U.S. News names best airline, hotel loyalty programs

U.S. News and World Report has named what it judges to be the best loyalty programs among U.S. airlines and hotel chains.

The publication named Alaska Airlines’ (NYSE:ALK) Mileage Plan program as The No. 1 Best Airline Loyalty Program, with a score of 4.49 of a possible five points.

Alaska flight departs SEA

It was followed by Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) SkyMiles program at No. 2, with a score of 4.19, jetBlue’s (NASDAQ:JBLU) True Blue program at No. 3 with 4.12 points, Southwest Airlines’ (NYSE:LUV) RapidRewards program at No. 4 with 3.96 points and United Airlines’ (NYSE:UAL) MileagePlus program at No. 5 with 3.87 points.

jetBlue planes on the ramp in San Juan, Puerto Rico

American Airlines’ (NASDAQ:AAL) AAdvantage program with No. 6 followed by Hawaiian Airlines’ (NYSE:HA) HawaiianMiles at No. 7, Frontier’s (NASDAQ:FRNT) EarlyReturns at No. 8 and Spirit (NASDAQ:SAVE) Free Spirit at No. 9. The complete ranking of airline loyalty programs is available here.

The 17 hotel loyalty programs ranked by the publication saw a much broader range of scores: from 4.92 out of a possible five points for the Marriott (NASDAQ:MAR) Rewards program to a low of 1.24 for Fairmont’s Presidents Club.

Wyndam Rewards was No. 2 with 4.74 points followed by Choice Privileges at No. 3 with 4.53 points, World of Hyatt at No. 4 with 4.43 points and Best Western Rewards at No. 5 with 4.28 points. The complete ranking of hotel loyalty programs is available here.

My take

First, “Best of” lists are always at least partially subjective, and the publication tacitly admitted that when it discussed its methodology.

“The U.S. News & World Report travel rankings are based on an analysis of expert and user opinions,” it said, but went on to say, “We believe this unbiased approach makes our rankings more useful than simply providing our editors' personal opinions.”

While that may provide a broader base than relying on editors’ opinions, the expert and user opinions also include the inherent biases of those individuals. Not exactly scientific, and certainly not the “unbiased approach” it purports to be.

Delta Flt. 281 departs SEA for Hong Kong

Second, the magazine’s rankings differ significantly with an annual survey that I believe provides a more meaningful metric: award seat availability. In other words, “How easy is it going to be for a traveler to use his or her accrued miles when they want to travel?” That survey, which is available here, shows that Southwest Airlines had award seats available on 100 percent of its flights followed by jetBlue at 94.3 percent and Alaska, the No. 3 U.S. airline, with 81.4 percent availability.

Third, comparing airline loyalty programs is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison. It’s more like comparing peaches and nectarines: similar, but not identical. Most airline loyalty programs now accrue points on the basis of dollars spent and take into account the number of flights taken to determine elite levels. Delta was the first to do that but most other airlines quickly followed suit.

Alaska Airlines is the exception and is the only airline of any size that still employs a miles-flown basis for its frequent flier program. When contacted by TheTravelPro after American announced its change to a revenue basis, an Alaska spokesperson responded that it had "No plans to change it at this time."

Fourth, one airline’s spin doctors seized on the opportunity to manipulate the message.

The headline on Delta’s email announcing the rankings read, “Delta SkyMiles named a Best Travel Rewards program by U.S. News for 2017-2018,” and the opening sentence continued the obfuscation. It read, “Delta SkyMiles is the top U.S. global airline* loyalty program in U.S. News & World Report’s 2017-2018 Best Travel Rewards Programs ranking.”

The *asterisk lead to a footnote at the end of the email that read: *US global carrier is defined as US carriers offering intercontinental flights: American Airlines; Delta Air Lines; and United Airlines.

In the third paragraph of the email, Delta stated clearly that it was, “No. 2 overall.” What would be wrong with saying, “Best Travel Rewards program of the three major U.S. airlines”? Admitting that up front wouldn’t make Delta look like it’s trying to play fast and loose with the facts.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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