Every travel brand offers its own frequent traveler and loyalty incentive program. But all programs are not created equal. Here is everything you need to know to succeed in a travel reward programs.
Business travel is inherently different than leisure travel. Business travel is less price sensitive, and there are higher demands placed on location, convenience, and perks. Yet the irony of business travel is that the majority of business travelers use their perks for leisure travel. In selecting the best travel rewards programs, you need to find a program that offers maximum earning potential with the easiest redemption terms.
Best Airline Frequent Flyer Program
The selection of the best frequent flyer program should match your travel needs. Some key considerations and questions to ask yourself:
- Do you live in an airline’s hub city?
- Where do you fly the most? (earning)
- Where do you want to fly? (using)
- What is your travel style? (cost vs. convenience/perks)
The top domestic program is also the largest airline: American Airlines AAdvantage. The integration with US Airways has expanded the number of earning and redemption options for many travelers. The vast Oneworld network offers extensive international benefits as well. Given reduction in benefits in other major airline programs, the American AAdvantage program is in a class by itself.
Best Hotel Rewards Programs
Starwood Preferred Guest: Long the gold-standard in hotel affinity programs, Starwood Preferred Guest remains the best option for serious business travelers. Elite members can enjoy an array of benefits including late checkout, free wifi, no blackout dates, benefits for life, and a low threshold for elite status. Starwood has over 1,200 hotels in its network, including an excellent distribution of both city business hotels and resort/vacation destinations.
As a bonus, you can link your Uber account and earn a point for every dollar you spend with them. Starwood also offers crossover rewards for those of a certain status in Delta’s Skymiles and Emirates’ Skyward programs.
Marriott Rewards: Marriott Rewards is an extremely attractive program that delivers ample opportunities to earn rewards and redeem them easily. Marriott’s program has perks like free Wi-Fi for all members and no blackout dates on rewards. Elite members enjoy lounge access and free room upgrades. The free room certificates earned during promotional periods can be particularly lucrative if you travel for business but use them for leisure. And with over 4,000 hotel properties, you’re never far from a Marriott to earn or redeem points. The one disadvantage is also one the biggest strengths: promotions. Marriott is constantly running promotions, which dilute point values and lead to a kind of inflation—it takes a lot of points for a stay, but you earn a lot easily.
An honorable mention goes to Hyatt, which awards platinum status at just 5 stays. Given the low threshold to reach elite status, along with advantageous point redemption rates, Hyatt’s Gold Passport Program can be one of the most valuable if it fits your travel style. However, with just under 500 hotels in the entire network worldwide, options to earn or use your points can be severely limited.
Best Rental Car Rewards Programs
National Emerald Club: A favorite among frequent business travelers, National’s Emerald Club gives members the ability to bypass the counter and pick their own car. It is the most flexible of all rental programs and awards free days or points/miles in a hotel/airline program.
Hertz Gold Plus Rewards: Hertz offers a broad network, the ability to skip the counter and a generous upgrade policy. However, Hertz truly wins in the seamless integration of U.S. and international (see below). Like other programs, the award is either free days or points/miles.
Best Programs Outside of North America
Outside of North America, location and airline network drive the selection of the best frequent flyer programs. In Europe, British Airways Executive Club (Oneworld) and Lufthansa Miles & More (Star Alliance) offer the broadest network and the most attractive benefits options. In Asia, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer (Star Alliance) and Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (Oneworld) both have advantageous reward ticket policies. Finally, if you travel almost exclusively on long-haul flights, the Gulf carriers may be the best option for you. In Emirates Skywards, there is the potential for elite members to earn status for their spouse or partner.
In hotels, the Hilton HHonors program is where to accrue and redeem points. While not the largest hotel chain in the world, Hilton offers one the largest selection of business properties. In addition, the HHonors program allows you to accumulate both HHonors points and miles in your favorite airline program.
Outside of North America, Hertz is the gold standard for car rentals. Hertz does an excellent job of providing worldwide coverage and seamless global integration. Other rental car companies rely on local affiliates and regional booking websites, all of which can add complexity. Hertz Gold Plus Rewards provides a truly global rewards program.
At the end of the day, the best program is the one that works for you and meets your needs.
A final word of caution: the vast length of every program’s terms & conditions document means that each program has a ton of fine print. The devil is in the details. Please read these carefully to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.