6 Rewards Programs That Make Award Travel Easy

Mar 23, 2015

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I’ve realized over the years that many people ignore travel rewards simply out of confusion about how they work. Many programs have convoluted rules that can be overwhelming to beginners, so today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele offers his picks for loyalty programs that make earning and redeeming points and miles easy.

Were you born with an innate knowledge of how travel rewards work? Neither was I. We were all beginners at some point, and it’s easy when you’re starting off to be intimidated by the dizzying number of loyalty programs offered, and their pages of fine print.

In this post, my mission is to cut through the complexity and recommend two of the best airline, hotel, and credit card rewards programs for readers who are just getting started in this hobby. These programs might not necessarily offer extreme rewards, but they do offer the best return for the least amount of time and effort.

Southwest Rapid Rewards is about as straightforward of an airline loyalty program as you’ll find, but it still offers great value.

The best airline programs for beginners

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Southwest actually carries more passengers domestically than any other airline, and since the airline doesn’t operate traditional hubs, there’s a good chance that it flies where you’re going. The Rapid Rewards program is also very simple. Travelers earn 6 points per dollar spent on tickets in the lowest of their three fare classes, called “Wanna Get Away” fares. Tickets in the Anytime fare class earn 10 points per dollar, and Business Select fares earn 12 points per dollar.

Points are worth about 1.4 cents toward tickets in the Wanna Get Away fare class (or a bit more when you factor in taxes and fees), which are plentiful when looking for flights more than two weeks in advance. Unfortunately, Southwest recently announced that it might raise redemption rates for some flights starting in April, but I expect the program will remain valuable and easy to use.

The most outstanding feature of Rapid Rewards is the Companion Pass, which is earned by accumulating 110,000 points in a calendar year. The pass allows you to designate a companion who then gets to travel with you on any flight for just the cost of taxes, including award flights. Depending on when you earn the pass, it can be valid for almost two full years. For more information, see my post on the Southwest Companion Pass: 16 Things Every Flyer Should Know.

If 110,000 points sounds like a lot to earn in one year, you can earn Rapid Rewards points quickly with the sign-up bonuses offered by co-branded credit cards from Chase, like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card. The sign-up bonus is currently 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, but Chase sometimes offers higher bonuses, so keep an eye open for those.

Noticing a change from American's new 777-300ER to an older 777-200 could prevent a surprise upon boarding.
With United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles switching to revenue-based earning systems, the AAdvantage program is your best bet.

American Airlines AAdvantage

As its rivals have shifted their frequent flyer programs toward ever increasing levels of complexity, the AAdvantage program has remained mercifully simple by comparison. Unlike Delta and United, travelers still earn a base rate of one mile per mile flown, and award space at the lowest mileage levels is still surprisingly generous, at least for domestic flights.

Just like the old days, domestic round-trip awards in economy start at 25,000 miles, and first class flights are 50,000 miles round-trip. Awards to Europe are normally 60,000 miles round-trip in coach and just 100,000 miles round trip in business class, though you can actually get off-peak awards in economy for just 40,000 miles round-trip during certain parts of the year. Even international first class awards are a relative bargain at only a 25% premium over business class.

Another feature that makes this program easy to use is the simple and accurate award search tool on its website. American miles can be redeemed for award flights with airlines that are part of the OneWorld Alliance. Just be aware that some partner award flights will not appear, such as those on Iberia, JAL, and LAN.

The US Airways Dividend Miles program will soon merge with the American Airlines AAdvantage program, so you can earn additional miles from co-branded cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the US Airways Premier World MasterCard. The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.   

You can transfer Ultimate Rewards to airline and hotel partners, including Hyatt.
Hyatt’s Gold Passport program offers great value at impressive properties worldwide.

The two best hotel programs for beginners

Hyatt Gold Passport

Members earn five points per Dollar spent at Hyatt hotels, and an additional three points per Dollar when paying with the Hyatt Credit Card. The card also gives you automatic Platinum status, which comes with a 15% bonus on base points, so cardholders can easily earn a total of 8.75 points per dollar on paid stays. It also offers double points for airfare and car rentals, and other perks of Platinum status, including priority service, room upgrades, and late checkouts.

Points can be redeemed for free nights at Hyatt properties hotels, which are divided into seven categories that range in price from 5,000 to 30,000 points per night. Thankfully, most hotels cost between 8,000 and 20,000 points nightly, with only a few high-end properties costing more (like the Park Hyatt New York). Thankfully, Hyatt has a policy of no blackout dates or capacity controls, so you can use your points to book any available standard room that is for sale, even during peak periods. Hyatt points are also available via transfer from the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which I’ll discuss below.

Starwood Preferred Guest features a nice range of properties, including the beautiful Prince de Galles Hotel in Paris.

Starwood Preferred Guest

This program includes brands like Sheraton, Westin, W, and others, and is both very simple and valuable. Starwood Preferred Guest members earn two points per dollar spent at Starwood properties, plus another two points from the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express.

Points can be redeemed for free nights starting at just 3,000 points a night, but most properties go for between 4,000 and 12,000 points per night. You also receive your fifth night free when you book four award nights in a row. Fortunately, Starwood also has a policy of no blackout dates or capacity controls, so you can use these points to book any available standard room for sale.

Finally, the Starwood Preferred Guest program is renowned for offering points transfers to miles with over 30 different airlines. This brings up an almost endless number of possibilities for award travel on these airlines and their partners; that may not be something many beginners want to deal with, but you can just put it in your back pocket for later.

Ultimate Rewards points quickly add up if you make the most of the bonuses.
Ultimate Rewards points quickly add up if you make the most of the bonuses.

Credit card programs

Chase Ultimate Rewards

This is a program for beginners and experts alike, as it’s both easy to use and very lucrative. Points in this program can be used in several ways. You can transfer points to miles with United Airlines, British Airways, Southwest Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, and Korean Air. Note that British Airways Avios points can also be used for flights on American, Alaska, and US Airways, while Korean miles can be used for award flights on Delta and Alaska.

Ultimate Rewards also lets you transfer points to hotels like Hyatt, Marriott, and IHG. Finally, points can be transferred to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, which can be surprisingly valuable.

Alternatively, points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents apiece toward travel reservations made through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, including airfare, hotel, rental cars, cruises, and even tours. Finally, points can be redeemed for about one cent each toward gift cards, merchandise, or even just cash back.

To earn Ultimate Rewards points, you can sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which offers double points on all dining and travel purchases, and one point per Dollar spent on everything else. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that is typically waived for the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

In addition, the Ink Plus Business card offers 5x points on up to $50,000 in spending on office supplies and telecommunications services, including telephone, Internet, and television service providers. You also earn double points (again on up to $50,000 in spending) at gas stations and hotels. The Ink Plus has a $95 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Note that you can also earn Ultimate Rewards points from the no-fee Chase Freedom card (No longer open to new applicants) and the Ink Business Cash Credit Card, but point transfers are not available with these products alone, and points are only worth one cent toward travel reservations. However, if you earn points with one of these no fee cards, you can transfer them to your Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus account and use them any way you want. For more information, see my post on How to Use No Annual Fee Cards to Earn Points that Transfer.

Barclaycard Arrival Miles

Many award travelers use the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to earn travel rewards that can be redeemed on any airline, at any hotel, or for any car rental or cruise, and more. As a cardholder, you earn two miles per Dollar spent, and each mile is worth one cent as statement credits toward travel expenses. In addition, you receive a 5% refund for every mile you redeem, so each dollar spent actually returns 2.11% in rewards. Another benefit is this card’s Chip and PIN feature, which allows it to be compatible with the next generation of credit card readers already in use at kiosks in Europe and elsewhere. There’s an $89 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

For more info about getting started in this hobby, check out TPG’s Beginners Guide, which offers a step-by-step strategy for earning your way to free travel.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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