The Best Travel Rewards Programs for 2017-18

You don't have to be a points and miles expert to benefit from airline and hotel loyalty programs.

U.S. News & World Report

The Best Travel Rewards Programs for 2017-18

United Airlines
Credit

(Courtesy of United Airlines)

So you're interested in joining a rewards program …

Considering criteria such as how easy it is to earn a free flight or hotel stay and what extra perks are awarded to members, the Best Travel Rewards Programs rankings aim to help everyday travelers find the best loyalty program for them. U.S. News ranks travel rewards programs in two categories: frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs. Our methodology highly rewards programs that make it easy for basic members to earn and redeem free flights and free nights. Read on to find out what programs came out on top this year.
Southwest Airlines
Credit

(Courtesy of Southwest Airlines)

The Best Airline Rewards Programs

To help everyday travelers weigh their options, U.S. News assessed nine airline rewards programs using a methodology that considers each program's earning and redemption values, member benefits, network coverage, award flight availability, number of daily flights and Airline Quality Rating. Browse through to learn more about the Best Airline Rewards programs and find the right fit for you.
Next:

So you're interested in joining a rewards program …

Considering criteria such as how easy it is to earn a free flight or hotel stay and what extra perks are awarded to members, the Best Travel Rewards Programs rankings aim to help everyday travelers find the best loyalty program for them. U.S. News ranks travel rewards programs in two categories: frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs. Our methodology highly rewards programs that make it easy for basic members to earn and redeem free flights and free nights. Read on to find out what programs came out on top this year.

The Best Airline Rewards Programs

To help everyday travelers weigh their options, U.S. News assessed nine airline rewards programs using a methodology that considers each program's earning and redemption values, member benefits, network coverage, award flight availability, number of daily flights and Airline Quality Rating. Browse through to learn more about the Best Airline Rewards programs and find the right fit for you.

9. Free Spirit

The Free Spirit rewards program offers few perks for everyday travelers. The Spirit Airlines network coverage is limited; basic members earn half a point per mile flown and miles expire after three months. Even as members reach higher elite status tiers, they earn no additional perks. For example, members can't get free checked bags, cabin upgrades or expedited security at higher member levels. However, Free Spirit does offer an affiliated credit card, which allows members to earn miles on everyday purchases. Program participants can also rack up miles on hotel stays with partner brand Choice Hotels.

8. Frontier EarlyReturns

Frontier EarlyReturns allows members to earn miles on flights, stays at its partner hotels, such as Carlson Rezidor, Marriott and Wyndham, car rentals and with the program's affiliated credit card. Miles can be redeemed for free flights, car rentals or stays at select hotels. While Frontier Airlines services smaller airports across the U.S., and select destinations in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, its network coverage is limited and its daily flight volume is smaller compared to other airline rewards programs.

7. HawaiianMiles

The HawaiianMiles program is ideal for those who travel to and from the Hawaiian islands frequently. Members can accrue miles by making purchases with affiliated credit cards, booking cruises and renting cars. Participants can also earn miles by staying with partner hotels and by flying on Hawaiian Airlines (or its partner carriers, which include Korean Air and JetBlue). However, basic membership benefits and the number of daily flights are limited with this program.

6. American AAdvantage

The last legacy carrier program to transition to a revenue-based earning structure, American AAdvantage mandates that members earn a specified number of miles and spend a certain amount before obtaining elite status. The airline operates nearly 6,700 daily flights and the program offers a plethora of ways to accumulate and use miles. American AAdvantage members can earn by flying, using an affiliated credit card and spending with partners, such as car rental companies, cruise lines and hotel brands. Participants can cash in miles for seat upgrades, flights on American Airlines and its partners, hotel stays and more.

5. United MileagePlus

With more than 4,500 daily departures and more than 330 destinations served, the United MileagePlus program scores highly in the daily flight volume and geographic coverage categories. What's more, there are many ways for members to accumulate and use miles, including multiple affiliated credit cards that allow frequent flyers to earn bonus miles and use perks such as free checked bags and airport lounge access to offset additional costs. However, basic member benefits within this program are limited and United MileagePlus requires participants earn a requisite number of miles and spend a minimum amount to attain higher elite membership status.

4. Southwest Rapid Rewards

The Southwest Rapid Rewards program appeals to budget-savvy travelers who frequently fly domestically and to destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. The program offers more than 3,900 daily flights and multiple ways to earn points, including Southwest flights, affiliated credit cards, hotel stays and purchases made via an online shopping portal. Rapid Rewards points can be redeemed for Southwest flights, hotel stays, rental cars and more. However, points and cash cannot be combined to purchase a flight.

3. JetBlue TrueBlue

Members of the JetBlue TrueBlue program can accrue points for every dollar spent on JetBlue flights or vacation packages, partner flights and retail, rental car or hotel partner purchases. Travelers can also earn points with an affiliated credit card. Basic membership benefits are limited, but there are many award flight options at a low redemption rate, so JetBlue TrueBlue participants are able to earn a free round-trip flight fairly easily. Additionally, JetBlue has an excellent AQR score, which means the airline performs well in on-time arrivals and sees fewer customer complaints.

2. Delta SkyMiles

Delta SkyMiles members can earn miles in multiple ways, including through affiliated credit card purchases, stays in partner hotels or Airbnbs and by using the ride-sharing service Lyft. Participants can use miles to book hotels, secure cabin upgrades and redeem award flights. What's more, Delta boasts an expansive network of airline partners, numerous daily flights to destinations across the globe, competitive redemption rates for award flights and an improved AQR score from last year. However, to reach elite tiers, Delta SkyMiles members must travel a minimum number of miles and spend a certain amount annually.

1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

For the third consecutive year, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is the No. 1 Best Airline Rewards Program. The program benefits from having a mileage-based earning structure without a minimum spend requirement, which helps members earn miles for free flights faster than they would with a revenue-based program. Alaska Airlines also has a vast partner network, an excellent AQR score, high award choice availability and diverse flight routes. What's more, participants have a variety of ways to earn and redeem miles.

The Best Hotel Rewards Programs

To help you choose a hotel rewards program that fits your needs, U.S. News evaluated 17 of the most prominent programs and weighed factors such as member benefits, the average number of paid nights required to earn a free stay and how easy it is to earn and use awards. Read on to find the right program for you.

17. Fairmont President's Club

Of the major hotel loyalty programs U.S. News evaluated, Fairmont President's Club is the least beneficial for everyday travelers. Fairmont has a small network size with fewer than 150 hotels, and limited geographic coverage, property diversity and benefits. Rather than earning points, Fairmont President's Club members earn frequent flyer miles. Because there are no points to earn, members cannot redeem points for free nights. However, a free stay is a member benefit for elite tiers of the program.

16. iPrefer Hotel Rewards

Basic iPrefer members enjoy access to free internet access, room upgrades, early check-in and late checkout for stays at Preferred Hotels & Resorts properties. Members can only earn points on hotel stays and use them to redeem reward certificates in set increments, ranging from $25 to $500. However, members must spend thousands of dollars on hotel stays before they can earn enough points to book a free night.

15. Kimpton Karma Rewards

While the InterContinental Hotels Group acquired Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants in 2014, the two brands operate independent hotel loyalty programs. Kimpton Karma members at the most basic membership level enjoy free Wi-Fi access and discounts on room rates and spa treatments, and credits to raid the minibar. Kimpton Karma is a stay-based program, so members must stay 20 nights (seven separate times or at 10 Kimpton properties in a calendar year) to receive a free night reward. The more times you stay at a Kimpton hotel, the higher elite status you attain. Because Kimpton Karma Rewards is a stay-based program, additional benefits are limited.

14. Le Club AccorHotels

Members of the Le Club AccorHotels program can earn points in a variety of ways, including on hotel stays, by purchasing spa treatments and meals at the hotel, and with partner car rental reservations. Participants may redeem points for hotel reward vouchers, which can be used to offset the cost of a stay. Points can also be converted to airline miles or used for elite experiences, such as VIP tickets to sporting events or concerts. Keep in mind that there are a limited number of U.S.-based properties that participate in Le Club AccorHotels. Since the brand is headquartered in France, the majority of its hotels are in Europe.

13. Stash Hotel Rewards

Stash Hotel Rewards benefits travelers who enjoy staying in boutique properties, with only independently owned hotels within its network. Members can accrue points by using the Stash-affiliated credit card and through stays at hotels within the Stash network. However, there is only one membership level within this program, meaning participants can't achieve higher elite status. Benefits of this program are also limited. For example, members do not receive free amenities, priority check-in and checkout or complimentary room upgrades.

12. Omni Select Guest

A stay-based program, Omni Select Guest awards members a free night certificate after 20 qualifying nights. Basic members receive complimentary Wi-Fi access, special rate discounts and express check-in and checkout. A few downsides to this program: The brand only has 52 eligible properties in its portfolio and participants can only earn or redeem free nights on hotel stays. Plus, the program has no affiliated credit card or airline partners.

11. Hilton Honors

Hilton's rewards program allows members to earn and use points at more than 4,900 affiliated hotels in 100-plus countries. The Hilton Honors program also offers many member benefits, including discounts on room rates, free internet access and late checkout. However, compared to last year, Hilton Honors members now need more paid nights on average before earning enough points for a free night.

10. Leaders Club

While Leaders Club requires an annual fee for all members, participants are rewarded with several benefits for joining. Members earn a free night after staying at a Leading Hotels of the World property five times in a calendar year. Plus, Leaders Club members enjoy free daily breakfast for two, complimentary room upgrades, free Wi-Fi access, early check-in, late checkout and a welcome amenity when staying at an affiliated property. With that said, the Leaders Club network, with around 400 properties, is more limited compared to other programs on this list.

9. Starwood Preferred Guest

Though Marriott International acquired Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2016, the two brands maintain separate rewards programs, allowing members to link their accounts, transfer points between programs and enjoy reciprocal benefits. Members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program are able to earn points on hotel stays, flights and credit card purchases, and use accrued points for room upgrades, flights and free nights. The program also allows participants to use points for experiences called SPG Moments, which range from exclusive culinary events to VIP treatment at sports games.

8. Club Carlson

Club Carlson members can earn points when staying at or dining in any Carlson Rezidor hotel, when renting a car with one of the brand's partners and when using a Club Carlson-affiliated credit card. In addition to using points to cover the cost of a stay, participants can redeem points for food and spa treatments at Carlson Rezidor hotels, gift cards for dining and frequent flyer miles with one of Club Carlson's partners. And participants who do not have enough points to cover the cost of a room may use the points and cash option to redeem an award night.

7. La Quinta Returns

Free amenities, such as free breakfast and Wi-Fi access, express check-in and late checkout, are just some of the perks of La Quinta Returns. Members can earn points on hotel stays and with the brand's affiliated credit card and use points to book free nights at a La Quinta property or a stay at an affiliated luxury hotel partner. Members can also convert points to airline miles. While the majority of La Quinta properties are located in the U.S., there are some hotels in Canada and Mexico.

6. IHG Rewards

With a network of more than 5,000 hotels in different locations (think: city center, beach, mountain and airport) at various price points, the InterContinental Hotels Group offers versatile options for its rewards program members. Basic IHG Rewards Club participants can take advantage of member discounts and free internet access, and earn points for hotel stays and purchases with affiliated credit cards and airline partners. Points can be redeemed for reward nights, flight or car rental costs and gift cards. Plus, members can use a combination of points and cash to book stays.

5. Best Western Rewards

The Best Western Rewards program allows members to earn and redeem points in a variety of ways. Participants can rack up points with hotel stays, purchases with affiliated credit cards and air travel. Members can use points to book a free night, redeem points for airline miles and purchase gift cards for restaurants, retail outlets and more. Another bonus: Best Western Rewards is the only loyalty program affiliated with a major chain where points never expire.

4. World of Hyatt

Thanks to Hyatt overhauling its loyalty program, World of Hyatt is the No. 4 Best Hotel Rewards Program, up from No. 7 last year. Program updates include the ability to earn a free night after staying at five different brands within a calendar year, member discounts on room rates and an additional elite tier. The rewards program allows members to use a combination of points and cash to book a room; members can also earn points at MGM Resorts part of the M Life Rewards program. The Hyatt portfolio also encompasses a wide range of brands, from boutique Hyatt Centric hotels to luxury Park Hyatt properties.

3. Choice Privileges

The Choice Privileges program allows members to earn and redeem points at more than 6,500 participating hotels across the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Europe. Participants can also use points to redeem free nights at more than 500 participating Preferred Hotels & Resorts. Basic members have access to many perks when staying at Choice hotels, including free Wi-Fi access and late checkout upon request. What's more, the program scored highly in the ease of earning category. The number of points required to book a hotel in 20 popular business and leisure destinations ranges from 6,000 to 30,000 points.

2. Wyndham Rewards

Though Wyndham Rewards was edged out of the No. 1 spot, the program continues to earn high marks. Wyndham Rewards makes it easy to earn a free night and for elite members to take advantage of benefits such as complimentary room upgrades and late checkout. Basic members have access to free in-room Wi-Fi, reduced room rates and discounts on local experiences, such as a food tour or a sunset cruise. Plus, all Wyndham properties can be booked for 15,000 points per night (or for 3,000 points and cash) and the program offers two affiliated credit cards.

1. Marriott Rewards

Marriott Rewards is the No. 1 Best Hotel Rewards Program, due in part to the multiple ways members can earn and use points. Participants can earn points by staying at hotels, using an affiliated credit card or through flights with air partners. Plus, they can use points to book a stay, purchase or bid on an experience, secure a room upgrade or book a flight. Additionally, members can get the fifth night free when booking a stay with points. The program also scores highly in the geographic coverage and ease of earning a free night categories. What's more, Starwood Preferred Guest program accounts can be linked, so members enjoy status matching and point transfers between programs.
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Erin Shields, Managing Editor

Erin Shields is the Managing Editor of Travel at U.S. News & World Report, where she oversees ...  Read more

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