These best travel awards programs get you closer to free nights and flights

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines

(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Here’s the thing about travel awards programs: If you’re going to play the game, you better be sure you have the right teammate.

If your teammate isn’t Alaska or Marriott, you don’t have the No. 1 picks.

Those are among the findings in the U.S. News & World Report “2015-16 Best Travel Rewards Programs,” released Tuesday.

What are the top programs?

For airlines:

  1. Alaska Mileage Plan
  2. American AAvantage
  3. SouthwestRapid Rewards
  4. JetBlue TrueBlue
  5. HawaiianMiles

For hotels:

  1. Marriott Rewards
  2. Wyndham Rewards
  3. Best Western Rewards and Club Carlton (tied)
  4. IHG Rewards Club

How were they chosen?

Factors in airline evaluations: the ease of getting an award, something U.S. News calls “high network coverage,” which Liz Weiss, U.S. News travel editor, explained as “the breadth and diversity of routes offered by each airline and its alliance network “

“Airline quality” also was a factor; it’s based on the annual Airline Quality Rating report.

For hotels, the ease of earning the award as well as well as the variety of properties and geography also were factored in.

Aren't awards programs in trouble?

Awards programs reward your loyalty, of course, but that’s not really the point. They’re really designed to keep you coming back so you can grab that brass ring, whether it’s a free ticket or a free hotel night.

And yet awards programs have not always fulfilled their own purpose. Almost half of consumers said they had had a bad experience trying to get an award, according to a study by FanXchange and Colloquy, which studies consumer loyalty.

That prompted this headline in the January-Feburary issue of Colloquy: “ Is Loyalty Dead?”

So should I kiss all my hard-earned miles goodbye?

No. Colloquy doesn’t think loyalty is dead but it does have some problems, according to the article:

  • We’re enrolled in more than two dozen loyaly programs; we engage with less than half.
  • That trend isn’t improving. The decline is about 4% in four years.
  • And there are more travel opportunities than ever—membership inn programs has increased 9%.

Jeff Berry, research director of Colloquy, told me in a recent interview that that $17 billion worth of airlines awards points are issued each year.

 Bottom line: Go with a program in which miles/points are easier to redeem and that reward your loyalty, not programs that just keep dangling that carrot.

Ultimately, it makes the game more fun and, yes, rewarding.


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