Download a PDF with side-by-side comparisons of the top U.S. airline loyalty programs. Determine which has qualification criteria you can meet, and weigh the benefits to decide if your loyalty will pay off.
Read on for mini-reviews of each hotel and airline…
This is my preferred airline program, but the decision to pick a “favorite” is quite personal. United (and the former Continental) have strong presences everywhere I travel, and their involvement in Star Alliance, the largest global alliance, makes it convenient for me to travel internationally. In particular, I really appreciate the complimentary Economy Plus seats for elites and the complimentary upgrades on domestic flights. However, they have been diluting benefits, systemwide upgrades require more expensive tickets, and passenger compensation is nowhere near as good as it used to be.
American Airlines is among the smallest of the domestic legacy carriers now that others have merged, and their international route network is relatively weak. On the other hand, their recent bankruptcy filing has only further pushed them to offer competitive fares and promotions that make it easier to earn elite status. Although complimentary (no voucher required) domestic upgrades are only available to top-tier elites, their systemwide upgrades are applicable to any fare.
Delta was always a bit of a black sheep because of its relatively worthless award miles (“SkyPesos”) and clueless reservations agents. Now they’ve added added restrictions on last-minute changes to reservations, which are often the best way to get that elusive first class seat. However, miles were worthless in part because they were so easy to get, and unused elite qualifying miles roll over from year to year. Top-tier elites also get free access to domestic lounges.
US Airways is another black sheep, not because of its award program but because of its old planes and indifferent service. However, it is a great vehicle for booking award tickets on other Star Alliance partners, especially during off-season months when US offers discounted awards. US Airways also sells its miles at a relative discount during frequent promotions and runs a Grand Slam promotion each year that allows you to cheaply earn enough miles for an international business class award.
Depending on how you view it, Rapid Rewards is not nearly as good as it once was. Instead of flying X number of times to earn a free flight, the current system is essentially a cash back program. You earn and redeem points based on the cost of the ticket, not the distance flown, which makes it difficult to hack. However, the annual Companion Pass is a tremendous deal if you must fly Southwest or if you can find a way to earn the required points through credit card bonuses.
Alaska Airlines is like that promiscuous friend you knew in college who refuses to settle down. They are not part of any alliance, but they partner with many airlines from different alliances, which makes them a great place to put miles from that odd flight on an airline you otherwise never fly. This also makes them a convenient option for redeeming miles on a variety of airlines, and their credit card offers an annual $99 companion ticket with flexible terms.
I don’t play the mattress run game just yet, but if I did it would probably be with Hyatt. They have some of the best hotels and customer service. Nearly all of my favorite hotel experiences as a child are of Hyatt hotels. The only downfall of their Gold Passport program is that they have fewer properties than some other luxury brands. Diamond status is reported to be excellent, but even as a Platinum member (easily obtained with their credit card) I have received special recognition. If you don’t have enough points for an award, you can combine points from another member in the same household, but only up to the amount you still require. (E.g., you have 40K but need 70K. If your spouse has 50K, he or she can contribute 30K.)
SPG is widely recognized as one of the better hotel loyalty programs because of its tremendous cash and points redemptions as well as the fact that it allows you to count award stays toward elite status qualification. There are many member hotels, and upgrades are plentiful for Platinum members even if you sometimes have to remind staff that you are entitled to them. You can also transfer SPG points at a 1:1 ratio to many airlines with a 25% bonus for larger transfers. Points can be combined between members of a household but only if both members have had the same address on file for at least one month.
The Priority Club program is a great choice for a budget traveler or someone who just doesn’t care quite as much about staying in luxury hotels. InterContinental Hotel Group includes all of the various Holiday Inn brands and Crowne Plaza, as well as a few others. It also includes InterContinental Hotels, but there aren’t many of those properties in the U.S. Like most “cheaper” loyalty programs, earning the bonus points from an affiliated credit card is much easier, with no minimum spend.
IHG separates its Priority Club and Ambassador programs in two. Priority Club is free to join and includes all of its hotel chains. The Ambassador program actually costs $200 to join before you can begin acquiring status and is targeted specifically at those who stay at InterContinental Hotels (you will still receive benefits appropriate to your status at other IHG brands). However, some of the perks can be quite nice, such as free access to the minibar if you are a Royal Ambassador, and the opportunity to sponsor a second membership for a friend.