New US News Rewards Program Rankings Are Out, And They’re A Big ‘Ol Pile Of Goo

The U.S. News Travel Rewards program rankings are out and they are a big ‘ol mess, largely because the methodology they use to rank programs makes little sense – which they’ve known for years and haven’t done anything meaningful to improve.

This year is worse than ever because they say they didn’t even bother searching award availability to determine which airline programs are best, blaming the pandemic. And hotel rankings even appear to punish hotel chains offering strong coverage in smaller markets.

Here are their best airline frequent flyer programs:

  1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  2. Delta SkyMiles
  3. United MileagePlus
  4. HawaiianMiles
  5. Southwest Rapid Rewards
  6. American Airlines AAdvantage
  7. JetBlue TrueBlue
  8. Free Spirit
  9. FRONTIER Miles

And here are their hotel program rankings:

  1. World of Hyatt
  2. Wyndham Rewards
  3. Marriott Bonvoy
  4. Choice Privileges
  5. IHG One Rewards
  6. Best Western Rewards
  7. Radisson Rewards Americas
  8. Sonesta Travel Pass
  9. INVITED
  10. Leaders Club
  11. Hilton Honors
  12. ALL – Accor Live Limitless
  13. Stash Hotel Rewards
  14. Omni Select Guest
  15. I Prefer Hotel Rewards

Their claims this year about which programs are the absolute best (#1) are actually quite reasonable, just not for the reasons that get them there. And the rankings below first are utterly incoherent.

These Rankings Are Mostly Nonsense

The airline rankings are mostly non-sense. Delta SkyMiles is a dumpster fire. Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles is among the least valuable programs in the world, whose main redeeming feature is extra upgrade availability for higher mileage prices. American AAdvantage drops from 3 to 6 in these rankings this year even as the program has gotten better during the pandemic (such as free award redeposits, most things count towards elite status).

Frontier’s program is probably better than Spirit’s (though Spirit mostly copied Frontier), though Spirit is the better airline in my view.

It strikes me odd that they include the Small Luxury Hotels of the World program, and Leading Hotels of the World Leaders Club, but not GHA Discovery which went through a substantial revamp. They say the criteria for inclusion is “at least 50 properties, 10 or more of which are located in the United States” and GHA qualifies.

Hyatt has at least displaced Wyndham Rewards as best program in this list. When they’d select Wyndham’s program as somehow being best that was sufficiently self-refuting that you could understand that they had to be feeding nonsense data into their model.

I get that IHG’s program revamp just happened this spring, and that their points are less valuable than in the past, so it’s not entirely beyond reason to rank Choice Privileges ahead of them (though I wouldn’t). But Choice and Best Western ahead of Hilton Honors and Accor?

They Pick The Wrong Moment To Pick The Best Hotel Program

Hyatt deserves to be the best program though its hotel footprint doesn’t work for everyone since it’s much smaller than Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Accor or Wyndham. It takes the number one spot, though, after arguably becoming worse than in prior years with the introduction of both peak and off-peak redemption pricing and a new more expensive redemption category 8 – making their points worth less. They’re still better than other programs, but it’s only as the program becomes ‘less better’ that U.S. News finally recognizes them.

Meanwhile they flag “Wyndham Rewards, known for its award availability and large network of hotels in popular vacation destinations” as second place when rewards cost more points than they used to, offers few hotels people would dream about spending their points at, and certainly their hotel network and award availability doesn’t distinguish them from Hilton or Marriott. The one thing that is a differentiator goes unmentioned, the ability to redeem points for Vacasa homesharing stays.

Their Reasons For Ranking Airline Programs Sure Are Odd

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan wins best program. That’s reasonable. Mileage Plan still offers distance-based points-earning and award charts, and has introduced new elite benefits (with its American Airlines partnership), joined a global alliance, and now offers a new higher elite tier.

What’s always striking is the selection of Delta SkyMiles as second best (again). Delta sends out disingenuous releases each year implying that they ‘won’ this ranking when they didn’t. Delta claims to have been named “a” best travel rewards program by U.S. News which I guess is true, from a certain point of view. It’s an especially odd claim though when the head of the program even explains they don’t try to drive the most value to program members.

Meanwhile Delta gets its nod because of “its award flight options at lower point thresholds and high airline quality rating,” though the distance in quality between Delta and others is largely a relic of pre-pandemic times. Their operational reliability has fallen back to earth.

But here’s a strange one, “United MileagePlus ranks No. 3 for its large network of flight routes and easier path to elite status.” Arguably its elite status is harder to earn than peers and is both confusing (‘PQPs’) and based largely on ticket spend. American Airlines AAdvantage is certainly the ‘easiest’ since most miles now count towards status, not just flying, while Delta lets you earn substantial credit towards status via credit card and roll over qualifying miles from one year to the next.

So How Do They Come Up With These Rankings? Airline Rankings

These sure are odd results, but odd results flow from odd methodology. For the rankings of best frequent flyer program they actually tell you in the fine print that they did not consider award availability in the analysis, which you’d never know from their press release touting Delta for its “award flight options at lower point thresholds.”

Please note: Due to insufficient data, likely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s continued effect on travel, Award Flight Availability was not factored into the scoring formula for the 2022-2023 ranking. As such, other components were weighted higher to reach the 100% scoring threshold.

So what are the factors they are considering?

  • Ease of Earning Free Round-Trip Flight (47% weight): Remember this is theoretical since they are clear they did not consider actual availability of awards!

    Instead for earning they looked at “the typical miles or points earned” on a flight, and the “typical cost and miles required for the average flight” based on Department of Transportation data. In other words, in a revenue-based earning model the more expensive an airline’s tickets are, the better their frequent flyer program will rank. And for redemption they looked at “up to” 16 fairly random award searches all within 3 months of travel that they conducted last month to come up with average redemption prices.

  • Additional Benefits (25% weight): combines elite programs, non-flight points-earning and redemption, points expiration policies, and co-brand credit card benefits. Programs do better based on having experience redemption and hotel redemption options, without regard to the value those options offer.

    Moreover “having more than one” credit card is better, again without regard to whether those cards offer great value. Offering a status match program is considered a plus.

    Oddly, United is specifically called out by U.S. News for ranking well because of its elite program yet the methodology is supposed to privilege those programs that “do not require members spend a minimum amount of money to achieve elite status,” while United’s program is based on amount of money spent rather than miles flown or points earned from a variety of activities.

  • Network Coverage (10% weight) Flying to more destinations makes the rewards program better in this model. So to rank well an airline needs to be a member of a global alliance or have partnerships which approximate the same.

  • Number of Daily Flights (10% weight) Here they are talking just about an airline’s own domestic flights, and not flights on partner airlines. This disadvantages the triumvirate of American-JetBlue-Alaska, while disadvantaging smaller airlines generally.

  • Airline Quality Rating (8% weight) using the annual Wichita State University study, though I’m not sure how this fits into the quality of the airline loyalty program.

  • Award Flight Availability (0% weight) in a normal year they claim to look at “16 of each airline’s highly trafficked short, medium and long routes on four different round-trip dates between July and September.” They simultaneously say they couldn’t do this for these rankings “likely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s continued effect on travel” leading to “insufficient data” when they’re only doing 16 award searches per airline, but also that they did do this for the ‘ease of earning’ category. Like I say, internally incoherent.

Somehow despite garbage in-garbage out they come up with the same and quite defensible winner as in past years, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, though the rest of their rankings makes little sense.

So How Do They Come Up With These Rankings? Hotel Rankings

They look mostly at how many nights you need or how much you need to spend in order to earn a free night, with a secondary focus on being able to redeem points in various locations and for different kinds of hotels, with everything else thrown together into a catch-all. Large hotel chains that are concentrated in a few major cities score best.

  • Ease of Earning Free Night (45% weight) They look the number of paid nights needed for a free night across 20 destinations, and do not look at the quality of lodging received for those nights. Chains with low end redemption properties will benefit, which may explain why Wyndham Rewards has done so well in the past. Meanwhile experience-only programs “receive a score of 0.”

  • Additional Benefits (25% weight) mashes together elite benefits, earning and redeeming points for things other than hotel stays, and whether or not points expire. Shopping portal earning is a bonus point here. Having multiple co-brand credit cards is a plus.

  • Geographic Coverage (15% weight): They have a large-city bias, since they aren’t looking at number of hotels or number of cities the chain is in but the number of hotels offering rooms for sale “within a 15-mile radius of 20 major business and leisure travel destinations in the U.S. and abroad.” This helps Hyatt, since they’re often in major cities (even if they don’t have as many hotels in each as Marriott). But it doesn’t get at whether the chain has properties in small cities outside of the largest destinations.

  • Number of Hotels in Network (10% weight): “[A] program that features more than 4,000 participating hotels receives a score of 5, while a program with fewer than 100 participating hotels earns a score of 1.” Getting over 1000 hotels likely helped Hyatt. The smallest programs, no matter how much value they deliver to members, have a built-in disadvantage.

  • Property Diversity (5% weight) Chains are given “up to 8 diversity points” for having different kinds of hotels “(beachfront, airport, city, mountains)” at different price points “(luxury, upscale, mid-range, budget)”.

It’s so odd to see Hyatt win under this criteria. They have the best elite program, to be sure, but elite is only a portion of the ‘other benefits’ category which includes non-hotel redemption, something Hyatt actually doesn’t offer much of (beyond transfers of points to airlines). Hyatt also lacks a shopping portal for points-earning so would expect to be downgraded in this category. And Hyatt’s earn-and-burn proposition isn’t their strong suit, especially for elite members who see lower elite bonuses than are offered by other programs.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Any airline program that barely, or doesn’t, fly to your city is pretty much worthless for you. Although BA doesn’t fly to my city, yet there may be a way to make it useful through their AA partnership if I really wanted to work at it. Not sure I could say the same thing about Alaska. It’s just easier to stick with AA.

  2. Wyndham and Choice’s rankings are laughable. Neither have substantial elite status. You can’t make a Choice award booking beyond 100 days. Neither has true resort locations (Vail, Aspen, Whistler, etc.)

  3. You do more to validate US News’ findings by arguing against them than if you just ignored it.

    You bet on the wrong horse, Gary. At some point you will realize that – along w/ a whole lot of other people.

  4. I think when you considered which airline to choose versus ranking, is what airline that you will fly the most by your location. I live near Dulles airport which is a United Hub, so I fly it the most. And I fly considerable international. Would not make much since to use American Airlines out of National Airport. Sometimes you choose what works for you.

  5. The ranking criteria miss Accor’s shining strong point- apply points to defer the cost of any stay with a qualifying rate with no blackout dates or capacity controls and to any room or suite type. It’s like the Southwest of hotel programs and that can be a very good thing during special event times like the Tour de France or the Olympics. Granted you can’t apply points to a F1 or most Ibis Budget hotels but I wouldn’t stay at on of those any more than I’d stay at most Wyndham bottom feeder brands.

  6. 1.) Alaskan
    2.) American

    3.) United

    4.) Southwest solely for companion pass
    ….
    ….
    ….
    5.) Hawaiian

    Everyone else including sky pesos.

  7. @ Bob
    then being told after 60 plus nights for your overpriced hotel @ 1k a night
    to pay extra for your side of bacon or water with your free breakfast
    as it’s eggs only or entree .You can’t make their stupidity up
    It actually once was the best of a class program and still good for some depending
    They sadly got greedy thinking they are Marriott with thousands of hotels

  8. Hey folks,

    Let’s all remember, a real luxury hotel doesn’t have a rewards program. Rewards program are gimmicks for the middle class.

    One of the benefits of a rewards program, which Gary has written about several times, is not getting a room above the HVAC. A real luxury hotel has no undesirable rooms like that.

  9. I would call the list a steaming pile of something other than “goo.” Whether it’s a propaganda rag like Newsweek or a credit card pumping blog like a certain “guy,” the idea of identifying a “best” loyalty program is absurd. If a hotel chain doesn’t have a property in places work or leisure takes you, it’s not the “best” no matter how many so-called free nights it offers for stays.

    As @Olaf U. Fokker-Sergei points out, real luxury hotels don’t have rewards programs. Belmond, COMO, and others in that category don’t have to advertise illusory promises of room upgrades, breakfast coupons, or an extra night “free.”

    My own hotel experiences of the past year have taught me that loyalty status is losing its value and charm. There still are some pluses for those of us who travel for work, but they are minimal. As @DCS would say, it’s good to play the game with “a full deck.” But the best way to win is to not play at all.

  10. This blogger never produces a single ranking himself, yet lick clockwork pisses on anyone else that does.

    Where’s the leadership?

  11. @Jake – you know that I literally manage the ballot for the Freddie Awards, right? Argue that you don’t like the results all you want, but those awards measure exactly what they say they measure, broad-based member sentiment.

  12. I will suggest a “loyalty program” that is on no one’s radar – Booking.com. Book 15 stays in two years, and you’re lifetime Level 3. Once you’re in, you’re in. No annual requalification. That gets you:
    390,000 properties worldwide
    10–20% discounts
    Free breakfasts on select stays
    Free room upgrades on select stays
    Priority support on all bookings

    Not for everyone, but I like to stay in odd locations, not necessarily luxury resorts. You want to stay in some small town in Alsace, they’ll have something nearby. There is almost always a place to stay on booking.com. Most have turned out well. And cheaper than hotels, though they have those as well. Think a better version of AirBnB, only you’re rarely in just a room in someone’s house. (I don’t think they allow that, if I think about it.) But everything else from hostels to apartments with multiple bedrooms to B&B’s to small hotels to entire luxury houses. A lot of the chains do show up, so you can spot them, then go to the chain website and see if you can get a better deal. It’s almost always work a look and the search engine is very good.

  13. Gary,

    I don’t understand the celebration of AA status being better now because there are more ways to earn status. Why is this a good thing? Personally I think status should be based on EQDs with bonuses for higher fare classes and THAT IS IT. Awarding people for “flying far” seems totally off-base…I buy a coach fire sale fare to Australia and now I meet the EQM goal…SILLY!

    To paraphrase one of your earlier quotes: “When everyone is elite, no one is”

  14. @OldKingCole – you’re not paraphrasing me, I was paraphrasing Delta years ago. And I disagree that status should be based on dollars spent flying, since that is far lower margin to the airline than other activities, if you want them to reward customer value this is it

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