The best travel rewards programs to enroll in

Brittany Jones-Cooper
Earning elite status on an airline has gotten more difficult, but some programs are better than others.

On Wednesday, U.S. News World and Report released its annual list of the best rewards programs in the hospitality industry and Alaska Airlines topped the ranking.

Airline loyalty programs have gotten a bad rap over the past couple of years, with some changing how travelers earn points, and others making it impossible to earn elite status. Still, there are a few carriers that get it right.

For the third consecutive year, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (ALK) was named the best airline rewards program. Why does it continue to beat out competitors? For one, points are earned based on how many miles you fly instead of how much you spend. This structure makes it easier and faster for passengers to earn points and reach elite status.

The Seattle-based airline also got a boost after acquiring Virgin America back in December 2016. The merger gave travelers more options, creating a combined fleet of 286 planes making 1,200 daily flights to over 900 destinations around the world. Virgin America’s fleet has a swankier seating plan, so the acquisition also brought more premium seats to Alaska’s portfolio, which will translate into more complimentary upgrades for loyalty members in 2018.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan topped the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Airline Rewards Programs.

At this point, Alaska’s Mileage Plan seems untouchable, but other airlines are trying to challenge its dominance. Delta SkyMiles (DAL) grabbed the No. 2 spot this year, moving up from last year’s fourth place finish, in part because of its convenience. While Alaska Airlines primarily serves the West Coast, Delta is a convenient and competitive option for travelers flying to and from New York City. Furthermore, Delta’s network is vast, giving passengers the opportunity to earn and use miles with 20 other airlines including KLM, Virgin Atlantic and Air France.

The caveat to Delta, of course, is that miles are earned based on the amount of money you spend on a ticket. For instance, economy class travelers earn 9 to 11 miles for every $1 spent. Compared to other point-based programs, this structure provides fewer points/miles to travelers who find a good deal on a ticket.  This makes reaching an elite status like Gold, Platinum or Diamond an expensive exercise. That said, Delta SkyMiles does allow you to use miles to book flights, request a class upgrade, or stay at a hotel for free.

JetBlue (JBLU) TrueBlue snagged the third spot, followed by Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards.

The best hotel rewards program is …

Like Alaska Airlines, Marriott International (MAR) had a major acquisition that helped to boost the benefits and reach of its rewards program. This combination earned it the No. 1 spot on this year’s list.

In September 2016, Marriott International acquired Starwood Hotels, which expanded its portfolio to more than 5,700 hotels in 110 countries. This gave loyalty members the opportunity to earn points at more than 30 brands.

The acquisition also gave travelers the opportunity to earn more perks and benefits with their co-branded credit cards. Currently, customers can use their Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card by American Express to earn two Starpoints for every dollar spent at hotels participating in Marriott Rewards around the world. On the flip side, customers using the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card can now earn five Marriott Rewards or Ritz Carlton points for every dollar spent on qualifying purchases at participating Starwood properties around the globe. With these points, loyalty members can earn free nightly stays, room upgrades, dining gift cards and access to unique experiences, like concerts.

Rounding out the top three programs are Wyndham Rewards, No. 2, and Choice Privileges (Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge), No. 3.

U.S. News & World Report made its rankings based on analysis of expert and user opinions. The methodologies take into account membership benefits – such as free amenities, program-affiliated credit cards and redeemable experiences.

Brittany Jones-Cooper is a reporter at Yahoo finance.

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