US News & World Report Ranks Airline & Hotel Loyalty Programs

Filed Under: Travel

I always find it interesting when the “mainstream” media ranks airline & hotel loyalty programs. US News & World Report has just published their 2015 rankings of hotel & airline loyalty programs.

Before we get into the results, let’s look at their methodology for the rankings.

Ranking methodology

Here’s what’s going into the ranking system for airline loyalty programs:

  • Ease of Earning Free Round-Trip Flight (45%)
  • Additional Benefits (25%)
  • Network Coverage (10%)
  • Award Flight Availability (10%)
  • Number of Daily Flights (5%)
  • Airline Quality Rating (5%)

And here’s what goes into the ranking system for hotel loyalty programs:

  • Ease of Earning Free Night (45%)
  • Additional Benefits (25%)
  • Geographic Coverage (15%)
  • Number of Hotels in Network (10%)
  • Property Diversity (5%)

For more about what goes into each of those categories, check out their page about the ranking methodology.

My thoughts on the methodology

Of course it’s really tough to develop any sort of objective methodology for determining which loyalty program is “best,” since everyone is looking for something different.

For the average consumer I’d say their methodology isn’t that far off, so that’s worth keeping in mind. They aren’t defining the best programs based on which is easiest to maximize, but rather based on which program the “average” person would benefit most from, which is fair.

On the airline front it’s worth noting that nearly half the weight of which program is best comes down to how easy it is to redeem for a domestic roundtrip economy flight. For someone maximizing miles, quite a bit of the other methodology is irrelevant as well.

For example, personally (and I realize this doesn’t reflect the average person), I don’t care what award availability is like on the carrier with which I have miles (since I want to redeem on partners), I don’t care about their number of daily flights, the airline quality rating, etc. I earn my Alaska miles to fly on Emirates, and not to fly on Alaska (though I realize I’m in the minority).

The hotel ratings are even more interesting. Understandably they factor in geographic coverage, number of hotels in network, and property diversity. That’s perfectly reasonable, but does present an interesting challenge.

Often it’s the hotels with a smaller global footprint that have better loyalty programs, as a way to compensate for their lack of properties. So they can have fantastic loyalty programs, while the number of hotels you can stay at are somewhat limited.

So neither of the above is to suggest that the methodology is objectively wrong. Though it is worth understanding that this is (understandably) geared towards the average consumer, and not a savvier member.

Top 5 airline & hotel loyalty programs

With that in mind, let’s look at the results.

Here are US News & World Reports’ top five airline loyalty programs:

  1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  2. American Airlines AAdvantage
  3. Southwest Rapid Rewards
  4. JetBlue TrueBlue
  5. HawaiianMiles

And here are their top five hotel loyalty programs:

  1. Marriott Rewards
  2. Wyndham Rewards
  3. Best Western Rewards
  4. Club Carlson
  5. IHG Rewards Club

My thoughts on the rankings

Funny enough they ranked the top two airline loyalty programs exactly as I would have. Alaska Mileage Plan and American AAdvantage are especially lucrative for aspirational redemptions, but also seem to score well using the US News & World Report methodology.

Redeem Alaska miles for Emirates A380 first class

Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue being the next two makes sense, though HawaiianMiles totally confuses me. As far as I’m concerned it’s one of the worst frequent flyer programs in the US.

On the hotel front, we’re really seeing the impact of them so heavily weighing the global footprint of a hotel chain.

Starwood Preferred Guest ranks at #8, while Hyatt Gold Passport ranks as #10. Amazingly Hilton HHonors only ranks at #9, despite having a huge global footprint.

I certainly love my Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status!

I wish they’d explain a bit more about their system, because some of the “cons” they list don’t make sense to me. For example, “cons” of Hyatt Gold Passport include:

  • Some elite membership benefits are not available at select hotels
  • Limited number of rooms available for rewards booking

Bottom line

It’s interesting to see the survey results, though I wouldn’t put much weight on them. US News & World Report’s criteria is interesting, and ultimately not more right or wrong than any other type of methodology, given that everyone is looking for something else.

But certainly don’t change your loyalty program behavior based on these rankings.

What do you make of the US News & World Report airline & hotel loyalty program rankings?

  1. Lucky, Why do you delete my comments? I’v never said anything inappropriate. I can trick you with a VPN if you prefer this way…

  2. @lucky – Sorry, I guess it has been removed by the wordpress engine because it contains a link. The comment was posted to the Delta’s first private jet upgrade. Now it’s visible again, I don’t know what happened.

    Sorry for the inconveniences. Thank you in advance if you have time to review my question!

  3. Pros of SPG:
    Points will not expire as long as your account shows activity at least once a year

    Con of Hilton/Marriot:
    Points can expire if your account remains inactive for more than 12 months
    Points expire if there is no activity over a two-year period

    Don’t think we need to treat this ranking seriously…

  4. Any ranking from US News & World Report is suspect. The college and subsequent high school ranking process began as a marketing strategy to help boost significant decline in sales at USN&WR. I applaud all the college and secondary school administrators and trustees who refuse to participate in their annual ranking questionnaires.

  5. Hmmm… While airline ranking make some sense (at least, for AS & AA; not so much for Hawaiian, especially given their limited network), hotel rankings are weird. But, then again, whatever works for your travel pattern… I don’t generally travel for work, so Starwood & Hyatt are fine by me because they can be found in many holiday destinations (more true for Starwood; Hyatt really needs to step up their game in Europe).

  6. When Five Thirty Eight comes out with a ranking I’ll be sure to review in depth. Otherwise, popular loyalty analysis will be subject to creative statistics and heuristics and may mislead an unsuspecting public audience.

    There are scholarly attempts to value loyalty programs that are beyond the current discussion.


  7. When are you going to release the One Mile At A Time 2015 rankings of hotel & airline loyalty programs? Just as long as you don’t dub it the ‘One Mile At A Time 2015 Awards’.

  8. honestly, i am glad my favorite hotel program didn’t make the top 5 list.
    less crowd means better chance of me scoring free suite upgrade.

  9. @Lucky claims, as do other travel bloggers who are enamored with small programs: “Often it’s the hotels with a smaller global footprint that have better loyalty programs, as a way to compensate for their lack of properties.”

    There is absolutely no proof whatsoever to that claim, especially if one does not limit the concept of “elite” to only the very top. Hyatt GP Platinum is elite status in name only, and Marriott and HHonors Golds benefits are better than those of SPG Golds. At the very top, nearly every elite expresses satisfaction with the way their program treats them or with their elite benefits, so it is a wash.

    What is strange about this ranking is that Hilton Honors not appearing in the top 5 alongside Marriott is completely inconsistent with US News’ own criteria.

  10. At least with Marriott you can reset the timer by buying points. Last time I checked $12 or so was the lowest amount you could buy. Very much worth it instead of letting the points expire.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *