“What’s the best travel loyalty program?” That’s a question I am asked often. My response, which doesn’t satisfy everyone, is unvarying: There is no single best program; there’s only the program that works best for you, given your travel and consumption patterns.
Some programs are better on the earning side, featuring more and more generous opportunities to accumulate points. Other programs are better on the redemption side, making more awards available at better prices. Still other programs excel in their elite programs, offering more and better perks for their best customers. And so on.
If there were a categorically best program, everyone would be a member of it. And that’s hardly the case.
Nevertheless, it’s become a standard editorial ploy in the publishing world to devise a series of metrics for evaluating loyalty programs, and use those filters to generate rankings of the programs, including a “best of” award, much the way Consumer Reports rates and ranks refrigerators and compact cars.
The latest attempt to separate the best from the rest comes from U.S. News & World Report, the former news weekly whose annual “Best Colleges” rankings have become its best-known product.
In its just-released “Best Airline Rewards Programs” ratings, U.S. News employed a scoring algorithm based on six factors, weighted as follows:
- 30% – Ease of earning a free round-trip flight
- 20% – Number and variety of free flight options
- 20% – Airline Quality Rating
- 10% – Geographic coverage of the airline’s network
- 10% – Number of daily flights
- 10% – Additional benefits
Using the above rating scheme, airlines were assigned scores between 1 and 5, and ranked from best to worst:
- JetBlue TrueBlue (4.34)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards (3.92)
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (3.81)
- United MileagePlus (3.74)
- American AAdvantage (3.71)
- Virgin America Elevate (3.57)
- Delta SkyMiles (3.46)
- Hawaiian Air HawaiianMiles (2.81)
- Frontier EarlyReturns (2.23)
- Spirit Free Spirit (1.44)
The problem with this (and most any) scheme designed to identify the best program overall is immediately apparent in the results.
JetBlue is a fine airline that does many things well. But the earning and redemption sides of TrueBlue are hobbled by the airline’s limited route network, and by the lack of a robust partner roster.
If you live in Los Angeles or Boston, and are interested primarily in earning and redeeming points for flights between those two cities, JetBlue’s program may be just the ticket. But there are many, many other scenarios in which TrueBlue is a non-starter.
There is at least one of the rankings that will easily withstand scrutiny. Spirit’s program is unarguably the worst of the lot.
Reader Reality Check
What’s the best airline program for you?
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This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.