Best Travel Rewards Programs

With the right travel rewards programs, vacation can become more affordable and provide people with perks to enjoy.

Travel can be incredibly expensive, and, yet, it’s something most people crave. However, with the right rewards programs traveling — whether for business or pleasure — can become more affordable and provide people with perks to enjoy.

U.S. News & World Report recently its 2014-15 Best Travel Rewards Programs ranking, which features information on 27 airline and hotel programs. Now, travelers don’t have to waver over which loyalty program to join in order to maximize rewards.

"Our goal is to take the guesswork out of choosing a travel rewards program," Miriam Weiner, lead travel editor at U.S. News, said in a statement. "The programs that rank at the top of our lists make it easy to earn free flights or hotel stays while offering benefits that travelers value, such as complimentary upgrades and free checked bags."

The hotel rewards ranking was based on 5 criteria: network size, property diversity, geographic coverage, additional benefits, and ease of earning free nights. Only programs with properties located in the US and that allow members to earn rewards and privileges at affiliated hotels were considered for ranking.

The airline rewards ranking was based on 5 criteria, as well: flight volume, geographic coverage, free flight options, ease of earning a free round-trip flight, and additional benefits the program offered. The program had to be tied to a US-based airline in order to be considered for ranking.

Best hotel rewards programs

5. Starwood Preferred Guest

Overall score: 4.20 (out of 5 stars)

Properties in network: 1,162

The Romanos in Messinia, Greece.

The Starwood program primarily caters to business people traveling in the US, Asia, and Europe, and the group includes 9 brands including Sheraton and St. Regis. Elite members who are also in the Delta SkyMiles program can earn hotel points on Delta flights and miles on hotel stays.

The program’s property diversity and additional benefits both received 5 out of 5 stars, and property diversity earned 4 stars. However, geographic coverage only received 3 out of 5 stars.

According to U.S. News, Starwood has fewer budget-friendly hotels than Hilton or Marriott and not all participating hotels can be booked with points online.

4. Club Carlson

Overall score: 4.24 (out of 5)

Properties in network: More than 1,000

Radisson

The loyalty program of the Carlson Rezidor hotel group includes Radission, Park Plaza, and Country Inns & Suites by Carlson. Rwards can cover future stays; hotel expenses, such as room upgrades and movie rentals; and flights and purchases through partners.

The program’s property diversity received 5 out of 5 stars, ease of earning a free night received 4.5 stars, and additional benefits earned 4 stars. However, geographic coverage only received 2 out of 5 stars.

Blackout dates do apply. Also rewards cannot be redeemed for rooms reserved on third-party websites, and member benefits may not be available in all Carlson hotels, according to U.S. News.

3. Best Western Rewards

Overall score: 4.39 (out of 5)

Properties in network: 4,195

Chinatown, New York City

There are Best Western hotels in more than 100 countries around the world, plus Best Western is affiliated with airlines like Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.

The program’s property diversity and additional benefits both received 5 out of 5 stars, while ease of earning a free night and geographic coverage both received 4 out of 5 stars.

Points never expire, but free nights at Best Western Premiere hotels require a large number and hotels outside of the US and Canada may be subject to blackout dates, according to U.S. News. Also, members cannot earn both hotel points and airline miles for the same stay.

2. IHG Rewards Club

Overall score: 4.47 (out of 5)

Properties in network: 4,602

Hanoi, Vietnam

Brands that are a part of the InterContinental Hotels Group include, Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and InterContinental. The rewards club typically caters business travelers to major cities.

The program’s property diversity and geographic coverage both received 5 out of 5 stars, while ease of earning a free night and additional benefits both received 4 out of 5 stars.

However, discounted rooms do not receive points and reward options vary by location, according to U.S. News. Plus, in order to redeem Reward Nights at an all-inclusive resort, extra points are required.

1. Marriott Rewards

Overall score: 4.59 (out of 5)

Properties in network: 4,087

Zurich, Switzerland

Marriott has 18 affiliated brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Courtyard Marriott, and Residence Inn. Plus, rewards can be redeemed for flights with more than 30 airline programs, including United MileagePlus and Delta SkyMiles.

The program’s property diversity and additional benefits both received 5 out of 5 stars, and geographic coverage and ease of earning a free night bother received 4 out of 5 stars.

However, top-tier membership is more difficult to reach than the highest levels at Starwood and Hilton, according to U.S. News. Plus, rooms at high category hotels cost a large number of points, and points can expire.

Got to the next page to see the best airline rewards programs.

Best airline rewards programs

5. American Airlines AAdvantage

Overall score: 3.71 (out of 5)

Number of daily flights: More than 2,000

Fleet size: 631

Travelers based in eastern, central and southern American cities will benefit most from the AAdvantage program, according to U.S. News. Since American Airlines merged with US Airways, AAdvantage elite status members can take advantage of perks on US Airways flights, too.

The program received 5 stars for free flight options and geographic coverage, 4-and-a-half stars for additional benefits, 3-and-a-half stars for airline quality, and just 2 stars for ease of earning a free flight.

Members can only earn miles for one seat per flight, and miles can only be earned for one program per trip, according to U.S. News.

4. United MileagePlus

Overall score: 3.74 (out of 5)

Number of daily flights: More than 2,000

Fleet size: 700

MileagePlus members earn and use miles on United and its 35-plus airline partners, including Singapore Airlines or Copa Airlines. Members can also earn miles on qualifying cruises, car rentals, and train fares.

The program received 5 stars for geographic coverage, 4-and-a-half stars for additional benefits, 4 stars for ease of earning a free flight, 3 stars for free flight options, and just 2-and-a-half stars for airline quality.

The program rules are complex, according to U.S. News, plus the number of seats available for award travel is limited.

3. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Overall score: 3.81 (out of 5)

Number of daily flights: 500 — 1,000

Fleet size: 137

Frequent fliers traveling to and from Alaska and West Coast cities will benefit most from this program. Plus Alaska Airlines is partnered with 14 airlines, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and British Airways.

The program received 5 stars for free flight options, 4-and-a-half stars for both additional benefits and airline quality, 4 stars for geographic coverage, and 3 stars for ease of earning a free flight.

However, blackout dates apply on reward travel, and seating and availability on rewards flights are limited, according to U.S. News.

2. Southwest Rapid Rewards

Overall score: 3.92 (out of 5)

Number of daily flights: More than 2,000

Fleet size: 607

Fliers in the southwest United States who travel around the US, Mexico, and the Caribbean will benefit the most.

The program earned 5 stars for ease of earning a free flight, 4 stars for geographic coverage, 3-and-a-half stars for airline quality, 3 stars for free flight options, and 2-and-a-half stars for additional benefits.

However, Southwest’s only international flights are to Mexico and the Caribbean. Plus, the number of points needed to redeem a free flight varies widely, and points and cash cannot be combined, according to U.S. News.

1. JetBlue TrueBlue

Overall score: 4.34 (out of 5)

Number of daily flights: 500 — 1,000

Fleet size: 198

JetBlue best serves travelers based on the East Coast who fly domestic or to the Caribbean. Through the program members earn points on JetBlue flights and JetBlue Getaways vacation packages, as well as Emirates and Hawaiian Airlines.

The program received 5 stars for airline quality, ease of earning a free flight, and free flight options; 3-and-a-half stars for additional benefits; and 3 stars for geographic coverage.

While there are no blackout dates on JetBlue flights, blackout dates may apply on partner airlines. The program also offers just one elite membership tied, according to U.S. News.