The Best Travel Rewards Programs for 2018-19

See which airline and hotel loyalty programs claim top honors.

By Christine Smith, Staff WriterJuly 31, 2018
By Christine Smith, Staff WriterJuly 31, 2018, at 12:01 a.m.
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These are the best travel reward programs
Credit

(Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Enjoy complimentary perks, favorable redemption rates and more by enrolling in one (or more) of these rewards programs.

Travel expenses can add up quickly, so why not take advantage of savings when possible? Considering factors everyday travelers value, such as available benefits and ease of earning a free flight or hotel stay, U.S. News evaluated nine frequent flyer programs and 16 hotel loyalty programs to determine which are the Best Travel Rewards Programs. Here are this year's top programs.
These are the best travel reward programs
Credit

(Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines)

The Best Airline Rewards Programs

Using a methodology that takes into account earning and redemption rates, network coverage, award flight availability, daily domestic flight totals, member benefits and Airline Quality Ratings, U.S. News ranked the Best Airline Rewards Programs for leisure travelers. Read on to find out more about each U.S.-based frequent flyer program to help you decide which best suits your travel habits and needs.
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Enjoy complimentary perks, favorable redemption rates and more by enrolling in one (or more) of these rewards programs.

Travel expenses can add up quickly, so why not take advantage of savings when possible? Considering factors everyday travelers value, such as available benefits and ease of earning a free flight or hotel stay, U.S. News evaluated nine frequent flyer programs and 16 hotel loyalty programs to determine which are the Best Travel Rewards Programs. Here are this year's top programs.

The Best Airline Rewards Programs

Using a methodology that takes into account earning and redemption rates, network coverage, award flight availability, daily domestic flight totals, member benefits and Airline Quality Ratings, U.S. News ranked the Best Airline Rewards Programs for leisure travelers. Read on to find out more about each U.S.-based frequent flyer program to help you decide which best suits your travel habits and needs.

9. Free Spirit

Spirit Airlines' loyalty program offers limited network coverage and no extra benefits (think: free checked bags or seat upgrades) for basic or elite members, and participants without elite status only receive half a mile for every mile flown. Miles also expire after three months of account inactivity, making it difficult for everyday travelers to earn elite status. But despite these drawbacks, Free Spirit does give members the opportunity to accrue miles in a variety of ways, including through stays at Choice Hotels properties and purchases made with an affiliated credit card.

8. HawaiianMiles

Though Hawaiian Airlines' limited flight network and award choice options are not ideal for most everyday travelers, vacationers who take frequent trips to and from the Hawaiian islands should consider enrolling in HawaiianMiles. Basic membership does not come with any additional benefits; however, those who qualify for elite status can enjoy several perks, such as complimentary airport lounge access and priority security lines at participating airports. Plus, all members can earn miles by buying everyday items with the airline's credit card, booking cruise vacations with select cruise lines and flying on partner carriers like Korean Air and JetBlue, among others.

7. FRONTIER Miles

In June 2018, Denver-based Frontier Airlines phased out its Frontier EarlyReturns rewards programs and introduced the FRONTIER Miles frequent flyer program. Ideal for those who regularly travel between Midwestern cities and smaller destinations like Fargo, North Dakota, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, FRONTIER Miles gives members 1 mile per mile flown (or up to 5 miles for every flight or purchase made with an affiliated credit card). Travelers who qualify for one of three elite tiers can take advantage of advance seat assignments, complimentary carry-on bags and the Family Pooling miles-sharing platform, among other benefits.

6. United MileagePlus

United Airlines offers more than 4,350 daily domestic flights to 350-plus destinations, making its MileagePlus rewards program a great option for travelers who vacation in a variety of locales. Thanks to United's multiple partnerships, members can earn and redeem miles on more than 35 airlines and for stays with hotel brands like Hyatt and Marriott. Basic members accrue 5 miles per dollar spent on flights but do not receive any extra perks. However, those who qualify for elite status (either through status matching from another program or by meeting minimum tier requirements) are awarded earnings bonuses, free seat upgrades and more.

5. Southwest Rapid Rewards

Despite lacking the diverse geographic coverage of other domestic carriers, Southwest Airlines makes it easy for budget-conscious travelers to earn and redeem points on flights to and from the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean. Southwest Rapid Rewards' high award flight availability score (thanks to unlimited rewards seats and no blackout dates) is also impressive, and all members can check up to two bags for free. Elite members enjoy additional benefits, such as priority boarding and expedited airport security. What's more, affiliated credit card holders receive access to redemption options like car rentals, cruises and international flights on other airlines.

4. American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines' improved AQR score and plethora of options for award flights helped the American Airlines AAdvantage program elevate its standing on this year's ranking. Members earn 5 or more miles for every dollar spent on flights, plus at least 500 Elite Qualifying Miles on any flight (excluding basic economy fares). Benefits like complimentary cabin upgrades and expedited security screenings are also available to members who qualify for elite status. Meanwhile, select American credit card holders have access to priority boarding and one free checked bag, regardless of their membership status.

3. JetBlue TrueBlue

Ample award flights and low redemption rates are the standout features of the JetBlue TrueBlue program. Members can earn points (which never expire) for every dollar they spend on flights, vacation packages, hotel stays, Lyft airport rides and more. Additional points are available via badges collected by engaging with JetBlue on social media. Basic membership does not come with any bonus perks, but those who earn TrueBlue Mosaic status or have one of the airline's credit cards enjoy access to two free checked bags, early boarding and expedited security lines at participating airports.

2. Delta SkyMiles

Delta Air Lines offers approximately 4,100 daily domestic flights and an array of ways to earn and redeem miles. In addition to earning at least 5 miles for every dollar spent on Delta flights, Delta SkyMiles members can accrue miles by renting cars, booking cruises, staying at Airbnb properties, using Lyft and buying items with a Delta SkyMiles credit card. Redemption options range from using miles for free flights with 20-plus airline partners to cashing in miles for exclusive experiences (think: concerts and upscale culinary events). Though basic membership benefits are limited, elite status provides perks like free cabin upgrades and priority check-in.

1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

The Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is the No. 1 Best Airline Rewards Program for the fourth year in a row. By awarding members 1 mile for every mile flown on Alaska Airlines and partner airline flights (or up to 3 miles for purchases made with the airline's credit card), Mileage Plan makes it easy for participants to score a free flight. The rewards program earns top marks on this ranking for its high award choice availability, superb network coverage and excellent AQR score. Plus, members who attain elite status have access to complimentary cabin upgrades and earnings bonuses, among other benefits.

The Best Hotel Rewards Programs

For this year's Best Hotel Rewards Programs, U.S. News considered factors that matter to everyday travelers, including the number of participating hotels, available member benefits, property diversity, geographic coverage and how easy it is to earn a free night. Browse through to find which of the 16 ranked programs is the right one for you.

16. I Prefer Hotel Rewards

Preferred Hotels & Resorts' loyalty program includes a diverse selection of participating properties and offers several perks for members, including early check-in, room upgrades and late checkout. However, I Prefer Hotel Rewards members can only earn and use points on hotel stays. To book a free night, members need to redeem reward certificates, which are worth $25 to $500 each and can only be purchased with points. Members will earn 10 or 15 points per dollar spent on hotel stays (depending on membership status), and a minimum of 12,500 points is required to earn a reward certificate.

15. Le Club AccorHotels

Few U.S.-based AccorHotels are available for Le Club AccorHotels members, but leisure travelers who regularly vacation in Europe will likely find this loyalty program appealing. Members can earn points on hotel stays, as well as with airline and rental car partners. For every 2,000 points accrued, members will receive a hotel reward voucher worth 40 euros (about $47), which can be applied toward stays, spa treatments and dining expenses at affiliated hotels. Or, members can trade points for airline miles or use them to book experiences, such as sporting events and concerts.

14. Omni Select Guest

Instead of awarding points per stay, Omni Select Guest offers a free night certificate to each member who completes 20 qualifying stays. Redemption options are limited due to the program lacking airline, car rental and retail partners and featuring only 53 properties, but basic members enjoy benefits like free internet access and complimentary bottled water (after completing their first Omni stay). Additional perks, such as room upgrades and access to local experiences, are also available free of charge for elite members.

13. Stash Hotel Rewards

More than 140 boutique properties participate in the Stash Hotel Rewards program, though affiliated hotels are not available in Honolulu, Paris and other popular vacation destinations. In addition to earning five points for every dollar spent on rooms at partner hotels (or one point per dollar spent at nonpartner hotels), members can collect points for everyday purchases made with the Stash Hotel Rewards Visa Card. Few benefits are available due to the program's lack of elite tiers, but members do have access to special hotel deals and room discounts.

12. Sonesta Travel Pass

All Sonesta Travel Pass members can take advantage of benefits like reduced room rates and complimentary internet access. However, methods of earning and using points with this ranking newcomer are limited: Members can only accrue and redeem points by staying at Sonesta properties. To cash in points for a free night, members must make a redemption request by calling the program's customer service team or by filling out an online redemption form. Once approved, members will need 15,000 to 50,000 points to book a free night.

11. Hilton Honors

With more than 5,300 hotels available in a variety of domestic and international destinations, Hilton's loyalty program appeals to travelers who want multiple ways to earn and redeem points. Hilton Honors partners with several airline, rail and rental car companies to give members more opportunities to collect points. What's more, participants who use one of the program's affiliated credit cards to make everyday purchases can accrue additional points. Redemption options range from cruise certificates and Amazon purchases to donating points to charity. Members who want to cash in points for a free night generally need to complete a high number of stays.

10. Leaders Club

The Leading Hotels of the World's loyalty program lacks the abundance of domestic properties other programs offer, but its basic membership comes with multiple perks. After paying the $150 annual fee to join, Leaders Club members receive daily complimentary breakfast for two, free room upgrades, early check-in, late checkout and a welcome gift during each stay at an affiliated hotel. Participants also qualify for comparable status in Sixt Rent a Car's rewards program. Instead of earning points for nights, members are awarded a complimentary night certificate following four or five qualifying stays in a year.

9. INVITED

The second of two hotel rewards programs added to this year's ranking, Small Luxury Hotels of the World's INVITED program gives members the opportunity to earn one free reward night voucher after staying five times or spending $6,000 at affiliated properties in one year. Although roughly 520 hotels participate in the program, INVITED's limited options in major domestic vacation destinations like San Francisco and New Orleans make it difficult for members to accrue qualifying stays. But basic membership does come with some perks, including discounted room rates, free Wi-Fi access, complimentary breakfast for two, early check-in and late checkout.

8. La Quinta Returns

La Quinta Returns' ties to Wyndham Rewards (as of May 2018) means members of either program can now link their accounts, transfer points and match their status until both programs merge, which is expected to occur in 2019. Participating properties are limited outside of the U.S., Mexico and Canada, but members earn 10 points per dollar spent and only need a minimum of 6,000 points for a free night in many hotels. Points can also be converted to airline miles or cashed in for magazine subscriptions, retail gift cards and more. Membership benefits include late checkout, free room upgrades and earnings bonuses.

7. Radisson Rewards

The Radisson-affiliated Club Carlson rewards program rebranded to become Radisson Rewards in March 2018. Though most program details remain the same, members now need fewer qualifying stays or nights in a year to reach elite status. Basic membership benefits are limited to reduced room rates, discounts at on-site dining venues and two complimentary bottles of water per stay. However, elite status comes with additional perks, such as free room upgrades and early check-in. To earn a free night, members will need to accrue at least 9,000 points from stays, affiliated credit card purchases or partner car hires or retail orders.

6. IHG Rewards Club

Nearly 5,400 InterContinental hotels participate in the IHG Rewards Club, including Kimpton properties previously part of the Kimpton Karma Rewards program. Hotel choices are plentiful in most major cities, but higher overall points minimums for rooms apply, so members will need to stay more times on average to earn a free night. But basic members do have access to several unique perks, such as in-room spa credits, free Amazon Kindle e-books and fuel discounts at partner gas stations. Plus, members with select IHG Rewards Club credit cards receive complimentary Platinum Elite status.

5. Best Western Rewards

Best Western lacks the higher-end properties other brands offer, but its loyalty program consistently earns praise for its variety of earning methods and its multitude of member benefits. Ten points are awarded for every dollar spent on room rates, and additional points are available for linking partner accounts, flying with partner airlines and making purchases with an affiliated credit card. Most program credit card holders also receive complimentary elite status, which includes benefits like late checkout and free room upgrades. What's more, Best Western Rewards is also the only program tied to a major hotel brand where points never expire.

4. Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges' network of 5,500-plus participating hotels makes it a great option for travelers keen on sticking to a budget. Many popular vacation destinations are home to multiple Choice Hotels outposts, and some hotels require as few as 6,000 points for a reward night. Points can also be used at select vacation rentals, Bluegreen Vacations resorts and Preferred Hotels & Resorts properties. Members earn 10 points per dollar spent on up to four rooms per stay, and membership benefits range from points bonuses to keepsake luggage tags to complimentary room upgrades.

3. World of Hyatt

World of Hyatt, which replaced Hyatt's former Hyatt Gold Passport program, continues to improve its standing on the Best Hotel Rewards Program list. Members receive five points for every dollar spent at participating Hyatt and MGM Resorts properties, with additional points awarded to elite members. Free nights in standard rooms cost 5,000 to 30,000 points, or members can use a combination of points and cash to pay for award nights. Members will also earn a free night every year if they stay at five different Hyatt brands or if they have the World of Hyatt Credit Card.

2. Wyndham Rewards

Wyndham Rewards participants can earn and redeem points at more than 8,000 properties around the world. Members earn 10 points per dollar spent on qualifying stays (or 1,000 points, whichever is higher) at Wyndham hotels and vacation resorts, and at participating Caesars Entertainment hotels. Additional points are available for everyday purchases made with a Wyndham-affiliated credit card. Plus, cardholders automatically qualify for elite status, which comes with late checkout and preferred room requests, among other perks. Members can also transfer points to and match their status in La Quinta Returns, which is expected to merge with Wyndham Rewards in 2019. But perhaps the best Wyndham Rewards attribute is its favorable redemption rates: Every Wyndham property costs only 15,000 points per night (or 3,000 points plus cash) to book.

1. Marriott Rewards

For the second consecutive year, Marriott Rewards is the No. 1 Best Hotel Rewards Program. In addition to offering multiple ways to earn points (including through affiliated credit card purchases and friend referrals), members can cash in as few as 7,500 points for a free night. What's more, Marriott Rewards' merger with Starwood Preferred Guest and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards programs means members can now qualify for Gold Elite or Platinum Elite status with fewer paid nights. Two additional elite tiers and new perks like Annual Choice Benefits (think: welcome gifts or complimentary suite awards) and personal ambassadors (who can assist with arranging sightseeing excursions, spa appointments and more) are available as well.
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Christine Smith, Staff Writer

Christine Smith is an Editor for the Travel section at U.S. News, where she manages the annual ...  Read more

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