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Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen indulges our love for crowning a champion, as he announces the winner of the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 Tournament.

Last month, we announced the TPG Travel Rewards 2015 tournament, and over the last few weeks, thousands of TPG readers have weighed in on which travel reward is most valuable (see full analysis and results from the quarterfinals and semifinals). Today, I’m excited to announce the champion…

…the Southwest Companion Pass!

This reward took down Stopovers and Open Jaws on award tickets in a competitive but ultimately easy contest, winning 55% to 45%. In addition to crowning the champion, today I’d like to share some of my general thoughts around the tournament and what the results say about our hobby as points and miles enthusiasts.

First, however, here’s the completed bracket:

Travel Rewards bracket finals

Let’s take a closer look at the results from throughout the tournament and see if we can identify any common threads or trends.

In creating the bracket, the TPG team tried to include a combination of different types of rewards, and hopefully you saw that balance. The contenders included the following:

  • 6 Airline Rewards — Southwest Companion Pass, British Airways Travel Together Ticket, AA/US off-peak awards, Flying Blue Promo Awards, Distance-based Avios, and Stopovers/Open Jaws
  • 7 Hotel Rewards — Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts, Hilton/Hyatt Free Nights, Marriott Hotel + Air Packages, Club Carlson Bonus Night, IHG PointBreaks, SPG Transfer Bonus, and 5th Night Free Hotel Awards
  • 3 Credit Card Rewards: Airline Fee Statement Credits, Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus, and Credit Card Lounge Access

Of course, the divisions aren’t quite that neat, as several contenders fit into more than one category. For example, you can only use Club Carlson’s bonus award night benefit if you hold one of the chain’s co-branded credit cards, and SPG’s transfer bonus could be called an airline reward, since it ultimately results in bonus miles in your frequent flyer account. Still, these rewards represent a good cross-section of the points and miles world.

So what was revealed by your voting?

Lounge access may appeal to some, but travel perks on premium credit cards were a big loser in this tournament!

Premium credit card rewards got hammered. Three of the rewards included in the tournament are typically granted to holders of “premium” credit cards, with annual fees starting at a few hundred dollars:

  1. Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts (specific to the Platinum Card® from American Express card)
  2. Airline Free Statement Credits (applies to the Amex Platinum, as well as the Citi Prestige Card and the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card)
  3. Credit Card Lounge Access (applies to the three cards above, plus airline-specific cards like the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, and United MileagePlus Club Card)

None of these rewards survived the first round, though Airline Fee Statement Credits did miss out on victory by just 16 votes. Speaking of which…

Many match-ups were very close. Every round (save for the finals) saw a close match-up, with less than 5% of the votes separating the two rewards:

  • First round — Club Carlson Bonus Award Night (51%) barely took down Airline Fee Statement Credits (49%), while the Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus (52%) squeaked by the SPG Transfer bonus (48%).
  • Quarterfinals: Stopovers and Open Jaws (52%) edged out Distance-Based British Airways Avios Flights (48%).
  • Semifinals: Stopovers and Open Jaws (51%) snuck past the Chase Ink Plus 5x Bonus (49%)

This tells me that TPG readers have a wide variety of preferences when it comes to using these various awards.

We’ve already lost one benefit permanently. Unfortunately, the tournament wasn’t even over when we learned that one of the Elite Eight participants was disappearing for good later this year. Just last week, Club Carlson announced that the Bonus Award Night benefit will end on it’s co-branded credit cards (like the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature). This was a very valuable perk, and losing it is a big blow. I extolled the virtues of the card for everyday spend earlier in the year, but I am now seriously considering canceling it when the annual fee comes due. I certainly hope that this isn’t the start of a trend!

The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is so valuable, that it is in a class by itself.
The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is so valuable that it’s in a class by itself.

The Companion Pass was never in doubt. I’ll admit it: the Southwest Companion Pass was my clear favorite in this bracket and it didn’t disappoint, capturing at least 55% of TPG readers’ votes in all rounds. This isn’t too surprising, given that you can get tremendous value out of the Companion Pass, and there really isn’t a comparable benefit anywhere else in the travel industry.

That being said, I definitely fear that this benefit won’t be around forever. I have several colleagues who easily earn the Companion Pass through actual travel. However, I’ve also heard of countless readers earning it via sign-up bonuses from credit cards like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, or through “backdoor” methods like Marriot’s Flight + Hotel packages. With Southwest rapidly expanding to more international markets, I worry that the Companion Pass in its current form just isn’t sustainable. Only time will tell!

Final thoughts

This was a fun series of posts for me to write, and I really enjoyed seeing where TPG readers’ travel preferences fell. Thank you to all who participated!

What did you learn from the tournament results?

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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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