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Are These the Best Loyalty Programs?

Another day, another “best of” travel poll. This time it’s the Freddies, arguably the Academy Awards of travel-rewards programs.

Since 1988, the Freddies, named for Sir Freddie Laker, have given travelers a chance to vote for their favorite loyalty programs, best promotions, best award availability, and so on. This year, more than 4.2 million votes were cast, from 237 countries, covering 223 loyalty programs.

The results of this year’s voting were revealed last night at an awards ceremony in Jersey City.

In the Americas region, the winners were as follows:

  • Airline Program of the Year — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
  • Best Airline Elite Program — American Airlines – AAdvantage
  • Best Airline Customer Service — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
  • Best Airline Redemption Ability — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
  • Hotel Program of the Year — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
  • Best Hotel Elite Program — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
  • Best Hotel Promotion — MGM – M life Rewards
  • Best Hotel Customer Service — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
  • Best Hotel Redemption Ability — Marriott Hotels – Marriott Rewards
  • Best Loyalty Credit Card — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards from Chase Bank

Southwest and Marriott not only won bestprogram honors, they positively dominated their categories. Which is intriguing, since the two companies follow very different business models.

Southwest is the preeminent low-cost carrier, offering friendly no-frills service, mostly fee-free, for fair prices. Its customers look to the company for simplicity, fairness, and value. Marriott, now with 30 brands encompassing almost 6,000 hotels, must align its offerings to a wide range of traveler profiles, from once-a-year budget travelers to always-on-the-go road warriors. Two companies with very different challenges, and very different solutions.

For all their differences, Southwest and Marriott have proven alike in their success in meeting their customers’ expectations. Both were disproportionately represented in the Freddies winner’s circle, with four awards apiece. And both were repeat winners of the best-program awards.

While Marriott has been a perennial best-program winner — this was its tenth successive win — Southwest has only won the top spot this year and in 2016. As recently as 2015, American’s AAdvantage program was voted best program, as it had been for several previous years. So, in the airline space, Southwest’s recent ascendancy seems linked to the transition of legacy carriers’ programs, including AAdvantage, from mileage-based to spend-based schemes, and the consequent devaluation of those programs. There’s been no such fundamental disruption among the major hotel programs.

History aside, a solid case can be made for both Southwest’s Rapid Rewards and the Marriott Rewards program. I’d have voted for Marriott Rewards myself, although for airline programs, my vote would have been for Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan, as discussed here.

Reader Reality Check

Best U.S. airline and hotel programs: How do you vote?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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