Which Loyalty Programs are the Best? 3 Million Frequent Flyers Speak their Minds, Here are the Results!

This evening the 25th annual Freddie Awards ceremony was held at USA Today headquarters in Northern Virginia, with several hundred frequent flyer loyalty program executives in attendance.

The Freddies have been called the Oscars of the loyalty industry, and are certainly the most significant award for frequent flyer and frequent guest programs. I’ve had the honor of managing the nominations and voting process for the past several years, and I was thrilled this year to see nearly three million people participate in the voting — nearly double last year, an increase driven in part by the introduction of a mobile-friendly voting platform.

The Freddies are voted on by the members of these programs, representing their selection of programs that provide them with the greatest value. That’s sometimes frustrating for me, because the choices of 3 million frequent flyers are often very much not my choices. But I have to respect the voices of frequent flyers. It provides a pretty good answer to the question of which program is best? And it let’s us all do our own armchair quarterbacking and arguing over the question.

I’ve also been told several times by different program executives that at the margin they take this feedback really seriously, and will make decisions about things to keep in programs or programs to run based on the outcome of these awards, or in the hopes of earning one. These awards matter — as the collective wisdom of frequent flyers, to the programs receiving them, and to the choices that they sometimes make.

Here are this year’s winners, along with my own subjective commentary.

The Americas

  • Best Promotion (Airline): American AAdvantage – Double Elite Qualifying Miles. It’s hard to beat double elite qualifying miles, and the promotion offered all members double redeemable miles too during the holidays and elite members double redeemable miles for the last two months of 2012. In a relatively weak field (no US Airways Grand Slam which would otherwise have competed for my vote!) this seemed like a really solid choice.

  • Best Promotion (Hotel): Marriott Rewards – MegaBonus. Hotels are relatively full and rates are up, there haven’t been a lot of big promotions the way we saw back in 2009. So free nights earned on top of points, even when those free nights are limited (in the number you can earn, and the level of hotel where you can redeem) make a solid win.

  • Best Customer Service (Airline): Southwest Rapid Rewards. This result didn’t surprise me though I really have no personal experience with Southwest Rapid Rewards’ customer service.

  • Best Customer Service (Hotel): Marriott Rewards. Marriott Rewards members love them, and are generally happy, though I can’t really say their customer service is far and above compared to other chains. Their members like them, and I can’t knock them in this category.

  • Best Redemption Ability (Airline): AviancaTACA LifeMiles. This one really took me by surprise, to see AviancaTACA pick up a Freddie Award. The program just joined Star Alliance in 2012 and offers a really strong value proposition — Star Alliance awards, reasonable prices in their award chart, cash and points awards, decent online redemption ability, and at times seemingly better access to awards on some Star carriers than other partners are able to get. Their members really turned out on this one, and it’s a reasonable pick I think.

  • Best Redemption Ability (Hotel): Marriott Rewards I always select Starwood Preferred Guest for Best Redemption Ability because they’re the program that really pioneered the idea of using your points for any standard room any day of the year, though other programs have since matched. To me Marriott is middle of the pack but the chain also has hotels pretty much everywhere, and part of ability to redeem is ability to redeem wherever you want and in that regard they’re only competing against Hilton and Priority Club , and they compare quite reasonably.

  • Best Loyalty Credit Card: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card. This one I have a hard time with myself, I think that Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program would be the best and has been getting better — the points are more valuable and more flexible than those offered by Southwest Rapid Rewards. But you can use the points easily with Southwest, and the award here is likely reflective overall frustrations that credit card customers have with redemption; problems they don’t face with this program even though you can’t use your points for international premium cabin awards at all…

  • Best Elite Program (Airline): American AAdvantage. This one seems like a no-brainer to me at the top tier of the program. Not only do Executive Platinums clear their upgrades at a terrific rate, the level is more easily attainable than Delta’s (100,000 miles vs. 125,000), they don’t let high fare bottom rung elites trump top tiers on discount fares for upgrades, they offer the best international upgrades of any carrier (8 annually from any fare, United requires a higher fare and Delta requires nearly full fare). United has reduced some elite benefits such as economy plus at booking making American’s lower tiers closer to competitive, and I actually believe a system where lower tier elites earn upgrades through flying and then ration when they use those upgrades is better for Golds and Platinums because they aren’t competing against every other elite every flight — a better chance to get an upgrade when it’s most desired. So this one makes good sense to me.

  • Best Elite Program (Hotel): Hyatt Gold Passport Another one where the voters and I are in synch, because Hyatt offers their top elites the best suite upgrade benefit (confirmed at booking) and the best breakfast benefit (full breakfast not continental and without giving up any other perks to get it). At the same time, Hilton’s mid-tier Gold is richer than Hyatt Platinum and Starwood lets members use their limited upgrades on award nights.

  • Program of the Year (Airline): American AAdvantage With the best elite benefits, solid (though not Freddies-winning) redemption ability, and the top promotion (double elite qualifying miles) this is a solid choice, another where I agree with the voters.

  • Program of the Year (Hotel): Marriott Rewards Hey I can’t agree with travelers in general all the time, right? 🙂

It’s interesting to me that Marriott continues to do so well. Their properties are everywhere, they didn’t devalue this year as much as Hilton, and they’re actually more rewarding for in-hotel spend than Starwood (though elite benefits are weaker — one area that Marriott hasn’t historically shined in these awards). They don’t have that many truly aspirational properties, but their members do love them. Not one of my key programs but they must be doing something right to appeal to a demographic that isn’t me.

Aeroplan had performed very well in these awards up until their decision to substantially devalue their award chart a couple of years ago, around the same time they began to add furl surcharges on to most partner awards. Not surprising they aren’t getting as much recognition from members as they used to (though our friends up North don’t have a ton of options, sadly).

Hyatt continues to impress in the elite level category and more in Asia across the board than in North America.

Delta had been winning promotion awards in recent years but in 2012 there were almost no promotions from the airline other than a few points with Hilton and matching the big London bonuses everyone else offered. Perhaps the inactivity out of Atlanta was meant to focus on the big changes that we’ve already seen trickling out of the program, with more to come?

Europe and Africa

Here I’ll offer my comments only at the end of the region’s results:

  • Best Promotion (Airline): Air France / KLM Flying Blue
  • Best Promotion (Hotel): Le Club Accorhotels
  • Best Customer Service (Airline): SAS EuroBonus
  • Best Customer Service (Hotel): IHG Priority Club Rewards
  • Best Redemption Ability (Airline): Air France / KLM Flying Blue
  • Best Redemption Ability (Hotel): Starwood Preferred Guest
  • Best Loyalty Credit Card: Flying Blue American Express Card
  • Best Elite Program (Airline): Air France / KLM Flying Blue
  • Best Elite Program (Hotel): Starwood Preferred Guest
  • Program of the Year (Airline): Air France / KLM Flying Blue
  • Program of the Year (Hotel): Le Club Accorhotels

Air France KLM’s Flying Blue program vexes me in many ways, I find dealing with their website and with their telephone agents to be extremely frustrating. But they’re the big winner in the region and probably for good reason — in general I find their premium cabin award availability to be outstanding (as offered to their own members, rather than to partners) and there’s little question that the 50% off ‘promo awards’ which rotate between different cities through the year represents one of the very best promotions in the industry, not just the region.

Starwood does better in Europe and Africa than in other regions. They always get my vote, in all regions, for best redemption ability as the program that pioneered no capacity controls on standard room awards. And since they don’t meaningfully compete against Hyatt Gold Passport in Europe (Hyatt’s presence is minimal) they pick up Best Elite Program (I do think in general Starwood’s is second best in the other regions to Hyatt).

Le Club Accorhotels does well here, too. I don’t find their elite benefits compelling, or the value of their points all that tremendous, but they’re certainly a major presence here.

Middle East, Asia, Oceania

As with Europe and Africa, I’ll offer my comments only at the end of the region’s results:

  • Best Promotion (Airline): Jet Airways JetPrivilege
  • Best Promotion (Hotel): Taj Hotels & Resorts Inner Circle
  • Best Customer Service (Airline): Emirates Skywards
  • Best Customer Service (Hotel): Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Best Redemption Ability (Airline): Virgin Australia Velocity
  • Best Redemption Ability (Hotel): Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Best Loyalty Credit Card: JetPrivilege HDFC Bank Credit Card
  • Best Elite Program (Airline): Virgin Australia Velocity
  • Best Elite Program (Hotel): Hyatt Gold Passport
  • Program of the Year (Airline): Virgin Australia Velocity
  • Program of the Year (Hotel): IHG Priority Club Rewards

Hyatt and Virgin Australia are the biggest winners in the region. Hyatt picks up two of the three regions’ Best Elite Program and that seems right to me. Virgin Australia certainly has the best premium cabin award availability between the US and Australia by several orders of magnitude (one of the very best uses of Delta miles, for sure). My experience with Virgin Australia doesn’t extend far beyond that, other than having noted some of the elite benefits of the program in the past and status match opportunities.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Did you vote in the Freddie Awards? Did your favorite program win any awards?

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. Some of these winners make your head hurt…….sorta like watching US Presidential election returns so that at a certain point you know the voters just have no clue………but hey if we listen to Gary at least we will have one foot on the ground…………..As the loser of the election was heard to comment “the people have spoken……those dumb bastards”…………

  2. Nothing for United, can’t say I’m surprised after the affection they have displayed for their frequent fliers. Their award availability is good though.

  3. glad hilton and priority club was not chosen cos they are the biggest rip off. But this whole thing about voting is nonsense cos they keep devaluing their program.
    Or there should be nomination for the worst ones

  4. Thank GOD you guys moved away from that phallic-looking award/logo! It was…embarrassing. Or hot. Depending on one’s perspective.

  5. Starwood is very strong in Asia, where they treat their elite guests exceptionally well, so a bit surprised Hyatt won there, but not indefensible by any means.

    I have to hand it to Southwest and Marriott. Their customers love them, great customer service, consistent product, excellent at managing expectations.

  6. Nick – International award avsilability on UA has tsken a nose dive over recent months. Try finding a saver round trip to Asia or Europe.

  7. Avianca for best redemption ability has to be a cruel joke. This is the airline that doesn’t recognise the existence of some cities served by *A partners, won’t permit connections >8 hours on legal routings, won’t allow you to add single class feeder flights to a premium award booking and have a totally dysfunctional call center to book with.

    They might get my vote for the worst redemption ability, but I cannot imagine how any educated voter can find them to be industry leaders in this field.

  8. Considering that this is basically a competition to mobilise loyalty program members/customers to vote, the results in Europe and Asia are very weird indeed 😉

  9. Aeroplan was good until the highest YQ (fuel=scam charges) came into effect. Incredibly high compared to US carriers. What to do with AeroPESOS? 🙁

  10. Gary,

    How would you rank the big 5 programs (Marriott, SPG, Hyatt, Hilton and Priority Club) from most to least rewarding for in-hotel spend?

    You mentioned that Marriott > SPG, but where do the other programs fit in this hierarchy?

  11. I’ve lost all respect for the Freddies. How can Accor, which doesn’t have a points redemption program…just a credit system that’s not lucrative at all win? How does Marriott, which doesn’t upgrade win? How does AviancaTaca beat UA MP for redemption ability? They have the same or greater inventory than AT, plus virtually nonexistant routing rules.

  12. @David – actually AviancaTaca has had more inventory than UA recently in many ways (eg Singapore and certain European airline premium cabins) but I suspect it’s incorporating in voters minds ease of earning

  13. @Ric —

    Discovery Tour Facebook Game
    From October 16th to November 13th 2012, Le Club Accorhotels offered weekly games for a player to locate 10 hotels on a map with an opportunity to get points for every right answer, a chance to win weekly lucky draws as well as be entered into the grand lottery to win 1,000,000 points.

  14. United drives off many of its loyal customers during the $misek regime, no more Freddies, poor financial results…interesting correlation.

  15. Marriott gives a lot of points for in hotel spend (PAID BY EMPLOYER)
    So while earning on card and redemption is useless, and transfers to airlines on the miles you earn is useless, for a mid level business exec traveling on company dime, the free rooms add up quickly. Put them everywhere and now you have ability to make lots of people happy.
    Most people who travel on their own spend (via CC or cash / leisure) would be wise to look into the other options. For spend and benefits Hilton is better. For flexibility with saved points, SPG is best.

  16. I wonder how many people voted for AA as a way of warning US Airways “Don’t mess with this program – we like them a lot more than you.”

  17. Gary,
    I think it would be helpful if the US was a separated category from “The Americas”. I know Avianca won best availability, but the other programs don’t stand a chance. Also, it is a completely different scenario for credit cards everywhere else from US.
    And, in Brazil, the land of expensive hotels, Hyatt and Hilton only have one hotel each (I guess Starwood doesn’t have many as well), and they are outrageously expensive. So, I would like to see which hotel loyalty program would win when US is not counting.

  18. I’m most thankful that both Hilton and Delta were completely snubbed. How’d they fare in rankings? Maybe their execs will recognize how poorly they compare to competition.

  19. Gary,
    on a different subject, I don’t think most people want aspirational awards. I know Maldives are nice and everything, but most people don’t want to spend that much time travelling (20+ hours on airports/airplanes).
    Also, for me, LeClub Accor is very rewarding, since I can use their vouchers to settle the bill and my employer reimburses me for the entire bill, then I can use that money however I want.

  20. The Freddies have always been the biggest Joke out there.Its probably profitable for its owners and the so called winners but thats about it.

    I never have nor ever will I rely on who gets the most ballots to determine which programs to belong to and where to spend my $$

  21. @craz you don’t actually know anything about the finances of the Freddies or how winners are tabulated apparently, it isn’t “who gets the most ballots” but rather best average rank (voters rank order preferred programs) from among those being ranked by at least 2% of the voters in a category.

  22. Just say no to domestic flying…………..international first class or stay home………..

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