Which Travel Rewards Program Should You Join?

See which programs top the 2014-2015 U.S. News lists

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterAug. 5, 2014
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterAug. 5, 2014, at 9:30 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

Which Travel Rewards Program Should You Join?

When becoming a rewards program member, you can't pick just any loyalty program to join. Many frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs yield generous rewards, but not all of them make it easy to reap benefits most valuable to you.

To help lead you to the program that's right for you, U.S. News scrutinized frequent flier and hotel loyalty programs using a myriad of key components. Each program was scored based on its flexibility, reward options, how easy it is to earn and redeem rewards and how great the perks are — plus how easy it is to use them.

Take JetBlue's TrueBlue, the top airline program this year. The low-cost carrier caters to bargain-hunters with affordable flights, ample reward flight options and a good reputation. Or, if you're traveling for work, you may want to consider a hotel rewards program that offers business-friendly amenities, so you can unwind after a long day on the road and in meetings. Marriott Rewards, the No. 1 hotel loyalty program for the second year running, would be an ideal choice given that it offers free Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfasts and room discounts and upgrades.

Best Frequent Flier Programs

To identify the top frequent flier programs, we compared airline programs based on the factors that matter most: How good is the airline's customer service? How many places can you fly? How many flight options are available? How many points are required for the most popular routes? And how challenging is it to earn those points? To help you answer these questions, we analyzed more than 2,000 data points (such as average flight prices, earnings ratios and the number of flights available for award travel) for 10 major U.S.-based frequent flier programs. JetBlue's TrueBlue program outshined nine other programs this year.

Best Hotel Loyalty Programs

We used a similar approach to compare hotel loyalty programs. Among the top questions we sought to answer: How many hotels participate in the program? How many destinations can you visit, and how varied are the lodging options? How quickly can you earn a free night? And just how significant are extra membership perks, and what's required to attain them? This year, we evaluated 17 hotel loyalty programs and for the second consecutive year, Marriott Rewards came out on top.   

Though only you can decide which program is best for your lifestyle, these rankings can serve as a jumping-off point for narrowing down your search. Although we do hope these rankings can help you whittle down your choices when researching rewards programs, we don't expect them to be-all and end-all of your decision-making process. For example, the No. 1 program may not suit your needs as well as the No. 3 program. Before you enroll, ask yourself the following questions to gain a better sense of what you're looking for in a travel rewards program:

After joining an airline or hotel rewards program, you actually have to be loyal to the program to maximize rewards and extra benefits. Before you enroll, consider how you typically book your trip: Do you tend to fly with the same carrier and stay in the same type of hotel? Or do you stick to online booking sites and opt for the best deal? If you're only loyal to the lowest price, you may want to rethink whether or not you should be joining a rewards program. (No, joining all programs won't work — you'll just end up with an inbox clogged with notifications alerting you of how few points you have in each account.) If you're willing to pledge your allegiance to a couple of brands, then proceed with the decision-making process.

Before selecting an airline rewards program, take your home turf into account. JetBlue's TrueBlue may hold the No. 1 spot on our Best Airlines Rewards Programs rankings, but joining the program won't benefit you if you're not based along the coasts. Check which airlines fly in and out of your primary hubs by visiting the airline or the airport's website — both should offer a list of destinations serviced or carriers welcomed, respectively.

Consider how frequently you'll need to use your membership in order to make it worthwhile. If you travel often, you don't need to put too much stock in the life expectancy of your points. But if you only take a few trips a year, pick a program with rewards that don't expire. You should also look for a program with a higher earnings ratio (more rewards per dollar, mile, flight segment or hotel night), which will lessen the time it takes you to accumulate lucrative rewards.

Your intended destinations are an important factor. If you're hoping to earn hotel rewards on business trips or collect frequent flier miles for annual family reunions, make sure that the program you select provides those earning opportunities.

Once you've collected enough rewards, you may want to treat yourself to a vacation. When choosing a loyalty program, have wanderlust in the back of your mind — if you dream of visiting Paris, don't sign up for a frequent flier program if the airline (or any of its partners) don't fly to Europe. If your perfect getaway involves lounging on a Caribbean beach, make sure you can redeem your points for a room with a sea view at an island hotel. After all, you've earned it.

Liz Weiss is an editor for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google+ or email her at eweiss@usnews.com.

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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