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Credit Card: People Passing Card (Photo: iStockphoto/Marcus Clackson)

The best frequent-traveler program? If you read this column regularly, you already know the answer: It's the program that delivers the most rewards (free flights, elite perks), given your individual travel and consumption patterns.

Some programs boast more earning opportunities; others are more robust on the rewards side. Some programs stand out for their award-seat availability, others for their liberal award-travel policies. Some programs offer easy access to elite status; other programs stand out for the generosity of their elite benefits. In the end, the choice of a travel-rewards program comes down to what's important to you, and which program best dovetails with your needs and your day-to-day behavior as a traveler and a consumer.

There is no single best program. If there were, everyone would join it, leaving the other programs member-less.

Nevertheless, the idea of a categorically best program is a compelling one, fueling regular articles in the main- and not-so-mainstream press that promise to definitively answer the question. The latest is from U.S. News & World Report, the former weekly news magazine now known chiefly for its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities.

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Airport: Couple Looks On As Bags Are Checked (Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images)

There's a new sheriff in town. Each year, U.S. News & World Report ranks the best travel rewards program. And this year, for the first time, Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan has topped the list of the Best Airline Rewards Programs. Generous elite membership benefits, ease of earning reward travel, and high network coverage boosted the airline in the rankings. American's AAdvantage program, Southwest's Rapid Rewards, JetBlue TrueBlue, and Hawaiian's HawaiianMiles programs rounded out the top five.

On the hotel front, Marriott Rewards was declared the Best Hotel Rewards program for the third year in a row. Marriott earned highest marks for its variety of lodging types and price ranges and ease of earning free nights. Wyndham follows in the number two spot, while Best Western Rewards and Club Carlson tie for third and IHG Rewards Club rounds out the top five. ... read more»

What is it: A soft, 16" tote bag that can be used alone or hook over your rolling suitcase's handle.

Price and Where to Buy: Available on Biaggi's website for $79.99, but SmarterTravel readers can use the promo code: 30FOLD for 30 percent off!

Pros:

  • Comes with an add-a-bag sleeve that lets you attach the tote to your rolling suitcase's telescoping handle, so that you don't have to carry it
  • Can be used as a standalone bag
  • Cushioned carry handles are comfortable to lug even heavy loads
  • Zippered main compartment keeps your stuff secure
  • Interior zippered pocket keep your essentials within easy reach
  • Lightweight (1.9 lbs)
  • Makes the perfect personal item for airlines
  • High performance nylon fabric is easy to clean and durable
  • Exterior zippered pockets can hold your passport or documents
  • Comes in matching colors to Biaggi suitcases

Cons:

None! We love this bag, especially for the zippered sleeve that slides over your luggage handle for hands-free carrying

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Spirit jet in the air  (Photo: Spirit Airlines)

As business cases go, Spirit's is a confounding one. The airline, paradoxically, manages to both draw the most customer complaints and enjoy the industry's highest profit margin. Fuming flyers and ecstatic investors? As improbable as the picture seems, it's an accurate one.

For most of its history, Spirit was more than comfortable with the disconnect. The company positively reveled in its ability to soar financially even as its passengers squirmed in their too-tight seats and griped about the seemingly endless list of fees charged by the carrier. ... read more»

(Photo: Getty Images/LWA)

Your friends' Instagram and Pinterest photos of perfect sunsets may seem priceless, but let's be real: there's a cost to all that travel bragging. And sometimes the "how can you afford NOT to travel?" inspiration can be taken to comedic extremes.

Saving money isn't glamorous, but it can lead to the trip of your dreams if you play your cards right. Follow these suggestions, and the price tag of your trip could drop significantly. ... read more»

Welcome to our new series, in which we invite travel experts to imagine vacation itineraries for famous people—real and fictional, alive and dead.

In our first installment, Italy expert Andrea Grisdale—CEO of the travel agency IC Bellagio and recognized by Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler as one of the world's top travel specialists—masterminds the perfect Italian escape for George Clooney and his wife Amal.

Want to enjoy the Italian Lake District like a star couple? Here's some inspiration.

DAY 1

Arrival and Lunch

After being greeted planeside (of course) and escorted through immigration, a private car will whisk the Clooneys to Lake Como, stopping along the way for lunch at l'Orangerie at Casta Diva resort. Grisdale says the restaurant is known for "cuisine that extols the magnificence of Italian traditions and products."

Check-In at the Palazzo del Vice Re

The fishing village of Lezzeno—just a few minutes from the famed lakeside town of Bellagio—is home to Palazzo del Vice Re, a "lovingly restored aristocratic palace that has been transformed into a unique boutique property," and invites guests, upon check-in, to "start living Lake Como's special brand of la dolce vita."  The couple will stay in the Palazzo's loft apartment, L'Onda, which features an open-plan living area and Jacuzzi with a view of the lake. ... read more»

Kenya - Elephant mother and calf spotted on safari (Photo: iStockPhoto/Dan Kite)

Enter the Random House "Circling the Sun" sweepstakes by September 8, 2015, for a chance to win the grand prize: an eight-day Kenya safari, including air to and within Kenya, hotel or luxury tent accommodations, ground transfers, all meals, and admission to national parks.

To enter, provide the requested contact information (name, email, etc.) on the sweepstakes landing page and press "Submit." Done! Time required to participate: less than 15 seconds. ... read more»

Miles & Points (Photo: Shutterstock)

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

Southwest: 'No New Bag Fees'

Last month, JetBlue's imposition of fees for the first checked bag left just a single U.S. airline without such a fee: Southwest. How long will Southwest's no-fee policy last?

Feds Scrutinize Airlines for Price-Gouging

The country's largest airlines are currently suspected, in separate cases, of engaging in collusion and price-gouging, by the Departments of Justice and Transportation. ... read more»

Airport: Blurred Travelers on Moving Walkway (Photo: Thinkstock/Digital Vision)

Like it or not, sometimes as much of your travel time is spent in the airport as it is in the air. Between long layovers on connecting flights, flight delays, and the like, airports can become a traveler's second home.

In many cases, being stranded in the airport is akin to being condemned to one of the Nine Circles of Hell, or in a mashup of all of them. That's no surprise. Most airports just weren't designed to provide much in the way of comfort or entertainment. They're short-term holding areas for people who would rather be elsewhere.

There are exceptions, however, mostly among airports that handle large numbers of travelers flying internationally. Because flyers typically spend more time in such airports, they've made it a priority to provide a more engaging experience for travelers. Some of them have, anyway.

Which are the standouts? ... read more»

What is it: Alignmed Posture Shirt 2.0- Zipper

Price and Where to Buy: $95 for men and women on Alignmed.com; some Alignmed shirts and braces available on Amazon.com

Flights can be a real challenge for anyone with back or alignment issues. With this in mind, we tested the zippered Alignmed Posture Shirt 2.0 for inflight use and other types of transit that involve sitting in a small seat for extended periods.

Pros: Back issues come in all shapes and sizes, so not everyone will have the same experience with the Posture Shirt that I did. But in my case, it helped me help myself. The fit of the shirt reminded me to sit up straight, which I don't always do on planes. It also helped me be more conscious about how I rotated in my seat. The technology aims to "continually create the right amount of touch and tension on the muscles to effortlessly align, the body, relieve pain and increase stamina and vascularity," and after taking it off after a six-hour journey, I noticed how much less supported my back felt without it.

Cons: Most of the advice we give about staying comfortable on a flight relates to wearing loose-fitting clothing. The tight-fitting posture shirt, by necessity, goes against this advice; but for anyone who tends to disembark from flights with back problems, it may well be a worthwhile tradeoff. It also has a very specific, sporty look. But wearing a layer over the shirt easily solves this fashion issue,  if you see it as such. ... read more»