On Thursday night I had the pleasure to co-host the Freddie Awards, the major awards program in airline, hotel, and credit card loyalty. Over 7 million votes were cast by program members to determine which programs around the world are delivering value to members that they appreciate most.
It’s a night to celebrate what’s good in loyalty, and to honor what the members think. This isn’t an award based on the judgment of experts — for my part I get to cast just a single ballot. And this isn’t an award you can buy (though I’m often asked by programs how they can ‘pay to enter’ or ‘buy tables’). This is all about the members and their voice.
The awards are named for Sir Freddie Laker, who did as much as anyone to truly democratize air travel. So it’s appropriate that the voice of all members is expressed in his honor. I had the pleasure to meet Sir Freddie and Lady Jacqueline at the very first Freddie Awards I attended as a spectator in 2003.
I presented five of the awards, while my co-host Ed Pizzarello presented Best Customer Service and Best Redemption Ability. Each award is given out in three regions of the world, and with the exception of best loyalty credit card each award is separated into airline and hotel categories.
Here I am with our emcee Leland Vittert along with Mommy Points and Deals We Like before the event:
Here are the winners in the Americas for airlines.
- Program of the Year — Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- Best Elite Program — American Airlines AAdvantage
- Best Promotion — Avianca LifeMiles
- Best Customer Service — Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- Best Redemption Ability — Southwest Airlines – Rapid Rewards
- 210 AWARD — Air Canada – Aeroplan
American Airlines AAdvantage used to dominate the awards in the Americas. Since Delta, United, and American have all made similar changes to their program we’ve seen a rise in appreciation for Southwest Airlines.
It doesn’t surprise me to see them win best customer service. And while I personally prefer to redeem my miles all over the world in premium cabins (something Southwest doesn’t offer) most members use their miles domestically and for economy and Southwest sees nearly double the percentage of airline seats occupied by customers redeeming miles compared to the other larger programs.
We saw Alaska Airlines make the top four finalists a couple of times. I think their program is underappreciated, though of course it’s mostly relevant to passengers on the West Coast and especially the California Bay Area and Pacific Northwest.
Notice that it’s not the largest programs, necessarily, that win. This isn’t an exercise in ‘getting out the vote’. Instead program members rank order (or compare) programs, and the program with the best average ranking in each category (as long as they’re ranked by at least 2% of the voters in the category) wins.
LifeMiles, for instance, wins best promotion — for a 125% bonus on purchased miles. You know you’re doing something right as a loyalty program when members vote you best for selling you their product. The LifeMiles program is one of the best ways to buy premium cabin travel at a discount, they’re effectively a consolidator for saver awards across the Star Alliance.
Lucky says he ‘can’t really make sense of’ American AAdvantage winning best elite program. However it’s not clear to me that Delta or United (which requires minimum fares to use earned international upgrades) should beat them. Neither should South American programs. As of today Aeroplan even charges their Super Elite members (who must spend $20,000 a year) to make changes to award tickets. I’ve written several times that with Air Canada’s purchase of Aeroplan I expect that to change.
He believes Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan deserves to win, and I think they do a great job (despite not offering a global footprint for upgrades). One thing I’ve learned is that members value not just the features and delivery of a program, but how useful it is to their travel patterns.
Aeroplan won the ‘210 award’ which is given to the program that performs the best in Program of the Year balloting while being ranked by fewer than 10% of the voters in the category (but still at least by 2%). It represents a program members believe delivers strong value but may not be as widely known by members in the region.
The award that isn’t split between airline and hotel is credit card. The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase was voted Best Loyalty Credit Card in the Americas. Southwest has done well in this category in recent years. Certainly spend on the card comes with the unique feature of counting towards the airline’s companion pass (earn 110,000 eligible points in a year and a second passenger flies for just the cost of taxes whether buying a ticket or redeeming points).
Here are the winners in the Americas for hotels.
- Program of the Year – Marriott Bonvoy
- Best Elite Program — World of Hyatt
- Best Promotion Marriott Bonvoy
- Best Customer Service — Caesars Rewards
- Best Redemption Ability — Marriott Bonvoy
- 210 AWARD — Caesars Rewards
It doesn’t surprise me to see Caesars Rewards doing well – both in customer service and the ‘less well known, strong value’ category. Casino programs have been working to drive loyalty and put heads in beds much more along the lines of traditional programs in the past several years, beyond just a gambling focus.
World of Hyatt returns as winner of the best elite program category. It’s won about two-thirds of the time over the past decade. Unquestionably they have a strong focus on elites and deliver top value such as confirmed suite upgrades. They had a brief hiatus from winning after the program changes which essentially ‘fired’ some of their Diamond members (qualifying on stays versus nights) but they’ve since made earning nights easier (award stays count, and now so does credit card spend).
The big surprise to some was Marriott Bonvoy winning program of the year despite their missteps – IT, customer service, hotel consistency – rolling out the new program. When things go wrong affected members are vocal, but things do go right more than wrong. And members can be very forgiving when a program is working to deliver value. The new combined Marriott program gives members more overall than Marriott Rewards did.
Marriott elites weren’t promised late check-out until after the Starwood acquisition, and weren’t promised suite upgrades (though these upgrades were permitted) until the new program. Breakfast is now offered to elites across more brands. That’s a huge increase in value.
I’ve had my own challenges with Marriott, as have many readers, but the direction the’re heading (if they get there) seems right to many members.