The main thing people want from an airline or hotel rewards program is to actually be able to use the rewards. And that’s what U.S. News & World Report kept in mind when it compiled this year’s list of the best rewards programs.
U.S. News travel editor Christine Smith said the rankings were made with a focus on the kind of perks everyday travelers want most.
For the airline rewards, key factors included “how easy it is to earn a free flight, how many daily domestic flights are available, and whether certain benefits like priority boarding and free seat upgrades are available,” she said.
For the hotels, U.S. News most heavily weighted factors such as “how easy it is to earn a free night, how many properties participate in the program, and what kinds of benefits free and elite members get, like free Wi-Fi and late checkout.”
For the third year in a row, Maryland-based Marriott Bonvoy topped the hotel-rewards list. Smith said the sheer number of hotels in the network had a lot to do with that. “There are more than 7,000 across the globe. So wherever you’re traveling, odds are there’s a Marriott you can use points at, or earn points at.” It also doesn’t take a lot to start seeing the benefits, either: “A free night at a Marriott, at some properties, can be booked for as few as 7,500 points. So it really is one of the programs that makes it easy to earn that free night.”
The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan won for the fifth year in a row thanks also to the size of the network, but to the structure of the program as well. “You earn your miles based on how many miles you actually fly, rather than how much your ticket costs.”
The airline rewards fliers with 500 miles per flight, or 1 mile for every mile flown, whichever is more. “It’s a program that’s super-easy to rack up those miles” with, Smith said, and your miles can be used, or earned, with lots of Alaska Airlines partners, including American Airlines.
A lot of chains are offering new perks in the past few years, tied to what Smith called “experiences and tourism activities.” Such experiences can include sightseeing tours of the D.C. monuments, or even Nationals games. “You don’t have to necessarily use your points or miles for that specific flight or hotel stay,” Smith said; “you can kind of add on to your trip with these earnings.”
Programs are also expanding the ways members can earn points or miles: “Some of the programs will let you earn miles or points just on Lyft rides … which is a great option for members who don’t travel frequently.”
Overall, Smith said, signing up for rewards programs is just about always worth it — virtually all of them are free, and many programs feature rewards that never expire.
“Even if you don’t fly a ton, or stay a ton with a particular brand,” Smith said, “chances are it can’t hurt to sign up.”
The Best Hotel Rewards Programs
- Marriott Bonvoy
- Wyndham Rewards
- World of Hyatt
- Choice Privileges
- Best Western Rewards
The Best Airline Rewards Programs
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
- Delta SkyMiles
- JetBlue TrueBlue
- United MileagePlus
- American Airlines AAdvantage