From the conversations I have with airline and hotel chain representatives, my sense is each one believes that I am unfair to them and favor their competitors. It seems like it might be useful to lay out what my biases and beliefs actually are.
- Delta: is a little bit better operationally and a little bit friendlier than their major US competitors. They may be 80% as good an airline as they think they are. You don’t fly Delta because of SkyMiles, but in spite of SkyMiles. This airline plays hardball – with its customers, its employees, partners, and with legislators. In a 50-50 deal, Delta takes the hyphen.
- United: has been a basket case for 30 years. The Continental merger was supposed to bring better management to the airline, but that better management had already left and things got worse. After they lost their CEO in a public corruption scandal, it seemed like Oscar Munoz might actually turn the carrier around. Then he brought in American’s Scott Kirby and Andrew Nocella to run the show and that was the end of that. Polaris lounges and bedding are a bright spot, but unreliable inflight internet makes United basically un-flyable. They have had arguably the best frequent flyer program for redemptions because of access to Star Alliance awards without fuel surcharges but the decision to eliminate award charts may signal Kirby and Nocella’s desire to destroy even that advantage.
- American: should be a better airline than it is. They have the best overall business class hard product, and treat ConciergeKey members very well in all things except award availability. I fly them because Delta isn’t an option geographically and their working internet keeps me productive. However they’ve degraded their coach product substantially (admittedly United is heading the same direction); won’t have seat power in legacy US Airways Airbus A320s until JetBlue flies
to the moonto Europe; don’t have a clear mission for employees; and focus on operational performance over customers without getting the operation right. American has greater potential to be better than it is today than any other US airline.
- Southwest: offers a great product for short haul flying with more legroom and friendlier policies (no change fees, two free checked bags). Their loyalty program is basically a rebate card, they’re mass transportation not aspirational but employees broadly seem not to mind their jobs.
- Alaska: Regional West Coast player that was much better than the competition, but overpaying for Virgin America and integration struggles has meant less maneuvering room from Wall Street and forced them to copy more of their competitors moves rather than charting their own path.
- JetBlue: Regional East Coast player that’s a little bit better than competitors from a product standpoint, though outside of their Mint product diminishing that difference (free internet is a standout), and with some operational challenges and a mediocre loyalty program.
- Spirit: Getting surprisingly better operationally, and the Big Front Seat is one of the best deals in travel. They finally participate in PreCheck and are rolling out inflight internet. The differences between the major carriers and ultra low cost leader Spirit are narrowing.
- Frontier: They’re cheap and not as good as Spirit but if you live in a market where they operate and can handle no inflight internet their 100,000 mile status is attainable via credit card spend which is on par with flight miles and makes all tickets refundable and gives you flying without fees. Lack of internet though, for me, is a deal killer.
US-Based Hotel Chains:
- Hyatt: has the best recognition program of any of the major hotel loyalty programs, but their footprint is too small to work for many customers. They’ve made some innovative moves to try to close the gap but ultimately they’re only a little more than 10% the size of Marriott and Hilton. Their suite upgrade and breakfast benefits are better than peers’, but they don’t bonus elites as well.
- Marriott: has a better loyalty program on paper than Hilton or IHG, offering suite upgrades and guaranteed late checkout. They have a fantastic collection of properties. However too many properties have run rogue under the new program, and whenever something doesn’t work right there’s little recourse – agents are mostly helpless to fix problems.
- Hilton: awards lower rebates to members than Marriott, IHG, or Hyatt. They don’t promise suite upgrades or late check-out to top elites. Still, most of their best properties offer reasonable redemption value when saver awards exist and rates are at their highest and their credit cards confer status super easily.
- IHG Rewards Club: is a good earn-and-burn program with little in the way of elite benefits, in fact their terms and conditions not only don’t promise suites, club access, breakfast, or guarantee late checkout what little benefits are offered are largely excluded when redeeming points. They talk a good game on loyalty but recognition lags. Still if you just want to earn and redeem for base rooms at their properties they offer a fairly good value proposition.