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U.S. News Picks the Best Travel-Loyalty Programs

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.

Best Airline Program

To evaluate and rank the 10 U.S. airline programs, U.S. News used a scoring system weighted as follows:

  • Ease of earning a free roundtrip flight – 45%
  • “Additional benefits” – 25%
  • Network coverage – 10%
  • Award flight availability – 10%
  • Number of daily flights – 5%
  • Airline quality rating – 5%

Based on those factors, the 10 airline programs ranked as follows, on a scale of 1 – 5:

  1. Alaska Airlines – 4.39
  2. American – 4.04
  3. Southwest – 3.99
  4. JetBlue – 3.95
  5. Hawaiian – 3.88
  6. Virgin America – 3.61
  7. Frontier – 3.55
  8. United – 3.45
  9. Delta – 3.11
  10. Spirit – 1.16

Alaska’s Mileage Plan is a fine program, no doubt. And if you live in Seattle, Alaska’s hub airport city, it may well be the best program for you. But if you live in Houston, or Detroit, or Tampa, or Richmond, or hundreds of other cities, it’s a non-starter.

And at the other end of the spectrum, there might even be scenarios in which Spirit’s program best meets your needs, although that’s a stretch.

Best Hotel Program

For the hotel rankings, U.S. News used similar criteria:

  • Ease of earning a free night – 45%
  • “Additional benefits” – 25%
  • Geographic coverage – 15%
  • Number of network hotels – 10%
  • Property diversity – 5%

The top-10 hotel programs scored as follows:

  1. Marriott – 4.72
  2. Wyndham – 4.22
  3. Best Western – 4.09
  4. Club Carlson – 4.09
  5. InterContinental – 4.04
  6. Leading Hotels – 3.93
  7. La Quinta – 3.88
  8. Starwood – 3.86
  9. Hilton – 3.78
  10. Hyatt – 3.68

Once again, the misguided nature of the exercise is immediately apparent in the results. While Marriott has a strong claim to be all things to all travelers—many hotels, in many locations, at many price points—and therefore arguably has a claim on the title of best overall, Best Western focuses determinedly on the budget segment of the market. Indeed, for the budget traveler, Best Western may be a better choice than Marriott. So again, “best” turns out to be just too gross an oversimplification to be very useful.

When it comes to choosing the best travel-rewards program, your mileage may vary.

Reader Reality Check

Which programs work best for you?

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