If you’re new to the world of travel rewards programs, you probably feel overwhelmed with choices. Just about every airline and hotel chain has its own rewards system, not to mention travel rewards credit cards to further complicate matters.
However, many programs deliver little in actual rewards. If you arm yourself with a good list of criteria, it’s easy to separate the best travel loyalty programs from the fluff. Here’s a comprehensive checklist you can use to evaluate any travel rewards program, as well as our favorites by category.
Which Travel Rewards Program Is Right For You?
Choosing the best travel rewards program will depend on your needs and habits. While you’ll hear lots of people raving about a specific program, it’s important to evaluate it based on your own criteria.
Consider Your Travel Goals
The first step in choosing the best travel rewards program for you is considering your travel goals. How exactly you want to redeem your miles will determine the program you should invest in. If you plan on traveling mostly domestically, the best travel rewards programs might be different than if you’re planning to travel abroad.
For example, Southwest points might be useful for budget family travelers but are utterly useless for those who want to travel in international first class.
Similarly, if you want to travel to destinations that are heavily served by a specific hotel chain, then choosing the affiliated rewards program makes sense. If you prefer to stay at Airbnbs, then hotel rewards programs may not be worth pursuing at all. You might benefit from a cash back card to redeem rewards for Airbnb bookings. How you plan to use your points is crucial in choosing travel rewards programs.
Where You Live Matters
Where you’re living matters as much as where you’re traveling, especially when it comes to airline miles. If you live in a United Airlines hub city, then you’re better off choosing United MileagePlus as your rewards program. You’ll have access to more direct flights so you can earn miles and elite status faster.
To figure out which airline uses your city as its hub, go to the Wikipedia page of your home airport. Under “Airlines and destinations,” you can see all the airlines serving the airport and the cities they fly to directly. The airline with the most cities served will be your best bet, though the destinations should also be a factor.
Understand Different Types of Travel Rewards Programs
There are three main types of travel rewards programs you should be familiar with. Each one can help you achieve different travel goals, and diversifying is key to a good strategy. Ideally, you should choose at least one rewards program from each type.
Hotel points are mainly useful for hotel stays. Some programs allow you to convert your hotel points to airline miles, though at an unfavorable ratio. Ideally, you should use your hotel points for hotel stays. There are seven main U.S.-based hotel rewards programs you should be aware of:
- Choice Privileges
- IHG One Rewards
- Hilton Honors
- Marriott Bonvoy
- Radisson Rewards
- World of Hyatt
- Wyndham Rewards
The best hotel rewards program depends on where you plan to travel. Marriott Bonvoy has the largest number of hotels, with over 8,500 properties worldwide. While hotel footprint matters, you should also consider your personal preferences when choosing a hotel rewards program. Are you more of a budget traveler, or do you like to splurge on luxury hotels? What kind of elite benefits do you want?
World of Hyatt is a popular program that offers a wide range of brands and excellent elite status benefits. You can also earn progress towards elite status through credit card spending with the World of Hyatt Credit Card and World of Hyatt Business Card.
Meanwhile, Hilton Honors makes earning status even faster – the Hilton Aspire Card awards automatic top-tier Diamond elite status as long as you have the card. The attainability and usefulness of elite status should definitely be a factor in choosing a hotel loyalty program, as it can vastly improve your hotel experience.
Most airline miles are redeemable for flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, and vacation packages. Generally, you’ll get the most value by using them for flights. Some airlines publish award charts that show exactly how many miles you need for an award. Others employ dynamic pricing, meaning the number of miles will vary depending on demand and cash fares.
Some of the best (and most popular) ways to redeem airline miles are for business and first-class flights abroad. You’ll get an incredible travel experience that might normally be out of your budget. Of course, that’s not the only way – you can certainly stretch your miles far on domestic flights during high season.
Transferrable rewards are the best type of rewards program to invest in. That’s because these points are very flexible. You can transfer them to airline miles, hotel points or use them for cash back rewards. Transferable rewards programs are also valuable because they are essentially devaluation-proof.
Airline and hotel programs can raise their award prices at any time, making your points worth less than before the devaluation. With transferable rewards, you don’t have this problem because the points are not tied to a specific airline or hotel until you transfer them. And since most transfers are instant, you don’t have to transfer points until you’re ready to redeem them. Here’s a look at the main transferable rewards programs:
- American Express Membership Rewards
- Capital One Venture
- Citi ThankYou® points
- Chase Ultimate Rewards®
Be Aware of Hidden Costs
Too often, rewards travel is referred to as “free,” but there are hidden costs associated with it. Some airlines charge high taxes and fuel surcharges on award tickets. So even if you’re redeeming points, you might end up paying thousands of dollars in additional taxes. British Airways is notorious for this.
Similarly, some hotels charge resort or “destination” fees even on award stays. So while you’re booking a free night at a hotel that costs $100 or more, you might also end up paying $50 per night in resort fees. Keeping these hidden costs in mind will help you figure out which travel rewards program is worth investing in and when you might want to save your points or redeem them with a different program.
Consider How Attainable Awards Are
While you want a travel rewards program that makes it easy to earn points, it’s just as crucial that awards are attainable. You can measure attainability based on redemption rates (especially relative to point-earning rates), award availability, and whether the program uses dynamic pricing or publishes an award chart.
If you’re a high-season traveler, you might get more value from an airline rewards program that uses a zone-based award chart to price out flights. That way, even if cash fares and demand are high, you won’t redeem outrageous rates for a flight.
The same goes for hotels – chains like Hyatt and Hilton have begun implementing dynamic pricing. Hyatt is a bit more transparent by publishing an award chart with peak, off-peak, and standard redemption rates. This eliminates sticker shock and allows you to save up enough points before booking an award.
How to join travel rewards programs
Once you know which travel rewards program you want to join, how do you actually join it, let alone earn points and miles.
The most common way to join a program and begin earning points and miles is to get a travel rewards credit card.
The Chase Ultimate Rewards® is a very popular travel rewards program because the points transfer to other programs very easily. You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® through cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card.
With your credit card you will start earning rewards on each dollar spent on the card. On top of that, cards often have ways to earn bonus points in certain spending categories.
Travel rewards credit cards also typically have welcome bonuses that allow you to get a large batch of points or miles right off the bat by jumping through some hoops, such as spending a certain amount on the card in a set amount of time.
Consider the Ease of Earning Points
When you’re choosing a travel rewards program, you should factor in how easy it is to earn points. Does the program offer several co-branded credit cards you can choose from? Does it partner with one more transferable rewards program, so you can easily top off your balance for an award? These are all important questions to consider.
Travel credit cards will be a key tool in building up your travel rewards balance. You’ll want a card that earns sufficient welcome bonuses, generous earn rates on various spending categories, and the ability to earn rewards through shopping portals, dining rewards platforms, and more. The more ways you can earn points with a program, the easier it is for you to save up for an award.
A Few of the Best Travel Rewards Programs For Beginners
Once you’ve set your criteria, you have many options for choosing a travel rewards program. Here’s an overview of the most popular domestic programs:
An airline loyalty program can get you free flights. Consider what airlines service your home airport as well which fly to your desired locations.
American Airlines AAdvantage
Best for: People who live in eastern, southern, or central U.S. cities who want to fly around the world.
Main benefits: You can earn miles from flights on American and its large network of airlines, as well as purchases from American’s other partners. Miles can be redeemed for flights, upgrades, and other vacation needs such as hotel rooms and car rentals. It’s also possible to redeem miles for retail products. American Airlines still publishes an award chart, making it easy to plan and know how many miles to save up.
Caveats: You must maintain an active account — mileage credits expire after 24 months of inactivity.
Best for: Travelers living near Delta hub cities (Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and others).
Main benefits: You earn SkyMiles on Delta and partner flights. SkyMiles do not expire. SkyMiles can be redeemed for flights and other travel. The Miles + Cash program allows you to reduce the price of a cash ticket even if you don’t have enough miles to cover the entire fare. This, and the fact miles never expire, make SkyMiles attractive for occasional travelers.
Caveats: Delta recently changed how SkyMiles are earned. Earned SkyMiles are now based on ticket price, not miles are flown. So if you always book the cheapest fare, you’ll earn fewer miles than someone purchasing a more expensive refundable or first-class ticket.
Best for: Anyone who lives near a major American city and wants to travel within the U.S. or abroad.
Main Benefits: United has a vast partner network through the Star Alliance, serving over 1,000 destinations worldwide. And in addition to flights, you can redeem points for hotel stays, train tickets, and other travel necessities.
Caveats: United MileagePlus does not publish an award chart, and redemption rates are determined dynamically. This can make redemption rates unpredictable and planning a bit challenging.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Best for: Travelers who want a straightforward loyalty program with a route network within the U.S. and to Mexico and the Caribbean.
Main Benefits: Southwest Rapid Rewards is very straightforward when it comes to earning and redeeming miles. There are no blackout dates either. Plus, Southwest lets you earn a Companion Pass. You can use this pass to fly a designated companion for free (plus taxes and fees).
Caveats: Southwest is limited to mostly domestic flights. If you want to travel outside of North or Central America, this isn’t the program for you. Southwest also doesn’t have a premium cabin, so all seats are in economy class.
Hotel loyalty programs can earn you free stays at your favorite hotel. Consider where you like to stay as well as what hotels service your desired travel locations.
Best for: Budget travelers who want reasonable redemption rates and an extensive hotel network.
Main benefits: Free nights start at just 6,000 points.
Caveats: Choice Privileges doesn’t offer many high-end hotels.
Best for: Travelers who want easy elite status
Main benefits: Hilton Honors is the only hotel loyalty program that offers top-tier status just for holding a credit card. With the Hilton Aspire Card, you’ll get instant Diamond status just for having the card in your wallet.
Caveats: Hilton doesn’t publish an award chart, and redemption rates can be quite unpredictable and high.
Best for: Travelers who want to stay at mostly budget and mid-tier hotels.
Main benefits: High earn rates and the ability to buy points at a reasonable price.
Caveats: IHG makes it harder to earn elite status, and the benefits aren’t quite as good as other programs.
Best for: Frequent travelers who prefer higher-end hotels (including W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, and Aloft).
Main benefits: Marriott is the largest hotel chain in the world, with over 8,000 properties. This provides lots of opportunities to earn and redeem points. Marriott also provides the fifth night free on 5-night award stays.
Caveats: Marriott stopped publishing an award chart, and redemptions at top-tier hotels can be astronomical.
World of Hyatt
Best for: Travelers who want a rewarding loyalty program with reasonable redemption rates and solid elite status benefits.
Main benefits: Hyatt still publishes an award chart with reasonable rates. The program also allows you to earn status through credit cards.
Caveats: Hyatt has implemented peak and off-peak pricing, so award rates can fluctuate. Hyatt also has a smaller global footprint than some of the other hotel loyalty programs, though it is growing.
Are Travel Rewards Programs Worth It?
The best travel Rewards Programs are absolutely worth it if you want to save on travel or improve your experience. Points and miles open up a world of possibilities, ranging from luxury vacations to upgraded hotel rooms and everything in between. Whether you’re a solo traveler looking to splurge on a first-class seat or simply looking to save on your next family vacation, the right rewards programs can help you get there. Follow the steps outlined above, and you’ll be in a great position to achieve your travel goals.