Over 7 Million Votes Cast: the Programs Frequent Flyers Consider Best May Surprise You

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.

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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  1. While I understand that it isn’t always the biggest programs that win, they certainly have a big advantage in this type of award structure. Small programs (like Alaska) simply lack the members to make their mark. The bigger issue I have with all of these types of awards is that it is highly likely that the vast majority of voters don’t have experience with competing programs. Hub-captive fliers, as well as the majority of elites, choose their preferred airline/hotel exclusively, meaning they can’t actually say whether it is better than it’s competitors. The actual number of people who carry elite status across multiple airlines/hotels and fly/stay broadly enough to meaningfully compare them is very small. I certainly appreciate the Freddie Awards far more than the meaningless awards programs pay to win, but it is still good to understand why the results often look the way that they do.

  2. Why is the Marriott win a surprise? It’s a terrible program for those Starwood members that came over (who are now moving to Hyatt in droves), but for those that are used to the Marriott level of customer service and loyalty recognition, isn’t this a big upgrade for them? And given that Marriott was much larger than Starwood, wouldn’t you expect a large number of guests to be happy, despite it being terrible if you were a Starwood loyalist?

  3. Marriott Bonvoy? Are you kidding me, if Americans think that is the best, then standards are obviously very low….. I mean the USA tolerated Obama doing nothing for 8 loonnngggg years so anything is possible I guess. no credibility Freddies LOL

  4. @Doug has it right in my view. How many people are really closely familiar with enough different programs to compare them meaningfully? It must be a tiny subset of the overall voters in any given category. I’m certainly not. For most, my opinions are just based on what I’ve read, or on a very limited participation.

  5. And the other airlines would benefit if they took a page from SW and made all seats available for award redemption. They all appear to be going to dynamic pricing anyway. My biggest frustration with booking AA is finding seats on the dates I want to fly using miles. I end up adjusting my travel to their award availability which drives me nuts. When flying SW, I can choose from the cheapest dates or pay a little more points to fly on a Friday or Sunday and not spend hours searching or wait months hoping award seats will open up. Ease of use is king.

  6. Sorry, but this whole thing sounds like it was won and lost behind the scenes. People loathe
    American Airlines these days — online and in conversation. Most people I know think Marriott Bonvoy is ridiculous from its name to its actual treatment of guests.
    The exception is Southwest. Of course. I wish I could be excited about SW just doing what all airlines ought to do: have decent customer service, offer a reasonable, if dull rewards program. Frankly, Southwest is the baseline, the lowered bar, not the championship trophy-winner.
    None of these things are exactly award calibre. Even Freddie Laker would be unhappy with how his innovations have devolved.

  7. American and Marriott win Freddy Awards. That’s rich! And people wonder why they keep seeking and destroying one benefit after another while making record profits at the same time.

    Because they can. Why not if the same people they’re ripping off validate their [mis]conduct?

  8. unfortunately, the small programs can only be accessed by a few people.
    Alaska especially comes to mind
    It’s only useful if you live in the West coast

    I’m in MSP. I can fly Alaska to the West Coast.
    Any other flight would be like MSP-SEA-NYC.
    Not practical

    Same with Jet Blue and Southwest.

    Thus I’m a hostage to Delta or at least the Big US3

    Given that, these programs are a minor part of decision making process for most of us
    Which is why loyalty programs are dying.

  9. My experience is the larger a program gets the more diluted the benefits. For example before there was consolidation of the airlines I was platinum on Northwest. Although they weren’t know for their stellar service, as a platinum flier they bent over backwards to take care of me. The agents would call “revenue management” and ask them to allow “an extra FFQ seat” when I requested a specific flight. 99% of the time they granted it. Also they didn’t think twice about allowing me to go on an earlier flight when space was available with no charges or fuss. Then came the merger of Delta and Northwest, my experience was terrible customer service from Delta. First with the merger they converted my 4 million life time miles to 1.5, who knows why… obviously they didn’t want to honor Northwest’s loyalty. Next my lifetime membership in the clubs got diluted when Delta decided they were no longer going to be a reciprocal member to international carrier lounges. Do I have any love for Delta, NO… but I am stuck with them because I live in a hub city and I don’t have enough years of flying left to gain the same status on another airline! As far as Marriott’s concerned it’s the same story, you now have a much larger number of Platinum and now Titanium customers to battle over the few “upgraded rooms” they actually allow. So bigger in my book is definitely NOT better.

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