The Truth About Each Airline and Hotel Chain in a Nutshell

Piers thinks that I have a bias against American and Amapass believes American did something to me that I’m angry about.

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.

US Airlines:

  • 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 moon to 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.

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. I fly United often (will hit 400,000 PQM next month and ~750,000 PQM by the end of the year). So my sample size is large. I hardly ever have a problem with the wifi. The transpac satellite wifi on the 787 is fast enough to watch videos through a VPN. When it does fail to work 1 out of 25 flights, I complain and they refund the entire month’s subscription. So I often don’t have to pay for it. I understand the gogo wifi is not nearly as good but I’ve been able to surf and get email on domestic flights with no memorable problems. Maybe your UA wifi problems are a texas and east coast thing.

  2. Loved reading this summary and agree with most of it. I would add the for flyers based on the west coast Alaska offers the most lucrative FFP in terms of earn and really have some phenomenal redemptions, when availability is there. Their staff love working the airline. They also have the weakest lounge product of any US airline that offers one.

  3. Your desc of American is far too rosy. I was Exec Plat for the last two years, it was a heavily disappointing experience. Mostly because of the day to day details. Employees didn’t care about doing their job. Agents were clueless and could barely be bothered to help. Supposedly dedicated elite phone lines kept me on hold for 20 minutes or more. Planes landed and sat around for an hour because gate operations were a mess. When all the other airlines flew to outstations in weather, AA cancelled. LAX operations suck. BA is inferior to other European airlines and transiting LHR is a nightmare of buses and security lines. Coming back to star alliance was like coming home after a stint as a spy in 1980s east germany. I’m no longer take anything for granted, like planes landing and reaching a gate within a few minutes.

  4. There are good things about AA and OneWorld but I feel you AA flyers are like battered wives making excuses for your abusive husband. It’s a mess of an airline. I could care less about their biz seats and couldn’t possibly notice the difference between any of them.

  5. @ Gary — “unreliable inflight internet makes United basically un-flyable” Absurd. Last time I checked the planes still fly just fine without in-flight wifi, which is NOT a necessity. If you can’t work without in-flight wifi, you need to work differently. Sleep or read instead. One does not need to be connected to the internet continuously.

  6. You didn’t include the upgrade problems and the games played by Hyatt with availability!

    Hilton gives late check out as a language in their written benefit but rarely grants 4 PM late check out even when availability is there.

  7. Just a plug for Southwest phone customer service, I have always been impressed the the empowerment, friendliness and knowledge of the reps vs. other airlines. They seems to know how to do everything and seem to be happy working at Southwest. Same goes for the flight attendants, but just more noticeably good on the phone side. I only call when/because there are still a few things that the web doesn’t allow.

  8. I have flown them all. Alaska is the best. Great FF program that still awards one mile per mile flown. Great staff

    I effort to avoid UA and AA. Neither has employees who really care

  9. Regarding Southwest, I am confused when you say “they’re mass transportation not aspirational.” I assume this means there is no aspiration for you to fly because it lacks a first class cabin? From an economy class standpoint, all of the major carriers are mass transportation these days.

  10. Fun read. Though, I’ll have to reference back for this one:
    “[American] won’t have seat power in legacy US Airways Airbus A320s until JetBlue flies to the moon to Europe”

    I wouldn’t be surprised, assuming Parker stays at American, if those US Airways Airbus A320’s go to the desert at end of life, still without seat power.

  11. Pretty good summary. I have noticed UA wifi getting better the last year or so. (If you are in a service business and flying long-haul, it is pretty important.) But all of them have been downgrading their loyalty programs. With a good economy leading to full flights, not surprising.

  12. OK I’ll bite. For United, your WiFi comment is fair. I get somewhere between 50-75% success with operational wifi (though notably, it has always worked for trans-pacific flights), which is too low for something you pay for, regardless of getting a refund or not. But I’m not sure what you’re hinting at with all of this:

    “…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.”

    What needs turning around specifically? Maybe I’m biased flying out of a hub (DEN) with lots of direct flights that my experience is smoother than most. Maybe I waste time by never booking the sub-60 minute connections at large hubs (ORD, EWR, SFO, etc.) and therefore haven’t dealt with missed flights? Operationally they have occasional delays but nothing that has messed up my plans. The customer service line for even Platinum level is quick and helpful every time. What exactly is disappointing? [If you’re a commenter thinking of responding with the one time you got stranded in OKC 15 years ago and you’re NEVER FLYING UNITED AGAIN, I don’t really care. I fly close to 100 segments a year and my dataset is skewed incredibly positive. So you’ll need more than some one-off operational disaster, which affect all the airlines, before you change my mind.]

  13. @Kalboz – there’s no guarantee of late checkout, it’s a benefit if available with Hilton.

    Marriott and HIlton play games with availability too, that’s not just a Hyatt problem so not really a differentiator here

  14. I’ve had relatively good luck with United for the last two years (25-30k miles), rarely a wifi problem, good connections with lots of cross-country trips. The one thing I have noticed on board that even GS, 1K customers are being treated about the same as Silver customers (me). I usually am seated next to one in E+ (middle seat open) and occasionally regular E. Finding it harder to get an E+ seat as a Silver – not sure if that’s because people are paying for seats or that may higher levels gobble them up.

    I will also say that I’ve had extremely good flight attendant luck of late, super nice on domestic and transatlantic. I accidentally got upgraded by a careless gate agent who didn’t want to search for the right upgrade recipient and the flight attendant on board handled a very upset GS person during the flight quite well.

    I’m in DC so I could fly AA from DCA or UA out of IAD. Almost always AA is more expensive for an inferior product.

  15. Nice summary, here are my takes:

    I have to say Alaska and JetBlue have outstanding elite recognition given no change, cancellation, or same day change fees! There is nothing mediocre about JetBlue Mosaic offering the same day and fee free benefit or free drinks for all Mosaic members.

    Of the big 3, United hands down has the best same day change program, even allowing changes to the day before or after originally ticketed. And for Gold elite and higher, these changes are free on an unlimited basis!

    American followed closely by Delta have the worst same day change programs, namely, because they restrict routing changes and or restrict say changing from a connection to a nonstop. Also Delta has an absurd rule about not being able to standby for later flights. Those draconian rules about limiting same day changes largely make American or Delta a nonstarter although I agree United’s WiFi is a mess! I love WiFi, but being able to change my tickets is more important!

    Lots of things are dicy at American like D0 and their absurd no routing changes same day policy, but I do think they just might have the best domestic meals on a “regular” flight.

    Don’t forget with Southwest A List Preferred members get unlimited free WiFi on any number of devices, and non AList Preferred passengers pay an industry bargain price of $8 per day of WiFi. Southwest’s WiFi is consistent on one provider largely fleetwide. Don’t forget the Southwest Companion Pass. And no change fees are huge! Plus the seat assignments I think are better on Southwest unless your an elite member that can secure preferred seats for free.

    People love to complain about Hyatt’s limited footprint, but they are in 99% of the places I go, so to me it doesn’t matter. There have to be other people that mostly travel to cities with Hyatt rather than more remote spots with only Marriott and Hilton and IHG. Hyatt did some serious devaluations with the switch from Gold Passport to WOH, like no checkin amenity. I don’t know why most of the travel bloggers gave Hyatt a pass and get out of jail card with their devaluation of the checkin amenity which was one of the absolute best perks, hand down bar none!

  16. IHG is UK based, not US.

    Also, as IHG Spire (mainly because their footprint is the one that works best for me) the reality on the ground is a bit better than the program looks like on paper, which I agree is lackluster.

  17. I can’t argue with any of your appraisals. Do you have an outlook of how you think things will evolve in the next five years among the chief players in airlines and hotels?

  18. That last line on American (greater potential) is worth stealing. It’s right up there with insults such as “this is the best book X could have written” and “Y fills a much-needed lacuna.” World class. How someone could think you coulda been harsher on AMR is beyond me.

  19. Spirit narrowing the gap with the legacy carriers is pretty accurate. If not for the fact that I acquire miles for paid flights, which I use for business class international redemptions AND that my credit cards give me free bags on both United and American – I’d probably fly Spirit multiple times a year.

    Not mentioned: Allegiant Air. Not great by any means, but if you have access to a military ID (My wife was in the Army) you get a LOT of perks. 3 free checked bags, priority boarding, free carry-on, free seat assignments, and you get to bring a pet on board free. Without a military discount….. Not as good a choice.

  20. Some of you haters much be dying. . .AA is up and coming and DL isn’t as good as they think they are. UA still sucks and with Kirby will only get worse. Hope that AA and DL both raise the bar and we have two choses for domestic and international travel.

  21. Gary – don’t think the Hyatt number (10% the size of Marriott/Hilton) is correct once you factor in the recent acquisitions and add in SLH.

    For all those who rave about Marriott and size…70% of those are limited service properties outside of metro areas. If you need those, great, go for it…if you don’t, Hyatt is excellent and offers better benefits.

  22. @UA-NYC I really don’t think you should factor in SLH [and they only have about half the SLH properties online], this is only a good partnership for redemption and redemption values are frequently not great / overpriced in points. You don’t get elite benefits at SLH properties and best rate guarantee doesn’t apply.

  23. @UA-NYC. Are you serious about Hyatt. Two thirds of Hyatt-branded hotels are limited service and the majority of full service Hyatts don’t have a lounge. Hyatt combines a minor footprint and a sub-par frequency program for all but super elites and thinks a few decent SLH properties even it out. Nope.

  24. I think you are fairly describing the travel suppliers. Many forget that many travelers do not have a choice. Their companies have contracts, or they are hub captive, so their travel is dictated to them. For myself, I am a free agent. My credit cards give me many benefits and I use them accordingly.

  25. Mr Leff, I’ve had a lot of good flights on United and not once have I had a problem with the WiFi. As a matter of fact I would much rather fly on United than CattleCarSouthwest or Alaska. Your seem to be pretty uninformed when it comes to United. In any case it’s getting hard to take you seriously anymore.

  26. Just a mention that Hilton hotels outside the US are excellent and deliver all the benefits, while Holiday Inns and Marriotts are just the same as the US ones

  27. Regarding Hyatt and coverage compared to HH and MR, it is not just the lack of hotels but also the lack of anything resembling an inexpensive option. Just checked London for this Saturday, HH has 12 hotels below 200 GBP, (lowest = 111) and HY has only 1 at 199. For travelers who use hotels as places to rest and find their time out of the hotel the most important part of the trip, it is hard to sign up for HY since the cash payments for room assigned to a non-elite are much higher in almost every location of size you might want to visit.

  28. What I like about IHG is the points + cash optiom- especially at high priced location .For example,I book a hotel in NYC with a rate of $285 + about about$55 tax=$320 . Using points +cash , prices are 30,000 PTS + $139 or 45,000pts +$39 -taxes are usually not charged on points stays

  29. In a nutshell, travel stinks! Flying is a hassle and uncomfortable to boot and hotels could care less whether you are there or not. Sad!

  30. Great summary, though you left out that Hilton is the only program to offer free breakfasts to mid-tier elites, and Gold is easy to obtain via credit card, and otherwise.

    It is a bit of a stretch to say UA is unflyable because of crap wifi. I don’t consider wifi-to-ground connection to be a critical component and still enjoy being unplugged for a few hours. It usually works well enough for me to send/receive email, which is all i need.

  31. Why did you leave out Radisson? They have a bunch of hotels in London, UK. Why not Best Western? Hotels everywhere. Choice, Wyndham?

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