If you're going to participate in a loyalty program, make it Alaska's Mileage Plan or Marriott's Rewards plan. They topped the latest US News & World Report list of best loyalty programs.
As is often the case, it wasn't the best, but the worst programs that were noteworthy. Spirit Airlines' program, FREE SPIRIT, came in dead last among airlines, but it was followed by Delta's embattled SkyMiles program and United's MileagePlus program. Among hotels, Loews YouFirst, Preferred's iPrefer and Fairmont President’s Club rounded out the bottom.
"One of the biggest surprises is the Wyndham Rewards program, which jumped from the No. 7 to the No. 2 spot on our best hotel rewards programs list," says Liz Weiss, U.S. News & World Report's travel editor. The reason: Wyndham recently changed its loyalty program policy to allow members to redeem a night’s stay for a flat rate of 15,000 points.
"The redemption rate is standard across all Wyndham hotels, plus members can use a combination of cash and points to book reduced room rates," she says. "As a result, loyalty members can rack up and redeem points for free stays quickly and easily."
Best airline loyalty programs
1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
2. American Airlines AAdvantage
3. Southwest Rapid Rewards
4. JetBlue TrueBlue
6. Virgin America Elevate
7. Frontier EarlyReturns
8. United MileagePlus
9. Delta SkyMiles
10. FREE SPIRIT
"There were some shake-ups," says Weiss. Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan claimed the top spot, while last year's winner, JetBlue, dropped to number four. Why? U.S. News changed its methodology, giving more weight to the ease of mileage redemption to recognize the increased importance of ease of earning flights, nights and membership benefits.
Spirit, Delta and United performed poorly because their programs lacked in three key areas: ease of earning, award flight availability and additional benefits, she says.
Best hotel loyalty programs
1. Marriott Rewards
2. Wyndham Rewards
3. (tie) Best Western Rewards
3. (tie) Club Carlson
5. IHG Rewards Club
6. Leaders Club
7. La Quinta Returns
8. Starwood Preferred Guest
9. Hilton HHonors
10. Hyatt Gold Passport
11. Choice Privileges
12. Stash Hotel Rewards
13. Omni Select Guest
14. Kimpton Karma Rewards
15. Le Club Accorhotels
16. Fairmont President’s Club
18. Loews YouFirst
The worst hotel programs scored poorly because they lacked an easy way of earning points, property diversity and geographic coverage. Marriott, which was last year's winner, retained its title, while IHG, last year's number-two program, slipped to number five.
"Marriott offers diverse lodging options, an extensive network, generous extra membership perks and a low requirement for earning and redeeming free stays," says Weiss.
The rankings come at a tumultuous time for travel loyalty programs. Several companies, notably United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have recently cut their program benefits, amid an industry-wide trend that has diluted the value of loyalty points.
All of which begs the question: Is this even a game worth playing? Weiss answers with a qualified "yes."
"No one program is ideal program for everyone," she says. "Still, selecting one that best caters to your lifestyle, and goals can help you maximize lucrative rewards and benefits."