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Alaska and Marriott Named the Top Loyalty Programs of 2018

SmarterTravel

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is the best of all the U.S. airline loyalty programs, says the U.S. News & World Report, and Marriott Rewards is the best of the large hotel-chain loyalty programs. The annual rankings emphasize benefits for basic members, and scores all loyalty programs on a scale of 1 to 5.

The Best Airline Loyalty Programs

The U.S. News & World Report ranked airline loyalty programs by assigning a score to each of five components: Network coverage, ease of earning a free flight, award flight availability, additional benefits, and airline quality. The final scores are an average of the five components.

Alaska Airlines, an airline that usually scores well in any traveler rating system, earned its Mileage Plan the top position in the U.S. News ranking for airline loyalty programs, with a score of 4.54. This program is unique among the large lines in that it still bases earnings and award requirements on fixed mileage charts rather than price-based variable systems like the ones the Big Three (American, Delta, United) and JetBlue and Southwest use.

Although Alaska, itself, has a much smaller route structure than its giant rivals, it has partnership agreements with 17 big airlines—enough to warrant a high component score for “network coverage.” But it scores lower than other lines in award flight availability: Alaska’s typically small first class cabins mean that premium seats and upgrades on its own flights are tough to score. Overall, Alaska’s program is best for travelers who can use Alaska’s limited route structure for most flights.

Scores for the next five lines are so close as to be almost equal. The number two spot goes to Delta SkyMiles, scoring 4.11. But its score for ease of earning a free flight, at 3.5, is lower than Southwest’s and JetBlue’s, and that’s a critical component for lots of travelers. SkyMiles also skews its earning power and benefits strongly toward high-tier frequent flyer members, which suits Delta’s corporate strategy better than an individual leisure traveler’s objectives.

Scoring for the number three program, JetBlue’s TrueBlue at 4.06, suffers due to the line’s relatively small U.S. footprint, and the fact that it has only one international partner line. The program scores well in ease of earning a free flight, largely because almost all seats are available for enough points. If, like Alaska faithfuls, you can live with the line’s limited network coverage, it would otherwise score about the same as Delta.

American AAdvantage (4.05) and United MileagePlus (3.92) pretty much mirror Delta Skymiles in that all three strongly favor very-frequent flyers. The choice for most travelers will be based on which line’s routes and schedules serve their travel plans best rather than minor scoring differences.

Southwest Rapid Rewards (4.04), on the other hand, is a great program for leisure travelers—as long as they don’t care much about travel overseas or traveling in a premium cabin.

Next are Frontier Miles (3.43) and HawaiianMiles (3.33), both close and both suffering from low network coverage. And Free Spirit (1.20), at the bottom, shows low component scores for about everything.

Overall, translating any scores such as these into the “best line for you” depends on where you live, where you travel, how you earn miles, and what you want to do with the miles.

The Best Hotel Loyalty Programs

U.S. News & World Report ranked hotel loyalty programs by assigning a score to each of four components: Property diversity, geographic coverage, ease of earning a free night, and additional benefits. The final scores are again an average.

Marriott’s top score of 4.88 should come as no surprise to SmarterTravel readers. It also came out as number one in our 2017 Editors’ Choice Loyalty Programs ratings, and for the same reasons: A wide range of properties for both earning and award stays, outstanding worldwide geographic coverage, and ease of earning award nights.

The main drawback for ordinary leisure travelers? Marriott’s brands skew to the upscale, so travelers looking to earn points at budget properties have limited choices, and Marriott locations are mainly limited to being near sizable cities. Overall, Marriott is a top choice for business travelers and leisure travelers who prefer to earn points from more upscale, urban hotels and resorts.

As sort of a bookend to Marriott, Wyndham scored 4.74 as the number two spot. Unlike Marriott, most of Wyndham’s brands are in the budget and moderate classes, making Wyndham a good choice for more budget-minded travelers. And Wyndham’s program has one unique feature: All award nights, at any participating hotel in any of the company’s diverse list of brands, require the same 15,000 points per night. You can earn points at Days Inn or Super 8 and redeem them at Wyndham Grand or Dolce, too. Wyndham excels at giving a good point value for each dollar you spend. We scored Wyndham third in our 2017 Editors’ Choice rankings.

Like Marriott Rewards, the number three program in the U.S. News ranking World of Hyatt (4.52) again appeals mostly to upscale travelers staying in Urban areas. Hyatt trailed Marriott in most categories, but not by much. It’s a good choice for upscale travelers.

The fourth-ranking program, Choice Privileges (4.26), caters mainly to budget travelers: The Choice hotel group consists mainly of budget to upper-midscale properties like the several Comfort brands, EconoLodge, and Rodeway.

Scores for the next two programs, Best Western Rewards (4.22) and IHG Rewards Club (4.20), are so close as to be insignificant. Similarly, Radisson Rewards (3.90) and La Quinta Returns (3.89) are essentially the same (but note that La Quinta joins forces with Wyndham next year).

Down the list, Invited (3.58) and Leaders Club (3.53) are close, as are Hilton Honors (3.05) and Sonesta Travel Pass (2.92). Programs with lower scores are Stash Hotel Rewards (2.73) and Omni Select Guest (2.17), along with LeClub AccorHotels (2.45) and I Prefer Hotel Rewards (2.20). But these low-scoring programs offer substantially different propositions for different travelers:

  • Invited, the program for Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Stash, and I Prefer are of particular interest to travelers who prefer to earn and stay at relatively small numbers of boutique and independent hotels.
  • The IHG, Radisson, Hilton, Sonesta, and Omni programs tend to target the same upscale travelers as the Marriott and Hyatt programs, with slightly less valuable results.
  • The LeClub AccorHotels program is of interest chiefly to frequent travelers to Europe, where Accor’s brands enjoy a very strong market presence in all price ranges.

All of the ranked programs include a laundry list of additional features: co-branded credit cards that earn points on most purchases, airline affiliations, multiple status levels that provide increasingly generous earnings and award availability, and such. See the full report for details.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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