Every year around this time (well, usually earlier if I’m not running behind) I share with you who I think the best airline and hotel loyalty programs are. We’re wrapping up the voting for the Freddie Awards this year, the largest independent ballot to determine who’s the best. Millions of individual voters like me and you determine who the winners are, not a panel of “experts”. I’ve been a volunteer helping organize the Freddie Awards for almost a decade now and enjoy watching the public determine the winners. I hope you’ll take a moment to vote.
Here’s who I voted for in each category this year:
Best Elite Program (Hotel)
I surprised myself a little bit putting Marriott in the #2 slot. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. World of Hyatt earns the top slot for me again this year. The gap between 1 and 2 is significantly bigger than the gap between 2 and 3. They’ve been expanding their footprint with Small Luxury Hotels of the World, which means my elite benefits are valuable at more total properties. The more places I can use them, the more valuable they are. Hyatt rolled out Milestone Rewards as well this year, which further increase the value of elite status pretty much across the board. Marriott has been a hot mess since their merger. They made changes without properly notifying members, in some cases doing the opposite of what they promised, such as when they removed elite benefits from online travel agency bookings. But, Marriott still has a path for upgrades for their elite members that’s marginally better than Hilton. If Hilton follows through on its early tests to offer confirmed suite upgrades to their members, I’ll be ready to slide Hilton up to the #2 slot.
Best Elite Program (Airline)
Air Canada tops the charts here again this year. I’ve started to learn more about the Air Canada program, especially how they treat their top-tier Super Elites. The ability for Super Elite members to free up saver award space a certain number of times per year is best in breed. Improvements like their Signature Suite are awesome, even if only indirectly targeted towards top elite members. Second place last year was American Airlines, but they drop out of the top 3. They continue to deemphasize lifetime elite members with spending a factor on upgrade percentage. Meanwhile, I continue to hear great things from Alaska Airlines’ elite members. That makes it an easy bump to the 3rd slot on this year’s chart.
Best Customer Service (Hotel)
Again, and easy choice here. Hyatt leads the way with customer service for their elite members. I’ve started dipping my toe in the Hilton Honors waters and find them to be reasonable. Same with IHG. No shock Marriott doesn’t make this list when they wait a month just to tell you whether or not your data was compromised in their massive data breach.
Best Customer Service (Airline)
Southwest Airlines wins this on people and policy. Their employees are very easy to deal with, across the board. And, with no change fees and last seat availability for awards, their policies are friendly for loyalty members. American Airlines is still the classiest of the Big 3 at taking care of the customers. Their phone agents are head and shoulders above United in my experience. And, the employees at my home airport of Washington-Dulles still recognize me when I fly AA, even if it’s a lot less than it used to be. Lastly, I’ve had a handful of Frontier flights and have really enjoyed them. Their new loyalty program is customer-friendly. There’s a lot more to like there than people give them credit for. And, kids fly free is a real treat!
Best Loyalty Credit Card
Chase Ultimate Rewards are still tops in my book. Whether it’s a Chase Sapphire on the personal side or one of the Ink cards on the business side, these cards pack a punch. Great bonus categories and transfer partners. World of Hyatt’s card gives you a path to elite status with spending as well as a head start on elite status. I like the bonus categories here as well. And, Hilton earns a spot on the list for allowing us to earn top-tier elite status by holding their credit card. A great example of a card that’s worth having in your wallet even if you don’t put much spending on it.
Best Redemption Ability (Hotel)
World of Hyatt tops my chart for availability. Sure, there are some properties that play funny games with award space. But, I think Hyatt does a good job keeping them in line. IHG has really good availability and doesn’t seem to play too many shenanigans with pricing and space. And, even with Wyndham’s recent changes they still represent a solid value at many of their properties. Gone is Marriott. On top of playing some serious games with award availability, the useful quirks of the SPG program are gone now as well.
Best Redemption Ability (Airline)
Every seat available for award redemptions? Save points when prices go down after you book? No change fees? Southwest is the clear leader in redemption ability. They can’t get you to Asia or Europe, which is the only reason this isn’t a landslide. American Airlines pulls ahead in the redemption category over United. I see way too much of United one-way domestic awards at 32,500 points each direction, even for off-peak days on routes like Dulles to Orlando.
Best Promotion (Hotel)
Stay twice and earn a free night wins Wyndham top honors here. Back when the program charged the same for all award nights, this was a screaming good promotion.
Best Promotion (Airline)
This may be the first time I’ve voted for Delta in the Freddie Awards, ever. When you think of valuable loyalty programs, Delta doesn’t generally rise to the top. But, their promotion this year featured such gems as round-trip flights to Europe for as little as 32,000 miles.
Program of the Year (Hotel)
World of Hyatt tops this list, no surprise. With great benefits for top-tier elites, new Milestone Rewards and lots of new luxury properties as part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection, there’s a lot to love. The knock on Hyatt is the size of their footprint. With recent development, they’re now sitting at roughly 1,000 properties. That’s not much smaller than SPG, which plenty of folks found to be a top performer for years. Given all the problems at hand, Marriott Rewards doesn’t make my top 3 for 2018. Hilton Honors continues to inch up the list in terms of value, though I don’t think they offer the same overall value as Hyatt. Hilton is the answer if you need the size of their portfolio. Wyndham Rewards slides into third place here based largely on their friendly award chart.
Program of the Year (Airline)
I somehow missed a screenshot of this one, but it was definitely a top 3 I wouldn’t have expected in year’s past:
- Southwest Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- American Airlines
Two low-cost carriers to top my program of the year voting? Yup. Aspirational flights to Europe, Asia and beyond are awesome. Southwest and Frontier won’t help there. But, when you look at everything combined, from redemption ability to elite recognition and customer service, Southwest Airlines scores much more highly than the Big 3 in my book. Most of my award redemptions are not to far away places. They’re to a wedding in the Caribbean or to Colorado to visit a friend. Southwest stacks up nicely there. With Frontier’s new elite program and cheap flights, it’s easy to earn some status. Kids fly free isn’t really a loyalty program benefit, since anyone can enjoy it. But, it sure doesn’t hurt my overall opinion of the airline. American rounds out the top 3 as the best of the Big 3 right now, IMO.
The Final Two Pennies
My opinions on hotel loyalty continue to stay roughly the same. World of Hyatt still sits at the top for me and many others. The all-around value is hard to miss. Where things have changed considerably is on the airline side of things. Low-cost carriers seem to pop up everywhere on my top 3 nowadays. That’s partially due to the fact that the low-cost carries have been steady in what they offer, even improving in small ways. The Big 3 have continued to come back to the pack. They represent a great value if you plan to fly internationally on a regular basis, but that’s not something that most of us do.
I hope you’ll take the time to vote today before voting closes. The Freddie Awards are special because they are determined by individuals like me and you. Both of our votes carry the same weight, and there’s no panel of experts to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like. Just millions of folks expressing their opinion about what’s best in the world of travel loyalty.
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