said. “For example, Delta SkyMiles and JetBlue TrueBlue give members the opportunity to accrue miles or points on Lyft rides. Delta also offers miles for stays at Airbnb’s.”

Smith cautions that some programs have limited options outside the U.S., so international travelers should look for programs with a large network.

But even if you’re an occasional traveler, Smith said, membership in a travel rewards program has its privileges.

“With basic membership, some of the programs offer free Wi-Fi access, free checked bags, that sort of thing,” she said. “So even if you’re not traveling with them or staying with them that often, it’s really a good option to just sign up for them, because you never know what kind of benefits you might get.”

Check out the full rankings in the gallery below.

Hands of hotel maid putting flowers on the stack of towels

Best Hotel Rewards No. 16: I Prefer Hotel Rewards (Getty Images/iStockphoto/DragonImages) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/DragonImages)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrjouVym3wU
Opened door of hotel room in morning with copy space, sunlight effect.

Best Hotel Rewards No. 14: Omni Select Guest (Getty Images/iStockphoto/oatawa) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/oatawa)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 13: Stash Hotel Rewards (Courtesy Stash Hotel Rewards)

Bed maid-up with clean white pillows and bed sheets in beauty room. Close-up. Lens flair in sunlight.

Best Hotel Rewards No. 12: Sonesta Travel Pass (Getty Images/iStockphoto/whyframestudio) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/whyframestudio)

This Wednesday, March 30, 2016, photo shows the Hilton hotel in Richmond, Va. On Tuesday, May 2, 2017, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. reports earnings. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 11: Hilton Honors (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (AP/Steve Helber)

Pool terrace with sea view 3d rendering image,A place surrounded by the sea ,There are wood floor,rattan sunbed ,fabric umbrella

Best Hotel Rewards No. 10: Leaders Club (Getty Images/iStockphoto/runna10) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/runna10)

Beautiful hotel room suite, elegant and luxury with modern style, wooden walls and great view of the city. 3D Photorealistic render

Best Hotel Rewards No. 9: INVITED (Getty Images/iStockphoto/MattSchia) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/MattSchia_)

Interviews of hotel room

Best Hotel Rewards No. 8: La Quinta Returns (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Eugeneonline) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Eugeneonline)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 7: Radisson Rewards (Courtesy Radisson/Jesse Durocher) (Jesse Durocher)

A renovated Holiday Inn is shown Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 in New York. IHG's Holiday Inn chain, established in 1952, is one of the most recognizable hotel brands in the world - a chain associated more with old-fashioned functionality than innovation.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 6: IHG Rewards Club (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark Lennihan)

An exterior view of the Best Western Inn Suites Hotel that will rent out suites when availible that were purchased by investors, shown Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006, in Phoenix. As the real estate market softens, more condo-hotels, an apartment that can be rented out like a hotel room when the owner is out of town, are being built, and not just in major cities.  (AP Photo/Roy Dabner)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 5: Best Western Rewards (AP Photo/Roy Dabner) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/ROY DABNER)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 4: Choice Privileges (Courtesy Choice Hotels)

Signs for the Hyatt Place hotel mark its location on Thursday, May 4, 2017 in Carnberry, Pa., Butler County. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 3: World of Hyatt (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) (AP/Keith Srakocic)

This photo made on Monday, March 20, 2017, shows the Wyndham Grand hotel, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Best Hotel Rewards No. 2: Wyndham Rewards (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) (AP/Keith Srakocic)

A Spirit Airlines Airbus Industrie A320 takes off from Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Best Airline Rewards No. 9: Free Spirit (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (AP/Wilfredo Lee)

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, icicles can be seen on a Hawaiian Airlines plane as others are de-iced in the background, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in Seattle. JetBlue Airways Corp. and Hawaiian Airlines have formed a partnership Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, that will allow passengers to fly on both carriers' flights on a single ticket.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Best Airline Rewards No. 8: HawaiianMiles (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) (AP/Ted S. Warren)

ADDS CLARIFICATION- FILE - In this May 15, 2017, photo, Frontier Airlines jetliners sit stacked at gates on the A Concourse at Denver International Airport in Denver. The U.S. government has fined Frontier Airlines $1.5 million for keeping passengers stuck on a dozen grounded aircraft for sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours during a snowstorm at the Denver airport last December. But the federal Department of Transportation said Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, it will forgive $900,000 of that because of compensation the airline says it paid to passengers. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Best Airline Rewards No. 7: Frontier Miles (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) (AP/David Zalubowski)

United has added more flights from Dulles to Florida cities on the Gulf Coast. 
In this photo, a United Airlines commercial jet sits at a gate at Terminal C of Newark Liberty International Airport, Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Best Airline Rewards No. 6: United MileagePlus (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (AP/Julio Cortez)

Southwest Airlines aircraft sit at the terminal, Thursday, July 19, 2018, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Best Airline Rewards No. 5: Southwest Rapid Rewards (AP Photo/Mike Stewart) (AP/Mike Stewart)

In this June 16, 2018 photo, American Airlines aircrafts are seen at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, Texas. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Best Airline Rewards No. 4: American Airlines AAdvantage (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato) (AP/Kiichiro Sato)

FILE- In this March 16, 2017, file photo, a Jet Blue airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. JetBlue Airways Corp. reports earnings Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Best Airline Rewards No. 3: JetBlue TrueBlue (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) (AP/Seth Wenig)

Travelers wait in line at the Delta Air Lines counter at Logan International Airport in Boston, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Best Airline Rewards No. 2: Delta SkyMiles (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) (AP/Charles Krupa)

An Alaska Airlines plane taxis Friday, April 13, 2018, at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Best Airline Rewards No. 1: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (AP/Ted S. Warren)

(1/25)
Hands of hotel maid putting flowers on the stack of towels
Opened door of hotel room in morning with copy space, sunlight effect.
Bed maid-up with clean white pillows and bed sheets in beauty room. Close-up. Lens flair in sunlight.
This Wednesday, March 30, 2016, photo shows the Hilton hotel in Richmond, Va. On Tuesday, May 2, 2017, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. reports earnings. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Pool terrace with sea view 3d rendering image,A place surrounded by the sea ,There are wood floor,rattan sunbed ,fabric umbrella
Beautiful hotel room suite, elegant and luxury with modern style, wooden walls and great view of the city. 3D Photorealistic render
Interviews of hotel room
A renovated Holiday Inn is shown Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 in New York. IHG's Holiday Inn chain, established in 1952, is one of the most recognizable hotel brands in the world - a chain associated more with old-fashioned functionality than innovation.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
An exterior view of the Best Western Inn Suites Hotel that will rent out suites when availible that were purchased by investors, shown Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006, in Phoenix. As the real estate market softens, more condo-hotels, an apartment that can be rented out like a hotel room when the owner is out of town, are being built, and not just in major cities.  (AP Photo/Roy Dabner)
Signs for the Hyatt Place hotel mark its location on Thursday, May 4, 2017 in Carnberry, Pa., Butler County. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
This photo made on Monday, March 20, 2017, shows the Wyndham Grand hotel, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
A Spirit Airlines Airbus Industrie A320 takes off from Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, icicles can be seen on a Hawaiian Airlines plane as others are de-iced in the background, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in Seattle. JetBlue Airways Corp. and Hawaiian Airlines have formed a partnership Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, that will allow passengers to fly on both carriers' flights on a single ticket.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
ADDS CLARIFICATION- FILE - In this May 15, 2017, photo, Frontier Airlines jetliners sit stacked at gates on the A Concourse at Denver International Airport in Denver. The U.S. government has fined Frontier Airlines $1.5 million for keeping passengers stuck on a dozen grounded aircraft for sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours during a snowstorm at the Denver airport last December. But the federal Department of Transportation said Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, it will forgive $900,000 of that because of compensation the airline says it paid to passengers. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
United has added more flights from Dulles to Florida cities on the Gulf Coast. 
In this photo, a United Airlines commercial jet sits at a gate at Terminal C of Newark Liberty International Airport, Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Southwest Airlines aircraft sit at the terminal, Thursday, July 19, 2018, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
In this June 16, 2018 photo, American Airlines aircrafts are seen at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, Texas. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
FILE- In this March 16, 2017, file photo, a Jet Blue airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. JetBlue Airways Corp. reports earnings Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Travelers wait in line at the Delta Air Lines counter at Logan International Airport in Boston, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
An Alaska Airlines plane taxis Friday, April 13, 2018, at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: The slideshow of top hotel rewards programs has been updated to reflect a data tweak from U.S. News that caused some of the rankings to be re-ordered. 


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