How We Do Our Travel Rankings
The U.S. News & World Report travel rankings are based on an analysis of expert and user opinions. We believe this unbiased approach makes our rankings more useful than simply providing our editors' personal opinions.
But even though our rankings of hotels, vacations and things to do are based on a wide collection of independent opinions, the best options for you may not be those ranked #1 or #2. Travel experiences are personal ones. Nonetheless, we hope that our rankings can serve as helpful guideposts as you plan your next trip.
U.S. News & World Report now releases annual rankings of the Best Hotels in the USA, the Best Hotels in the Caribbean, the Best Hotels in Mexico and the Best Hotels in Canada. Over the coming months, we will continue to expand the hotel rankings by adding top hotels in other geographic regions.
Selecting What to Include on the List
For now, we rank only luxury hotels. When people ask for guidance about the best hotels in a given place, they are typically looking for upscale options. U.S. News defines luxury hotels as those that consistently receive a four- or five-star "hotel class" rating, which is determined by comparing the published class ratings assigned by a number of sources. As an additional requirement, a hotel property must offer at least 20 rooms in order to be ranked by U.S. News. In the future, we expect to rank a wider variety of hotels and other accommodations.
Calculating the Rankings
Each hotel's place in our rankings takes into account the aggregate opinion of published travel experts and the overall customer satisfaction expressed in online guest reviews provided under license by TripAdvisor.com. The highest-ranking hotels are typically those that both experts and users recognize for their exceptional quality.
To rank hotels, we compute a Hotel Score based on the following underlying components:
- Awards & Recognition: We evaluate the number and prominence of awards and recommendations a hotel has received from respected travel publications. A hotel with several accolades may accumulate a high number of Awards & Recognition points. However, all such awards and recommendations are not considered equal. Some are highly selective and may apply to only a handful of hotels across the globe; hotels that have earned these more selective accolades will receive a higher number of points in the Awards & Recognition category. Others awards apply to a vast number of hotels and are thus considered less selective and worth fewer points. We assign up to 10 points of value for each major industry accolade (current as of the date of each ranking's publication). A hotel with several accolades may accumulate a high number of Awards & Recognition points. There is no limit to the number of such points a hotel may receive.
- Hotel Class: A hotel's class rating — a 4-, 4.5- or 5-star rating — is a general indicator of quality. However, it is by no means universal. Many travelers may be surprised to learn that a hotel labeled a 3-star property by one publication may be considered a 4.5-star property by another. In our analysis, U.S. News editors have reviewed multiple sources to estimate the mean-average class rating for each hotel that we rank. In our rankings calculation, a hotel may receive up to 10 points for its average hotel class. The number of points is directly proportional to the class rating. A 4-star hotel receives 8 out of 10 points, a 4.5-star hotel receives 9 out of 10 points and a 5-star hotel receives 10 out of 10 points.
- Guest Rating: A hotel's Guest Rating is calculated using data provided under license by TripAdvisor.com. The Guest Rating is worth between 10 and 20 points in our hotel rankings methodology, with the weighting based on the number of underlying guest reviews. Hotels with fewer guest reviews will see a guest rating weighted closer to 10 points, whereas hotels with thousands of guest reviews will have higher weightings for the guest rating.
For each property, the Hotel Score is calculated as the weighted average of scores for the three components: Awards & Recognition, Hotel Class and Guest Rating. We combine the number of points earned by the hotel and divide that by the number of points for which the hotel was eligible. On a given list, hotels are ranked highest to lowest according to the calculated Hotel Score.
Please Note: There are many unranked hotels on our website. Unranked hotels appear on our lists after ranked hotels and are ordered first by hotel class and then by guest rating. Over time, U.S. News will continue to evaluate and rank more hotel properties.
U.S. News Hotel Awards
U.S. News & World Report has identified luxury hotels that are the "Best" in their respective destinations as well as the "Best in the USA," "Best in the Caribbean," "Best in Mexico" and "Best in Canada."
Hotels named "Best" in their destination rank in the top 30 percent of all ranked 4-, 4.5- and 5-star hotels in that destination. For example, winners of the "Best Hotels in Atlanta" award are the hotels ranked in the top 30 percent among U.S. News ranked hotels in the Atlanta area. These properties are identified by Silver badges.
The highest-rated hotels have received a "Best Hotels in the USA," a "Best Hotels in the Caribbean," a "Best Hotels in Mexico" or a "Best Hotels in Canada" award; these properties fall in the top 10 percent of all ranked hotels in those regions. Hotels that have earned this distinction are identified by Gold badges. Some destinations may have several "Best Hotels in the USA," "Best Hotels in the Caribbean," "Best Hotel in Mexico" or "Best Hotels in Canada" award winners, while others might have none.
The U.S. News Best Hotel awards are released annually at the time the rankings are updated.
We rank travel destinations against one another in specific categories (e.g., Best Romantic Getaways in the USA). All of our destination rankings are updated at least once per year.
These vacation rankings are based on a scoring algorithm, which computes an Overall Score based on the following components:
- Expert Score (50 percent weight): For each destination we cover, our editors assign a series of Expert Scores, each covering an attribute of the destination as a vacation spot (e.g., family friendliness, beach quality, romance). These scores are assigned based on our editors' analysis of travel experts' opinions, as expressed in travel guides, reviews, sample itineraries, etc. For a given rankings list, we use the Expert Score(s) that are relevant for that list. For example, we use the "Romance" score as the Expert Score for our Best Romantic Getaways in the USA list.
- User Score (50 percent weight): Our users have the ability to vote on the destinations included on any of our ranking lists. Specifically, we ask users whether they believe a destination belongs on the list. The User Score for a destination is calculated from the percentage of "yes" votes and is specific to a given ranking list. For example, if 60 percent of voters say that "Anytown, USA" belongs on the list of Best Romantic Getaways in the USA, then the destination's User Score for that rankings list would be 6.0 out of 10.
Please Note: The destination rankings only include places that we cover with our in-depth analysis and travel guides. In the "Best Romantic Getaways in the USA" example, there are certainly many more great romantic getaways in the United States than the select few that we rank. We aim to cover the most popular ones, and we will continue to add more destinations over time. Please don't hesitate to 1) let us know about places you think we should cover and 2) vote on those that we do.
Things to Do Rankings
We rank things to do within each travel destination that we cover. Our rankings of things to do are based on our editors' analysis of expert and user recommendations from a wide variety of websites. We believe that the best way to create useful rankings is to get as many opinions as possible from real tourists and travel experts. This is why we use the consensus-based approach.
Selecting What to Include on the List
For any given destination, the top things to do are selected based on (1) our editors' analysis of what major travel publications recommend that you do and see and (2) a sampling of the opinions that real travelers have expressed across the Web. You can expect to see some of the usual suspects on our lists (the Eiffel Tower and Louvre in Paris, for example), but you'll also find some lesser-known things to do. Some of the "must-see" things to do will be brick-and-mortar sites, but others will be can't-miss neighborhoods or even seasonal events.
Calculating the Scores and Rankings
Rankings are computed on the basis of an overall score that reflects the extent to which previous travelers would recommend a certain thing to do to future travelers. The overall score also considers travel writers' and visitors' feelings about the value, atmosphere, facilities and, if applicable, the food scene of each thing to do. The relative weightings of these attributes are below:
- Overall Level of Recommendation (50 percent weight): This is the overall sentiment expressed about a thing to do (e.g., "this is a must-see site" vs. "skip it if you're short on time").
- Value (20 percent weight): The Value Score represents travelers' sense of whether the thing to do is a good value. Any things to do that are free to enjoy automatically get a value score of 5 out of 5.
- Atmosphere (15 percent weight): The Atmosphere Score represents travelers' impression of a thing to do's vibe and aesthetics.
- Facilities / Food Scene, as appropriate (15 percent weight):The Facilities Score represents travelers' opinion of the quality, availability and accessibility of a thing to do's restrooms, visitor centers, concession stands and other tourist conveniences. This score is not assigned for things to do that are neighborhoods. The Food Scene Score represents travelers' opinion on the availability, variety and quality of food options in a neighborhood. This score is assigned to things to do that are neighborhoods (in place of the Facilities Score).
Please Note: Scores are relative within a destination, so standards may vary by location. And opinions are subjective, so there can never be a true #1 thing to do for any destination. But our rankings do offer insight into what real tourists think, and hopefully this can help you prioritize which sites to visit during your trip.
Travel Rewards Programs Rankings
U.S. News & World Report ranks travel rewards programs in two categories: airline frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs. These rankings will be updated once a year. In the future, we will also rank credit card-based travel rewards programs.
Airline Rewards Program Rankings
Selecting What to Include on the List
For now, we only rank frequent flyer programs offered by airlines based in the United States. Ten programs have been evaluated for the Best Airline Rewards Program rankings.
Calculating the Rankings
The frequent flyer program rankings are based on a scoring algorithm, which computes an Overall Score based on the following components:
- Number of Daily Flights (12.5 percent weight): The Number of Daily Flights is awarded a score between 1 and 5 with 5 being the highest score. The score is directly related to the number of domestic flights the airline operates, which reflects the level of opportunity a program participant has to earn or use rewards. For example, if an airline offers between 500 and 1,000 domestic flights per day, then the airline Number of Daily Flights score would be 2 out of 5, while a carrier that provides more than 2,000 domestic flights per day would be awarded a 5.
- Geographic Coverage (12.5 percent weight): The Geographic Coverage score represents the level of coverage provided by the airline and how easy it is to get from Point A to Point B. Airline programs may receive up to 5 points for the size of the carrier's geographic coverage — the total number of airports that airline services. The number of points is proportional to airline coverage. A program will receive a score of 5 if the affiliated airline services more than 200 airports worldwide and a score of 1 if it services fewer than 25.
- Free Flight Options (20 percent weight): The Free Flight Options score represents the ease of using rewards for free flights. In order to calculate this score, U.S. News referred to the airline and Bureau of Transportation Statistics to determine each carrier's five most highly trafficked routes. Each program is assigned between 1 and 5 points based on the average number of total and direct daily flights along these routes available for booking with rewards points.
- Ease of Earning Free Round-Trip Flight (40 percent weight): In order to evaluate the ease of earning a free round-trip flight through each frequent flyer program, we calculated the price in points for any round-trip flight and for direct round-trip flights along each of the airline's five most traveled routes (the same routes referenced in the Free Flight Options score). Flight costs can change on a day-to-day basis and vary widely depending on travel dates and how far in advance you book. To eliminate discrepancies, we conducted all research for this scoring category on the same day for the same travel dates — departing on a Thursday and returning on a Monday, three weeks, six weeks and three months from the research date. The minimum price in points for each route is then divided by the average length in miles (round-trip) of all five routes to determine the average number of round-trip flights program participants must take to earn a free round-trip flight. Programs that require members to pay for more than 20 round-trip flights to accumulate enough points for a free trip receive a score of 1. Programs requiring fewer than 10 paid round-trip flights earn a score of 5.
- Additional Benefits (15 percent weight): The Additional Benefits score comprises the number of ways members can earn and use points (other than for flights), whether or not points expire, and complimentary services offered to elite members. Programs can earn a benefits score between 1 and 5 depending on whether points can be acquired through hotel stays and credit card purchases and used to cover cabin upgrades and hotel costs. Programs are also credited for offering elite members the following benefits: free checked bags, priority boarding and seating, free cabin upgrades, access to expedited security lines and free access to airport lounges.
Please Note: We have taken into account recent airline mergers when selecting which frequent flyer programs to rank. Because US Airways and AirTran are in the process of being absorbed by American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, respectively, the Dividend Miles and A+ Rewards programs have not been evaluated.
Hotel Rewards Program Rankings
Selecting What to Include on the List
U.S. News Travel ranks 16 loyalty programs associated with major hotel brands that have properties in the United States. For a loyalty program to appear on the list, it must allow potential members to join without any prerequisites. For example, a potential member should be allowed to join a loyalty program even if he or she has never stayed at a participating hotel. Each program that appears on our Best Hotel Rewards Programs list offer members the ability to earn rewards and privileges each time they stay at a participating property.
Calculating the Rankings
We compute each hotel program's Overall Score using an algorithm that comprises the following components:
- Number of Hotels in Network (20 percent weight): Each program is assigned a score of 1 through 5 depending on how many properties are in the hotel group's portfolio — the more properties the brand features, the more opportunities members have to earn and redeem rewards. For example, a program that features more than 1,000 participating hotels would receive a score of 5, while a program with only 100 or fewer participating hotels would earn a score of 1.
- Brand Diversity (15 percent weight): The Brand Diversity score represents the number of distinct brands within the group's portfolio. A loyalty program that can be used across multiple brands offers members more choice and flexibility in terms of style and price than a program that is only valid for one type of hotel. Each program's Brand Diversity score directly relates to the number of brands that honor the program.
- Geographic Coverage (15 percent weight): A program's Geographic Coverage score refers to the presence of participating hotels in the U.S. and abroad. This score represents how easy it is for members to take advantage of the program when traveling domestically and internationally. For our Geographic Coverage score calculation, we counted the number of participating hotels in nine major business and leisure travel destinations in the U.S. and abroad. Points are awarded for each destination that contained a participating hotel, and additional credit is assigned to destinations that feature more than nine participating hotels.
- Ease of Earning Free Night (30 percent weight): Each program is awarded a score of 1 through 5 based on the average number of paid nights members must accumulate to earn a free night in each of the nine destinations referenced in the Geographic Coverage score. Because hotel rates change frequently and vary by travel date, all research for this scoring category is conducted on the same day for the same travel dates — arriving Saturday and departing Sunday four weeks from the research date. We calculate the average number of paid nights required to earn a free night in each destination based on the average price in points of a one-night stay. (Programs that do not allow members to earn free nights receive a score of 0.)
- Additional Benefits (20 percent weight): The Additional Benefits score comprises the number of ways members can earn and use points apart from hotel stays, whether or not points expire, and complimentary services offered to elite members. Programs can earn a benefits score between 1 and 5 depending on whether points can be earned for flights and credit card purchases and used to cover room upgrades and additional amenities and services. Programs are also credited for offering elite members the following benefits: complimentary nights (that don't require any form of payment), free room upgrades, priority check-in and check-out, complimentary amenities and member discounts.
Please Note: For each Ease of Earning a Free Night score for programs that reward members on a stay-by-stay basis rather than a dollar or nightly basis, we translated the number of stays needed into the number of nights needed assuming that the average stay equals 2.5 nights. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 2012 Lodging Industry Profile, more than 50 percent of business and leisure travelers stay two or more nights during each hotel stay.
U.S. News Travel Rewards Program Awards
U.S. News has identified the best airline and hotel rewards programs; programs that score in the top 20 percent receive a U.S. News Best Travel Rewards Program award. These awards are released annually at the time the rankings are updated.
The U.S. News & World Report Best Cruises rankings are designed to help you find a cruise that best suits your needs. Using the following methods, U.S. News has identified the best cruise ships and cruise lines in a variety of categories.
To rank the best cruise ships and cruise lines, we use the following scoring components:
The Overall Rating is used to determine the placement of each ship or line on any given list. The Overall Rating comprises three elements:
- Expert Rating (30 percent weight): Our editors assign each ship an Expert Rating between 1 and 5 based on the ship's level of luxury, with 5 being the highest score. This score represents our editors' analysis of cruise experts' published assessments of a ship's atmosphere, facilities, activities, cabins, cuisine and service.
- Traveler Rating (50 percent weight): A ship's traveler rating is provided under license by Cruiseline.com, which manages one of the largest databases of cruise reviews and ratings by travelers. Reviewers assign a rating between 1 and 5 based on their level of satisfaction with their cruise experience.
- Health Rating (20 percent weight): A ship's health rating is based on sanitation inspection scores published by the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Individual ship inspection reports can be found here. The CDC defines "Satisfactory Scores" as those that are 86 or above (out of a possible 100 points). A ship's Health Rating is the indexed average of the vessel's individual inspection reports from the 24 months prior to the calculation of the U.S. News Best Cruises rankings. For our rankings, we translated the CDC scores to a five-point scale. CDC scores were translated as follows: Vessels with average CDC ratings between 97.5 and 100 received a score of 5; vessels with average CDC ratings between 95 and 97.4 received a score of 4.5; vessels with average CDC scores between 92.5 and 94.9 received a score of 4; vessels with average CDC scores between 90 and 92.4 received a score of 3.5; vessels with average CDC scores between 87.5 and 89.9 received a score of 3; vessels with average ratings between 85 and 87.4 received a score of 2.5 and vessels with an average CDC rating of 85 or lower received a score of 1. If a ship has not received an inspection score within the past two years, its Health Rating appears as N/A; however, the average Health Rating of all CDC-rated ships within the cruise line is used as proxy in the calculation of the Overall Rating for a ship that lacks CDC scores.
A cruise line's Overall Rating is calculated as the average of its ship's overall ratings.
Filtering Lists by Criteria:
Cutoff points and other criteria are used to identify cruise ships or cruise lines that qualify for a given ranking list.
- Traveler Type: Each cruise ship and cruise line's placement on our traveler type cruise rankings takes into account the aggregate traveler rating among specific types of travelers. Cruise ships and lines with the highest Overall Ratings and the greatest approval rating among a certain traveler type (e.g., families), appear on such lists. To qualify for a cruise ship traveler type ranking list, a ship had to have a minimum of 10 total guest reviews, and a certain percentage of reviews had to come from the specified traveler type; the percentage required varies by list.
- Region: We rank the best cruise ships in six popular regions: Alaska, Europe, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Mexico and the Pacific. We also rank the Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean. Regional scores are assigned based on percentage of itineraries a ship has in each of these regions over a 24-month basis. The ship-level regional scores are updated as new information is made available; however, the list of the Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean will only be updated once a year.
- Price Class: A cruise ship's price class rating is provided under license by Cruiseline.com. Ships are awarded a class score between 1 and 4 based on their price range. Cruise lines with average price class ratings of 3.0 and above are considered "luxury" by U.S. News and were included in the Best Luxury Cruise Lines rankings. Cruise lines with average price class ratings of 2.9 or lower are considered "affordable" and were included in the Best Cruise Lines for the Money rankings.
Inclusion in Cruise Ship Rankings
For now, we only rank cruise ships within 15 of the most popular ocean cruise lines.
Calculating Cruise Ship Rankings
Cruise ships are ranked based on each ship's Overall Rating. Some cruise ship rankings are tailored to specific interests using filter criteria, and these are still rank-ordered by Overall Rating. The overall rating is a numerical score that may include several decimal points; however, we represent this as a graphical star rating rounded to the nearest half-star. As a result, two cruise ships that show the same graphical star representation may have slightly different underlying ratings. The ranking reflects the specific underlying rating, and not the rounded graphical star rating.
Please note: Cruise ship rankings are updated regularly. As new vessels are launched and additional inspection scores and guest reviews become available, they are added to our rankings and affect how specific ships stack up against one another.
Cruise Line Rankings
U.S. News evaluated 15 cruise lines in this year's rankings, identifying the best cruise lines in a variety of categories. Whereas ship rankings are updated throughout the year, cruise lines are ranked only once per year.
Calculating the Cruise Line Rankings
We rank cruise lines in five categories: Best Luxury Cruise Lines, Best Cruise Lines for the Money, Best Cruise Lines for Romance, Best Cruise Lines for Families and Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean. In order to qualify for a ranking, a cruise line must meet the requirements for that specific list.
- Best Luxury Cruise Lines: For our luxury cruise lines ranking, we include only cruise lines with a price class rating of 3.0 or above. Qualifying cruise lines are ranked highest to lowest based on their Overall Rating.
- Best Cruise Lines for the Money: For our affordable cruise lines ranking, we include only those lines with a price class rating less than 3.0. Qualifying cruise lines are ranked highest to lowest based on their Overall Rating.
- Best Cruise Lines for Romance: This ranking factors in (1) each line's Overall Rating as well as (2) the aggregate traveler rating by "couples" travelers and (3) the percentage of a cruise line's reviews on Cruiseline.com that are left by couples. For example, a cruise line that receives a high percentage of its reviews from couples is more likely to be couples-oriented. Cruise lines are ranked according to the weighted average of their rank within each of these three factors. For a cruise line to be eligible for inclusion in this ranking, at least 54 percent of its total traveler reviews had to come from couples.
- Best Cruise Lines for Families: This ranking factors in (1) each line's Overall Rating as well as (2) the aggregate traveler rating by "families with kids" and (3) the percentage of a cruise line's reviews on Cruiseline.com that are left by family travelers. For example, a cruise line that receives a high percentage of its reviews from families is more likely to attract family travelers. Cruise lines are ranked according to the weighted average of their rank within each of these three factors. For a cruise line to qualify for this ranking, at least 25 percent of its total traveler reviews had to come from families.
- Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean: This ranking is based on each cruise line's Overall Rating and its presence in the Caribbean over a 24-month period. Cruise lines are ranked highest to lowest according to the weighted average of their rank based on Overall Rating and their rank based on the annualized rate of scheduled itineraries in the Caribbean.
U.S. News Travel Cruises Awards
The highest ranking cruise line on each of the five rankings — Best Luxury Cruise Lines, Best Cruise Lines for the Money, Best Cruise Lines for Romance, Best Cruise Lines for Families and Best Cruise Lines in the Caribbean — have been identified with a Gold badge as the "Best." The No. 2- and No. 3-ranked cruise lines qualified as "finalists" in a category and are identified by Silver badges. The U.S. News Best Cruises awards are released annually at the time the rankings are updated.
If you have any questions about our travel rankings' methodology, please feel free to contact us.