The Truth About Each Airline And Hotel Chain, In A Nutshell

This is my rough guide to thinking about airlines and hotels. This can be useful, because it helps to understand announcements and changes that each one makes and also for transparency as you read my own writing. Specifically, these are my rough biases or frames as I think about each of the major U.S. airlines and hotel chains. I love some things about each one, but each also has its flaws.

Overall I fly American Airlines most, but I do fly everyone, and I stay at Hyatt most and recommend Marriott as a primary ‘backup’ chain since Hyatt isn’t everywhere you might travel.

US Airlines:

  • Delta: has been a little bit better operationally and a little bit friendlier than their major US competitors though their reliability has been tarnished the past couple of years. 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. We saw numerous cuts, from onboard business class product to MileagePlus, yet Polaris lounges and bedding are a bright spot. Unreliable inflight internet makes United basically un-flyable for me. They’ve committed to improve that and maybe they’re finally starting to make progress. Despite devaluations the loyalty program has access to Star Alliance awards without fuel surcharges so there’s still value here.

    Ultimately there have been some customer-friendly moves that have come under CEO Scott Kirby’s leadership, but he still has a decades-long history of destroying customer experience.

  • American: should be a better airline than it is. They have the best overall business class hard product even before bringing on new suites with doors, 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. The new lounge template is great, too. However they’ve degraded their coach product substantially; 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. Their loyalty program is basically a rebate card, they’re mass transportation not aspirational but employees broadly seem not to mind their jobs. I don’t want to take a 5 hour flight on Southwest though, and that won’t change even as they add USB seat power.

  • Alaska: Regional West Coast player that was much better than the competition, but overpaying for Virgin America and integration struggles have meant less maneuvering room from Wall Street and forced them to copy more of their competitors moves not just 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 (being first with free internet remains a standout), and with some operational challenges and a mediocre loyalty program. If their acquisition of Spirit goes through that distraction is likely to make them worse.

  • Spirit: Getting surprisingly better operationally, last summer notwithstanding. The Big Front Seat has been one of the best deals in travel, though it’s gotten much more expensive. It took them awhile but they participate in PreCheck and are rolling out inflight internet. Their loyalty program is even improved, it’s worth signing up, but not staying loyal for. The differences between the major carriers and ultra low cost leader Spirit are narrowing. Just avoid regular coach’s legroom, and be sure to do everything self-serve in advance. Overall better than Frontier, but we may lose this driver of competition to JetBlue.

  • 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 about 15% 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, 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 or clueless about how the program is even supposed to work.

  • 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. Exchanging breakfast for Gold elites and higher in the local market in favor of a food and beverage credit that’s frequently too small to cover the cost of breakfast is a shame – the flexibility is great, but should have been done as a choice (breakfast or a credit) to avoid being a devaluation of a key point of differentiation.

  • IHG One Rewards: is a good earn-and-burn program and the chain is everywhere. They’ve come a long way on elite benefits, and I’m a fan – finally adding choice benefits of club lounge, breakfast for diamonds, and even confirmed suites 14 days in advance (not valid on prepaid rates or awards). Late checkout still isn’t guaranteed.

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, 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. Delta pays passengers to fly to the moon. The Dom is free-flowing, and even coach passengers are provided tins of caviar.

  2. @Brutus – What you call bias, I call perspective. I agree with pretty much everything in this list except IDK if American has the “greatest room to grow”

  3. Wow, you do have loyal readers! I do like that you allow comments fairly liberally.

    I’m at a weird stage of life. I got fired 3 years ago as a traveling software salesrep then VP, started my own business, and sold it to a much larger competitor than my old company.

    I traveled forever, and I love traveling. I will never forget getting on my first plane ride at 9 years old, and only with my 13 year old sister! That was 1981, to visit my grandparents, and that story is absolutely ‘another story’. Let’s just say that as a 9 year old, I went to the public library to dissect the DFW airport schematics, using microfilm readers to look up recent newspaper articles about the DFW airport as that was our connect to our final destination of San Antonio. 🙂

    I even found that DFW had a dedicated video arcade! I brought exactly $5 worth of quarters.

    As for your comments about Jet Blue… Yes, I don’t understand this either. Spirit sucks. And I have two good friends who are Jet Blue pilots (Actual senior(ish) management, but the other guy messed up his scheduling and is finally getting back to better equipment). Either way, I’ve flown on their Mint product and it’s ‘OK’. Better than what AA has now, but not better on AA return flights from Europe…. Darn, I really liked that sundae cart!!!!

    As for hotels, I’m pretty agnostic. Location and saving time is the most important priority to me, followed by finally allowing myself to be upgrade to better views.

    I.E., I think one of the overlooked things about flying first class is that once you do, you never want to be in coach again. And that is very motivational. 🙂


  4. This is an interesting article, thank you. Also I cannot access the VTFW UK gov/Ethiad story on Boarding Area. get an error

  5. This isn’t :”the truth.” It’s your opinion – to which you are 100% entitled.

  6. I think it is a fair assessment.

    I will say that I achieved Gold status with Spirit (before this status match deal of late) and the perks are pretty good: book exit row at time of booking, includes one carry-on and one checked for free, free beverage and snack on board. The wifi works very well, and if it doesn’t they have great customer service for instantly handing over a refund or another pass. Plus the dedicated phone line for elites I’ve been getting an answer within 90 seconds. For flights under about 2 hours, which is 75% of my travel, they’ve become my primary. I’ll bid for the big front seat. Miles accumulate quickly especially on spend for the front seat and redemption is pretty good. Not that they have a ton of high fares, but 11k points to save $300 on a flight a week out isn’t bad.

    I hope United continues to improve. I fly them quite a bit as well and to me it feels like they are trying to do better. The employees seem friendlier and a little happier. The new Clubs aren’t bad and aren’t overrun like Sky Clubs. It’s a consistent experience from end to end, so can usually go in with managed expectations and be satisfied with what is received.

  7. From the perspective of casual traveler without top-tier status, who doesn’t fly international business class, does not work on planes or hotels and have no use for late checkouts:
    – Delta – nice, overpriced, with problematic reliability. Almost never an option even when flying to their hubs.
    – United – meh, but with relatively good network and insane pricing model. Regardless, sometimes the cheapest option
    – American – the worst, their attitude towards customers reminds me of old time USSR’s Aeroflot – “There are many of you, and only one me!” Avoid.
    – Southwest – what Gary said plus the best network comparing to top 3
    – Alaska – their schedule and prices look great, so you book them, they change the schedule to something totally useless, you cancel and get refund. Rinse, repeat
    – Jet Blue – some people that smell like mint are said to fly them somewhere, but you never meet those people. Like Sun Country, but better.
    – Spirit, etc, – for people who cannot get mortgage

    – Marriott – good earn and burn program with quickly deteriorating properties
    – Hilton – lot of points, lot of hotels, some of them even nice
    – IHG – not as many points as Hilton and with even less options to spend them
    – Hyatt – no matter where you go, there are other options – either cheaper (for 1-night stays) or more convenient (for vacation stays). Good transfer value for Chase UR points.
    – Choice – they are everywhere where IHG’s HI/HIX are, but usually nicer
    – Best Western – for national parks travel

  8. @Gary
    IMO your take on United is way too harsh. I am v biased as a 1k, but a few things to consider:
    A) best app/website technology by far. Unlike AA (which is a basket case) and DL (slightly better, still a basket case) most changes/cancelations/upgrades/etc can be done on the site.
    B) excellent loyalty program. UA is by far the most generous when it comes to elite upgrades (320 plus points for 1k could be as many as 10 long haul upgrades to business from premium economy, and then some). Unlike DL, UA lets you upgrade straight from economy into Polaris (40 points, or 8 one ways per year, still much more rewarding than the competition). Finally, award tickets have no surcharges, as you mention, and can be a great value on long haul rewards (60k to Europe, 80k to Australia, etc). And ‘anytime’ awards on UA itself are regularly lower than the competition, with the going rate at 155k miles to Europe and 200k to Australia/Japan/Africa.
    C) Polaris lounges better than any us carrier.

    Only area I’ll agree with you is the food in Polaris. My cat wouldn’t eat it if she were offered.

    And finally I mostly travel long haul but have the opposite experience to yours re the wifi— find it reliable and decent speeds.

  9. @ Gary — Avoid WN. When flying BIG3, go with cheapest F. If F prices insanely high on BIG3, condsider Spirit Big Front Seat. IHG RA best, Hyatt Glob second best, Hilton Aspire Diamond decent backup option when all else fails.

  10. Comment is long simply because it is full of simple math that uses a lot of space. I urge you to read it because it demystifies yet another facet of universally misunderstood hotel loyalty points currencies, especially by one who purports to know the “truth”.

    @Gary — The megalomania that makes you think that you know the “truth” about all hotel and airline loyalty programs and drives you to constantly recycle demonstrably bogus or outdated claims has reached the point of malignancy.

    After having patronized the program for 16 years, 12 years as a Diamond members and a Lifetime Diamond since May 2022, I am more familiar with the Hilton Honors loyalty program than every single self-anointed “travel guru” out there, including the one who anointed himself “thought leader in travel.” It’s in that capacity that I have repeatedly debunked claims like:

    [Hilton Honors] awards lower rebates to members than Marriott, IHG, or Hyatt.

    That widely panned claim emerged from a “simple model” that purported to be able to “rank” hotel loyalty programs based on calculating so-called “rebates”, R, as

    R = value of a points currency * base earn rate [eq. 1]

    While there is nothing wrong with the equation as written, there are two major problems with it as the “thought leader” uses it. His “rebates” (a) depend on his own valuations of points currencies, which are not only among the least reliable that I have seen, but also generally reflect his own strongly held biases; and (b) depend on base earn rates that do not include bonus points from each program’s co-branded credit card that no one that plays the game with a “full deck” would leave home without.

    So, he values a Hilton point at 0.4cpp and uses a 20x as a HH Diamond’s based earn rate to calculate Hilton Honors’ Diamond “rebate as

    R = (0.004cent/point * 20points/$) * 100% = 8%.

    R = (0.006cent/point * 17.5points/$) * 100% = 10.5%

    and so on, et voilà! “[Hilton Honors] awards lower rebates to members than…blah…blah…blah…”

    Well, I did extensive modeling using base earn rates both with and without co-branded credit cards bonus points included, and the model that yielded the highest Pearson’s correlation coefficient, “r”, for [eq. 1] above is the one in which base earn rates include co-branded CC bonus points.

    To make a long story short, when done right all hotel loyalty programs award exactly the same “rebate” of 16% because all hotel points currencies are worth exactly the same.

    Here’s the mathematical proof:
    I can calculate the points currency value of every hotel program knowing only their top elite’s base earn rate and the ‘rebate’ of 16% for all program, using [eq. 1] rearranged as:

    Point Value = (Base earn rate)/Rebate

    Each program’s base earn rate includes bonus points from its co-branded CC with an annual fee of $75-$95, which makes it comparable to other programs’ CCs:

    HH Diamond (w/AMEX Surpass, AF: $95). Base earn rate = 32points/$
    HH Point Value = 16%/(32point/$) = $0.0050/HH = 0.5cpp

    WoH Globalist (w/ Chase visa, AF: $95). Base earn rate = 10.5points/$
    WoH Point Value = 16%/(10.5point/$) = $0.0153/WoH = 1.5cpp

    BonVoy Plat and Above (w/ Chase Boundless visa Surpass, AF: $95). Base earn rate = 23.5points/$
    BonVoy Point Value = 16%/(23.5point/$) = $0.0068/BVY = 0.7cpp

    IHG Diamond (Rewards Club MC, AF: $99). Base earn rate = 30points/$
    IHG Point Value = 16%/(30point/$) = $0.0055/IHG = 0.5cpp

    Radisson Rewards Plat (w/ Premier Vsa Signature, AF: $75). Base earn rate = 45points/$
    Radisson Rewards Point Value = 16%/(32point/$) = $0.0036/RR = 0.4cpp

    The points currency values of the major hotel loyalty programs I just calculated above are identical to the mean values that one gets if one averages the values published by this site, by OMAAT and by TPG, to take out the “noise” (i.e., each bloggers bias).

    That is possible because all hotel loyalty programs award exactly the same “rebate” of 16% and all hotel points currencies are worth exactly the same..


    To put the nail in the coffin of the claim that “[Hilton Honors] awards lower rebates to members than Marriott, IHG, or Hyatt”, I will calculate the ‘rebate’ that I get with the industry-leading HH AMEX Aspire card that awards 34x:

    R (Aspire) = (0.5cpp * 34points/$) * 100% = 17% vs. 16% for everyone else.

    Contrary to self-anointed “thought leader”‘s claim, incontrovertible mathematical proof shows that “[Hilton Honors] awards higher rebates to its top members than Marriott, IHG, or Hyatt”

    Remember this post when the claim is recycled, which it will be, given the malignant megalomania that drives these recurrent, but thoroughly debunked claims.

    They don’t promise suite upgrades…

    I may address that one yet again with chapter and verse, but the truth is that Hilton Honors’ is actually the only program that, with its new and highly innovative global automated upgrades, guarantees its Gold, Diamond and Lifetime Diamond members space-available room upgrades, including to suites, up to 72 hours before check-in, and hotels cannot opt out of providing the benefit. Really.

    G’day ! 😉

  11. Sorry, the calculations were done correct but equation was written upside down:

    Point Value = Rebate/(Base earn rate)

  12. Another error from cutting and pasting. Result is correct but base earn rate is wrong (45 rather than 32):
    Radisson Rewards Point Value = 16%/(45point/$) = $0.0036/RR = 0.4cpp

    This site should offer the opportunity to edit posts for clarity as LoyaltyLobby and other Disqus-based sites do!

  13. Very interesting way to give your opinion! As an AirFrance Flyingblue Platinum for life and a Diamond HiltonHonors ( a tour de force for a French!), I am a bit confused about your comments on United, Delta and American, the three airlines we know in Europe: difficult to choose the right one, although…I favour Delta due to my status. Hilton is honest too, but sometimes (often?) IHG program more interesting …

  14. At least Scott Kirby now gets some credit, albeit grudgingly, after designating him as the “stain” on Munoz’s record as the CEO that brought UA back from the brink:

    Ultimately there have been some customer-friendly moves that have come under CEO Scott Kirby’s leadership, but he still has a decades-long history of destroying customer experience.

    Kirby definitely hit a home run with the airline perk that I value most: Get to know MileagePlus’ Pluspoints cabin upgrades and you will change your tune about how the program has been “devalued”, especially in relation to SkyMiles and the dAArk side…

  15. Some engineer types in the comments. My brain says stick with what works. Marriott is the biggest chain. I can get a room in Bilbao, Spain or Talinas, Estonia.

  16. @BlameAA — LOL. What I have been putting out are the cliff notes. Just wait until the full opus magnum ‘demystifying’ hotel loyalty points currencies from which these ‘cliff notes’ are extracted comes to a blog near you and you’ll see what I mean ! It is so mathematically thorough that travel blogosphere just might become conversant on esoteric subjects like “Bland-Altman Plots” that show just how off and biased are this site’s values of hotel points currencies 😉

    The “Truth”? LOL…

  17. @ warren trout

    “…My brain says stick with what works…”

    Exactly right. And an excellent illustration of the brand power of successful loyalty programs – they are designed….drumroll….to engage and entice members based on members’ emotions / perceptions. Don’t take my word for it, Google “loyalty program” and “emotion” and you’ll find any number of loyalty consultant websites and attendant articles and real life case studies on the matter.

    You are in good company. Gary’s article is another example. Despite claiming “truth” in the title, the article is entirely based on (latterly confessed) personal perceptions.

    Of course there is an objective reality – it lies in the math and the coin. The success of a well designed loyalty program is evidenced by its turnover and profit (as Gary has observed in other articles), the buy and sell prices of the points / miles behind the scenes, the levels of gamification in play, etc.

    In fairness to Gary, at least he mentions the concept of “rebate”…now follow a real mathematician down the rabbit hole…;)

    But let’s not presume, whilst we’re on the Lewis Carroll references, that just because something is repeatedly published by certain travel bloggers that what they claim must be true:

    “…Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
    What I tell you three times is true…”

  18. @ BlameAA

    “cliff notes available?”

    1. Rebate tells us what we get back for our loyal engagement (not the value of our points / miles) as a percent of what we spent
    2. Rebate is the output of two variables – rate of earning the points and the redemption value when we redeem those points for a reward
    3. If we know typical earn rates (points for hotel stays optionally plus credit card per dollar spend) and redemption value (cash value of a room versus points redeemed) then we can calculate rebate using the simplest of equations
    4. When we do (3) we find that hotel loyalty programs offer remarkably similar rebates (an exercise apparently done by @ DCS at a level of mathematical / statistical rigor).

    So, for example, Hyatt points aren’t 3 times more valuable than Hilton points (EXCEPT when our earn rate is constant so we are ONLY comparing redemption rate)….etc…etc….;)

  19. @ Gene

    “…@DCS mumbling again…”

    Perhaps you’re right, my friend. Unless that mumble becomes a rumble and leaves the old guard in the jungle…;)

    Be well.

  20. How easy is it to talk to these companies? Which ones treat their customers like dirt, making them wait hours on hold and finally connecting them to an incompetent agent in a far-distant country?

    And in the airport, which airlines have consigned their customers to a mile-long line at the service desk? Or abandoned them completely like Qantas who replaced all the service-desks with a sign saying to phone their lousy call center?

    Which hotels have an effective phone line to call? Not Marriott, that’s for certain.

    If a company wants to mistreat its customers, that’s their choice but I’d avoid them.

  21. @ harry hv

    Excellent question. Yesterday two first class award seats became available on QF for LAX-SYD for the end of May, on just the very dates I wanted (a minor miracle in itself) meaning I can get home via LA in first, instead of SCL in business for my upcoming RTW.

    Two different call centre agents were unable to find the “P” class award space! WTF!!!

    I took the risk of canceling and refunding a different award to have enough points in my account rather than change the existing one (business class SCL-SYD). Sure enough I was able (thankfully) to make the booking online, meaning the award seats were indeed available.

    What is the point of having call centre agents who have not been trained or are incapable of making the simplest of award bookings?! Fustercluck useless!!!

  22. @Gene — More like “screaming” so that the host and his sycophants may see the wonders of ‘absolute’ mathematical truth rather than their biased opinions that are constantly peddled as the “truth”…!

  23. Let’s face it: All 3 major airlines suck. Stop projecting your personal biases and opinions. The Gold Standard is Emirates.

    For hotels, Marriott is clearly superior, always has been. Hilton is hit or miss. Hyatt is good when you can find them. IHG is a running joke.

  24. Gary, your take on United is biased and inaccurate. If anything it merely regurgitates stereotypes from 10 years ago. I’m gold on UA, so I fly them quite a bit – and am based in the general area of ORD. My experience has been that their on-time performance has been the best of any airline I’ve flown in years. The crews are generally very professional, competent and hospitable. The aircraft range from older and worn (yet everything is clean and works fine) to brand new and crisp. Their economy plus seating is great for a tall guy and their domestic first is even better.

    The food is nothing to write home about, but its decent and – in some cases – surprisingly good. Now, I’ve read lots of bad reviews about the food, but that hasn’t ever been my experience.

    As for AA, clearly you fly them a lot and are thus inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. My impressions are these: their Oasis interiors suck, their domestic first class has the legroom of an average seat on WN. They play the rolling delay game far too often. Their staff has a tendency to have an attitude problem. Many of their hubs are awful (CLT, MIA). And their food is NO better than anything on UA.

    As for DL, it’s a fine airline but nothing special. As they’re really at about the same level as the others, I see no reason for the accolades. Overrated.

    Likewise, JetBlue is overrated if for no other reason than the bias I see from south FL and NYC based bloggers who think they’re an actual player. They’re not. Come to Chicago and see where their gates are at ORD and how nobody is ever there.

    I could go on, but I think you get my point; this was purely an opinion piece and based on my varied travel experiences, I don’t agree with many of the opinions expressed herein.

  25. @DCS The value of a card lies in more than the value of the points you earn. There are other factors to consider:
    – The IHG and Marriott cards get you an annual free night certificate; Hilton’s does not
    – The status you get from the card is far worse for Marriott than for Hilton and IHG

    And, as for the Hilton upgrade “guarantee”, I’ve read of numerous cases where the hotel weasels out of it anyway.

  26. @Richard — You might well be right, but you need to model your claim and validate it mathematically. My modeling says that whatever variability there is in my results is almost completely explained by the relationships among base earn rates, including co-branded CC bonus points, values of points currencies and reward payback aka return on the dollar (“RoD”) aka “rebate”. In other words, the factors that you are concerned about are automatically accounted for in my modeling.

    Do the math and let’s discuss…

    The Hilton “guarantee” is barely a year old. During this time only one hotel — a rundown DT in Detroit, which did not even acknowledge my status meaningful as most places do (“Welcome! Thank you for being our Diamond member”) — did not deliver a suite upgrade. Hilton Bellevue in Seattle and Hilton Newark Airport, both clearly in the US, delivered suite upgrades proactively .

    I am conducting an observational study over to see just “guaranteed” are the upgrades, especially to suites. Stay tuned!

  27. BtW, the industry-leading HH AMEX Aspire card does provide a free night annually, which is good at ANY hotel that has standard rooms. Including the Aspire, with an AF of $450 and a huge earn rate, lowered the “goodness of fit” of the model. Moreover, free night certs on CCs are not part of “base earn rates”, as they are not exactly points that you earn on cash spent.

    Status that one earns through Hilton CCs are industry-leading.


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