I’ve created some side-by-side comparisons of the top U.S. airline and hotel loyalty programs. These include qualification criteria and published benefits. (All the better if the program likes to go above and beyond, but I only include what’s promised in writing.) I suggest you consider which criteria you can meet and weigh the benefits that you value to decide if your loyalty will pay off.
- Detailed tables and summary of airline loyalty programs as of February 2014 (or download the airline comparison PDF)
- Detailed tables and summary of hotel loyalty programs as of April 2014 (or download the hotel comparison PDF)
Short, opinionated reflections of each loyalty program are provided below. It may be useful to run a search for that program to learn more about everything I’ve said and not base your conclusions entirely on what you read here. Although I have my favorites, every program has its merits depending on what you value as a traveler.
United was my original preferred airline and the first one in which I obtained elite status. I eventually left because I felt the poor in-flight service — even when upgraded to first class — was not worth giving them my business. In particular, the ability to use systemwide upgrades is severely restricted relative to other U.S. competitors. But they still have an excellent loyalty program that I participate in by transferring Ultimate Rewards points earned with various Chase credit cards. United has a strong global network, and their membership in Star Alliance, the largest global alliance, makes it even easier to travel internationally. NOTE: United requires a certain minimum qualifying spend to earn elite status, which they track as Premier Qualifying Dollars.
American Airlines is now my preferred carrier for long-haul and international flights. Although they were one of the smallest of the domestic legacy carriers, their merger with US Airways has helped considerably. They still have work to do in expanding their presence on the West Coast and in Asia, where they seem content to rely on partnerships with Alaska Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Be aware that only top-tier elite members receive complimentary domestic upgrades, while lower tiers must redeem 500-mile vouchers. Some believe this makes upgrades easier to obtain by requiring you to choose when it really matters. As for top-tiers, one major benefit is that systemwide upgrades are applicable to any fare.
Delta has lately been despised for its relatively worthless award miles (“SkyPesos”), restrictive systemwide upgrade policies, and insistence that people book round-trip awards. However, they have relaxed the upgrade policy significantly and are launching a new five-tier award chart next year with one-way awards that they claim will be less expensive. The negative aspect of these changes is that they will also be awarding miles based on spend and not distance. Some travelers will lose out. My opinion is that Delta has been a great airline to fly, but it’s loyalty program is largely irrelevant. Only you can decide if this is worthwhile tradeoff. NOTE: Delta requires a certain minimum qualifying spend to earn elite status, which they track as Medallion Qualifying Dollars.
Depending on how you view it, Rapid Rewards is either incredibly easy to understand or not nearly as good as it once was. The old method was a punchcard system: complete X flights and get your next flight free. The current system is essentially a cash back program that has more to do with rewards than loyalty. 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 because it lets you designate an individual who can fly with you for free. You can earn it if you accumulate 110,000 points in a calendar year — and, yes, those points from a Southwest Airlines credit card (even the sign-up bonus) will be included.
Alaska Airlines is 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. It also makes up for some gaps in their route network, which is very heavy on the West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii. They are expanding with many non-stop flights from Seattle and Portland to various Midwest and East Coast destinations as they compete with Delta Air Lines. But both Delta and American Airlines are part of their partner network, meaning you can earn miles and status with Alaska without even setting foot on their planes. 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.)
Starwood 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.