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U.S. News and World Report Releases Rewards Program Rankings

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U.S. News and World Report just released its annual award program rankings. Today, TPG intern Kevin Song digs into the results.

U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of travel rewards programs today. Each year, USNWR ranks both airline and hotel rewards programs — and while you might not want to give these ratings too much weight, they offer an interesting perspective.

This year, Alaska Airlines MileagePlan topped the airline frequent flyer list, and Marriott Rewards maintained its seat at the top of the hotel rewards program list. Let’s find out why.

American Airlines rose three spots this year to number 2 on USNWR's frequent flyer program rankings.
American Airlines rose three spots this year to number 2 on USNWR’s frequent flyer program rankings.

Airline Frequent Flyer Program Rankings

USNWR explains that its ranking system is based on an unbiased methodology “that takes into account each program’s earning and redemption values, benefits, network coverage and award flight availability, among other features.” New to this year’s airline rankings is network coverage — a measurement of the breadth and diversity of routes offered.

In that regard, non-alliance member Alaska Airlines actually does exceptionally well, with its many major partners that include Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, KLM, Korean Air and Qantas.

Rank 2015 2014
1 Alaska Airlines MileagePlan JetBlue TrueBlue
2 American Airlines AAdvantage Southwest Rapid Rewards
3 Southwest Rapid Rewards Alaska Airlines MileagePlan
4 JetBlue TrueBlue United MileagePlus
5 HawaiianMiles American Airlines AAdvantage

Notably, USNWR only ranks US-based airline rewards programs. The weights used in determining the rankings were:

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

TPG’s favorite program, American Airlines AAdvantage, rose from number 5 last year to number 2 this year. Likely due to the airline switching to a revenue-based earning scheme, United MileagePlus dropped from number 4 all the way to number 8, followed closely by its newly minted revenue-based competitor, Delta SkyMiles at number 9.

These rankings, however, have one major flaw: They blend in non-elite status general flyers with all other types of flyers. Perks earned at each level vary drastically, so someone who doesn’t fly enough to earn elite status, but enough to earn a free flight or two a year will have very different results. Different, too, are the elite status levels — I’d never want to become a JetBlue Mosaic elite, as it gets you very little, but I love being American Airlines Executive Platinum, and I’d pay a great deal to retain that status.

Ultimately, the airline rewards rankings aren’t too helpful, and you’ll need to make your own determination as to which frequent flyer program is best for you.

The Scrub island Marriott is just a private ferry ride from St. Thomas. Marriott Rewards topped this year's list of hotel rewards programs. Photo courtesy of the resort.
The Scrub Island Marriott is just a private ferry ride from St. Thomas. Marriott Rewards topped this year’s list of hotel rewards programs. Photo courtesy of the resort.

Hotel Rewards Program Rankings

Unsurprisingly, USNWR’s rankings of hotel programs holds a similar algorithm.

  • Ease of Earning Free Night (45 percent weight)
  • Additional Benefits (25 percent weight)
  • Geographic Coverage (15 percent weight)
  • Number of Hotels in Network (10 percent weight)
  • Property Diversity (5 percent weight)
2015 2014
1 Marriott Rewards Marriott Rewards
2 Wyndham Rewards IHG Rewards Club
3 Best Western Rewards Best Western Rewards
4 Club Carlson Club Carlson
5 IHG Rewards Club Starwood Preferred Guest

I’m disappointed to see my personal favorite, Starwood Preferred Guest, fall completely off the top-five list, all the way down to number 8. In particular, USNWR didn’t like how “a free night at a luxury hotel requires a large number of Starpoints in most cities.” Strange, considering SPG redemptions max out at 30,000 Starpoints, while luxury hotels can easily run 70,000 points or more per night at some of the other programs on the top-five list.

It is, however, great to see Wyndham rising on the list, since you can how redeem 15,000 points for any property in the world. It’s rare to see a program undergo a “revaluation,” and good on the chain for being recognized for that.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, rankings are certainly to be taken with a grain of salt, and, like applying to college, you definitely shouldn’t base your decisions on this one. Be sure to consider your individual travel habits, elite status desires, desire to travel internationally in premium cabins and hotel style preferences.

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