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How to Pick the Right Travel Rewards Program for You

We've identified the top programs for 2015-16, but you have to decide which one is best for you.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Pick the Right Travel Rewards Program for You

Family checking in at counter

From free hotel stays to enticing amenities, here's how to pick the best perks for you.(Getty Images)

To get the most out of a rewards program, you need to know which ones offer the greatest return for your loyalty. After all, each loyalty program is unique. Some make it easy to earn points for free flights and hotel stays while others incentivize loyalty with upgrades and free amenities. Factor in the burden of sifting through constantly changing program structures and it's easy to see how choosing the right loyalty program can be a challenge.

To take the guesswork out of finding a travel rewards program, U.S. News evaluated programs based on a myriad of components. Each program was ranked based on key criteria, including award options and how easy it is to collect and use rewards and membership perks.

Best Frequent Flier Programs

Comparing frequent flier programs can overwhelm even the most seasoned fliers. To help direct you to the programs that make it easy to maximize rewards and valuable membership perks, we evaluated the points structures of 10 major U.S.-based frequent flier programs. We analyzed thousands of data points, including the number of points or miles required for the average flight compared to the number of points needed for a round-trip award flight, member benefits and network coverage to highlight the programs that surpass the rest.

Take the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, the No. 1 frequent flier program this year. The program is ideal for price-conscious fliers thanks to its affordable flights, abundant award flight options and extensive network alliances. On the other hand, if you're a business traveler who prefers to fly in first class, and you can afford to pay more to earn more, you might consider a cost-based program with broad network alliances and valuable elite status benefits like airport lounge access and cabin upgrades.

To help you narrow down your options, U.S. News compared each program's earning and redemption requirements. While revenue-based programs allow you to earn more for spending more, our analysis found the number of points required for redemption are typically lower for distance-based programs. For instance, on a flight from Los Angeles to Orlando, both Delta and Virgin allow you to collect five points per dollar spent on airfare. But on the same route, our analysis showed Delta requires almost three times as many points to book an award seat.

Bottom line: Before you commit to a program, compare how easy it is to earn and use points for free flights, then pick a program that caters to your lifestyle, preferences and goals.

See the full list of the Best Airline Rewards Programs 2015-2016

Hotel Loyalty Programs

To figure out which hotel chains are worth your loyalty we sought to answer a few key questions: How many hotels participate in the program? How easy is it to earn a free night? Just how valuable are extra membership privileges, and what's required to obtain them? This year, we evaluated 18 hotel loyalty programs and for the third consecutive year, Marriott Rewards came out on top.

The Top 5 Best Hotel Rewards Programs for 2015-16:

See the full list of the Best Hotel Rewards Programs 2015-2016

Though only you can determine which program best fits your needs, these rankings are intended to guide you in the decision-making process. For example, if your top priority is racking up free flights or hotel stays at the lowest price, you will want to seek out programs that offer a higher earnings ratio (more rewards per dollar, mile or hotel night) and ample earning opportunities. And if maximizing perks over points is your top goal, you'll want to pick a program with a low requirement for obtaining elite status. Before you sign up, ask yourself the following questions to identify which programs best adhere to your particular needs and objectives.

Where do you live?

Different airlines serve different areas of the country, so taking into account where you live could help you determine the programs that will prove most rewarding. Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan might be No. 1 in our rankings, but joining the program won't benefit you if you don't regularly fly in or out of the northwest region. Check the airline's website to see if it frequently services your primary hub.

How often do you travel?

Consider how often you'll need to use your membership. If you travel regularly, then you won't have to worry about your miles or points expiring. However, if you only travel a few times a year, choose a program with rewards that don't expire. Also, look for a program with a high earnings ratio and low threshold for redemption, which will require fewer flights or stays to cash in rewards and benefits.

Where do you want to go?

When comparing loyalty programs, consider where you want to travel. For instance, if you want to use reward points and miles to take a dream trip to Europe, don't commit to a frequent flier program if the airline (or any of its partners) does not serve your desired location. If you're hoping to use points for a trip to the Caribbean, pick a hotel program with properties on your desired island.

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