Credit card, airline, and hotel loyalty programs are treasure chests for frequent travelers. Accumulating points and miles to redeem for free nights at hotels, seats on flights, and upgrades to premium products are just the beginning of the rewards. Being a member can get you things like elite status and its associated perks.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand how these programs work, but maximizing their value isn’t always obvious.
If you’re new to travel rewards programs, you can start by signing up for the right ones. Then, doing things like tacking on their credit cards and status matches can take your earnings and redemptions to the next level.
That leads to more travel, and that’s why you’re here, right? Best of all, most of it should be free travel if you play your cards right (pun intended)! Below, we’ll list some of the best travel rewards programs out there for hotel stays, flights, and general multi-purpose travel, as well as what to know about each of them.
What We Cover
- Hotel Rewards Programs
- 1. Marriott Bonvoy
- 2. Hilton Honors
- 3. IHG One Rewards
- 4. World of Hyatt
- Airline Rewards Programs
- 5. Delta SkyMiles
- 6. United MileagePlus
- 7. American Airlines AAdvantage
- 8. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- Credit Card Travel Rewards Programs
- 9. Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 10. American Express Travel
- Online Travel Agency Programs
- 11. Booking.com Genius Program
- 12. Expedia One Key
- Non-Rewards Programs That Still Help You Save & Travel
|Hotel Loyalty Program
|World of Hyatt
|Reliable room upgrades, great points value, exceptional service
|Airline Loyalty Program
|Fair miles value, excellent network, many credit card earning options
|Credit Card Rewards Program
|American Express Travel
|Use points on any hotel or airline, transfer points to another program, great range of credit card options
|Booking Site Rewards Program
|Expedia One Key
|Redeem OneKeyCash on Hotels.com and VRBO besides Expedia, many earning opportunities
Hotel Rewards Programs
We’ll start with hotel loyalty programs, as using hotel points to get free nights is one of the most popular travel rewards strategies. But even beyond that, being a member of these programs can get you elite status benefits, free upgrades, bonus points, and much more. Enjoying the view from your giant suite, you didn’t pay for is a feeling.
1. Marriott Bonvoy
Some Hotel Brands Under the Marriott Umbrella: Sheraton, Westin, Le Méridien, The W, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis…
In my opinion, Marriott Bonvoy is the most rewarding loyalty program in the hotel business, even if they have eroded the benefits badly in recent years. As you climb the ladders of elite status, you can expect free breakfast, lounge access, and upgrades based on availability and certificates. Most Marriott co-branded credit cards will get you a free night certificate each year as well.
Pros & Cons of Marriott Bonvoy
|Fair points redemption rates: sometimes excellent, sometimes not good at all, so research carefully
|Constantly eroding benefits: every year, they seem to take something away or “adjust” it
|World’s biggest hotel chain with many brands to choose from; excellent luxury hotels for aspirational redemptions
|Rewards may differ based on the brand you stay at, which can be very confusing and annoying
|Fifth night is free when you redeem points for four nights
|Customer service has plummeted over the years no matter your status
|Rewards for top-tier status are great; try to reach Platinum or Titanium, which is easy with their premium credit card
2. Hilton Honors
Some Hotel Brands Under the Hilton Umbrella: Hampton Inn, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites…
Hilton Honors is the next largest brand and hotel rewards program, which is a big advantage for travelers headed far and wide worldwide.
You can find point redemption options just about anywhere, but in my experience, Hilton points are some of the most devalued on the market – meaning the value per point isn’t as high as the competition. Still, if you can earn elite status, Hilton will reward you with consistent upgrades and breakfast.
Pros & Cons of Hilton Honors
|Huge presence around the world with both budget and luxury properties
|Low-value point redemptions are the norm
|Easy to earn top status (Diamond Elite) with the premium Hilton American Express card
|Frequent erosion of elite benefits, including the recent change to free breakfast, which is now usually just an F&B credit at full-service hotels
|Hotel stays earn a higher percentage of points each time you advance a tier in the program, up to 100% extra for Diamond Elite
|No award chart, meaning it’s not really possible to know how many points you need to save for a certain trip
|Fifth night is free when you redeem points for four nights
See Related: ViaTraveler’s Hilton Sorrento Palace Review
3. IHG One Rewards
Some Hotel Brands Under the IHG Umbrella: Holiday Inn & Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental, Six Senses…
Formerly called IHG Rewards Club, this large chain’s loyalty program is another very large one, with many big-name brands found all around the world. For that reason, and for fair redemption rates, I’m a fan. I’m able to rack up and use IHG points consistently.
However, regarding rewarding their members, IHG One Rewards is at the bottom of my list – in my experience, they don’t seem to differentiate between Diamond members and non-members.
Pros & Cons of IHG One Rewards
|Huge worldwide presence with comfortable, clean, and convenient hotels that are budget-friendly in terms of both cash and points
|Elite status isn’t really valuable besides extra points earnings; need top tier (Diamond) for free breakfast, and that’s not easy to obtain
|Easy to earn points with big bonuses for higher-tier members
|Getting room upgrades is like seeing a unicorn: it doesn’t happen
|Free night each year for members of the upper-tier credit card
|InterContinental Hotels (the individual luxury hotel brand, not the entire company) has its own additional loyalty program called InterContinental Ambassador, which you have to pay for
|Fourth night is free when three nights are booked on points
4. World of Hyatt
Some Hotel Brands Under the Hyatt Umbrella: Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, Alila, Andaz, Miraval, Ziva & Zilara (all-inclusive)…
Finally, we have one of the most underrated hotel rewards programs that’s actually one of my favorites: World of Hyatt. This big brand may not have as huge of a presence around the world, but its products are consistently excellent. Point redemption values are generally very good, and elite status benefits and member treatment are notably better than any of Hyatt’s competitors, in my experience!
Pros & Cons of World of Hyatt
|Hyatt points generally have a good value, meaning your hard-earned points go far in redeeming free stays at luxury, aspirational properties
|Smaller global footprint than the competition
|Rooms booked using points will have resort fees waived
|No fourth or fifth night free when redeeming points like the other big brands
|Hyatt treats members with elite status notably better, with a serious focus on elite benefits that make it worth it, like free breakfast and room upgrades
|There are many affiliated-but-independent Hyatt hotels where benefits don’t fully apply
|Annual free night with Hyatt credit card, plus great points-earning rates for spending
Airline Rewards Programs
Free flights can be just as satisfying as free hotel rooms. Luckily, there should be an airline loyalty program for you, no matter where you’re based.
Accumulating airline miles isn’t as hard as it sounds, and before you know it, you’ll be earning free flights, free checked bags, and even reciprocal benefits on partner airlines. That’s ideal if you travel abroad and fly on airlines we don’t have at home.
5. Delta SkyMiles
Airline Alliance (and some common partner airlines): SkyTeam (Air France/KLM, Virgin Atlantic, LATAM, Korean Air…)
Delta Airlines is consistently ranked among the best airlines in the US, especially now that they’re offering free Wi-Fi on most flights. Unfortunately, their SkyMiles loyalty program was in the news for a bad reason recently after management made major changes that were not good for frequent fliers. Luckily, they’ve announced some backtracking on that, and there’s still value in being loyal to Delta.
Pros & Cons of Delta SkyMiles
|All SkyMiles elite members get free checked bags and a spot on the upgrade waiting list
|Program overhaul (which has since been backtracked) was very customer-unfriendly: basically, you would earn status based on the money you spent, and lounge access was heavily restricted
|Frequent availability for good miles redemptions on domestic flights
|Less-impressive miles redemption values on international flights
|Large portfolio of co-branded credit cards that make mileage earning much easier
See Related: Best Ways to Earn Delta SkyMiles
6. United MileagePlus
Airline Alliance (and some common partner airlines): Star Alliance (Air Canada, Lufthansa Group, ANA, Air New Zealand…)
International travelers love United Airlines for its robust network across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Its MileagePlus loyalty program also ranks among the most popular in the country. Members can expect ease in earning miles via credit card spending, United flights, and partner airline flights on many of its partners. Higher-tier elite members may even be upgraded to Polaris seats up front.
Pros & Cons of United MileagePlus
|Best international network of the “big three” as well as a large domestic network
|Recent major devaluation of miles was devastating for certain award tickets
|Satisfactory redemption rates on both international and domestic flights (if you book early enough)
|With more and more elite members, upgrades are getting harder to come by
|Top-tier elite members can earn PlusPoints, separate points that can pay for confirmed upgrades
7. American Airlines AAdvantage
Airline Alliance (and some common partner airlines): OneWorld (British Airways, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways…)
American Airlines is the largest airline in the world by most measures and has the largest number of scheduled flights in the country. Therefore, most US travelers will find benefits in the AAdvantage loyalty program. It’s pretty easy to earn miles through a combination of flying and spending, and these miles are particularly valuable for redemptions on partner airlines – imagine yourself headed to the Maldives in a Qatar Airways Qsuite, the best business class in the world.
Pros & Cons of American Airlines AAdvantage
|Easy to earn if you fly a lot, as American flies all over the country and has more flights than anyone else
|Miles expire after 24 months of inactivity – competitors have no expiration policy
|Cheap redemption rates on domestic flights in economy for as little as 7,500 miles; business class for 15,000 miles
|Layovers must be less than 24 hours when booking with points, making it impossible to do a longer stopover, which is historically a popular way to enjoy a new city for free
|High value for redemptions on partner airlines, including in premium seats
8. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
Airline Alliance (and some common partner airlines): Not an alliance member & no partners
No, Southwest is not a member of any alliance, does not have any partner airlines, and cannot be searched on flight search engines. But you should not let this stop you from taking advantage of one of America’s favorite airlines.
Southwest has never charged change fees, has always been happy to redeposit your miles if you need to cancel an award ticket, and has never charged bag fees for up to two checked bags per person. All of that, plus free texting Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment on your phone, keeps its frequent fliers loyal with Rapid Rewards.
Pros & Cons of Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
|Very fair mile redemption values across the United States, including many secondary cities that are more convenient
|Open seating policy – you either love it or you hate it
|No change fees, no bag fees, free Wi-Fi, and other customer-friendly policies
|No redeye flight policy, which limits schedule and efficiency of flights
|Consistently excellent service from Southwest people
See Related: Southwest vs Spirit: Which Airline is Better?
Credit Card Travel Rewards Programs
As we’ve seen, earning points and miles via credit card spending and welcome bonuses is one of the most efficient ways to enjoy airline and hotel rewards programs. But there’s yet another option besides their individual programs.
Big banks offer their own travel rewards credit cards that earn their own points, which can be redeemed on just about any airline, hotel, or even rental car. You can also choose to transfer points to your favorite loyalty program.
9. Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase offers some of the most popular travel credit cards in America, including the Sapphire Reserve and the Sapphire Preferred. Chase Ultimate Rewards Points are a separate rewards currency you earn for every dollar spent on the card. You can redeem them for travel on just about any airline, hotel, or even for car rentals, and transferring points to your preferred loyalty program is also an option.
Pros & Cons of Chase Ultimate Rewards
|Sort of “generic” credit card points that are redeemable for almost any travel experience rather than a single airline or hotel group
|Higher-end cards with the most benefits have massive annual fees
|Easily earned points through regular credit card spending, often with lucrative bonus categories
|No accumulation or recognition of elite status if you use your points on various airlines or hotel groups
|Airport lounge access, TSA PreCheck, and other valuable travel perks for some cards
10. American Express Travel
The other most valuable credit card rewards program is American Express Travel.
With a wide portfolio of cards that earn Amex points, including the Green, Gold, and Platinum cards, it’s easy to hit a big sign-up bonus and continue earning through normal spending. And while the Amex Platinum Card has one of the highest annual fees in the industry, it also has some of the most unbeatable benefits – a huge network of prestigious airport lounges, big annual credits for hotels and airlines, and much more that quickly neutralizes that cost.
Pros & Cons of American Express Travel
|Many credit cards to choose from to gain access and earn points, ranging from no-fee options to very high-end, big-benefit cards
|Value of Amex points isn’t always great when using them on the travel portal
|Frequent promotions to convert points to one of their transfer partners’ loyalty programs: for example, you can often transfer your Amex points to Marriott Bonvoy with a 20% bonus or more
|No elite status accumulation or recognition when redeeming points, as it’s considered a third-party booking
|Exceptional customer service if you need help with travel plans or have questions about your card
See Related: Lounge Pass Review: Is It Worth It?
Online Travel Agency Programs
Travel rewards program enthusiasts normally wouldn’t touch an online travel agency with a 10-foot pole. This is because booking through one of these will normally nullify any elite benefits you would get, prevent you from earning points, and complicate the booking in general.
But in fact, loyalists to these mega-sites can find value in their own loyalty programs, which earn benefits in similar ways to the above programs. Travelers can redeem points on a very wide range of travel on their platforms or take advantage of member-only discounts. Therefore, this is appropriate for travelers who don’t really stick to one or few airlines or hotel groups, don’t want to deal with credit card science, and simply want to choose their travel à-la-carte.
11. Booking.com Genius Program
If you’re loyal to planning your travel on Booking.com, sign up for their Genius loyalty program quickly, because it’s not hard to earn a higher Genius Level status. Immediately upon signing up for free, you’ll unlock a discount on hotel stays and rental cars.
It only takes completing a few stays within two years to advance to the next levels, and you keep that status for life – earning you higher discounts and, on select stays, free breakfasts, and room upgrades. Just another reason they’re a VT favorite!
Pros & Cons of Booking.com Genius Program
|Initial benefits kick in for free upon signing up, including immediate discounts
|No airline benefits are included
|Booking.com contains just about every hotel you could ever want to stay at
|No points to redeem for free travel
|Advancing to higher levels is not difficult, and status lasts for life
|Travelers won’t accumulate individual hotel/airline elite status, points, or have pre-existing status recognized
See Related: Booking.com Review: Is It That Good?
12. Expedia One Key
Expedia’s program goes even beyond Expedia – you can use the OneKeyCash you’ll earn on Hotels.com and VRBO as well. Members immediately get discounts on hotels, which grow larger as you progress through the statuses, as do the other benefits. Higher status is earned by booking various elements of your trip, including hotel nights, cruise days, flights, rental car days, activity tickets, and more.
Pros & Cons of Expedia One Key
|Earn both discounts on paid stays and points to be redeemed in the future
|Higher status levels have difficult-to-reach requirements
|OneKeyCash points can be used on Hotels.com and VRBO as well
|Travelers won’t accumulate individual hotel/airline elite status, points, or have pre-existing status recognized
|Most elements of your trip can be booked on Expedia and therefore earn points and status
See Related: Best Apps & Sites Like Expedia For Travel
Non-Rewards Programs That Still Help You Save & Travel
Travel loyalty programs are wonderful, but you don’t have to be fluent in them to get a great travel deal. Instead, you can use some of the best tools to find cheap flights and hotels to ensure you’re getting the best possible deal.
Better yet, combine these with the rewards programs above, and you’re doing everything possible to maximize your travel. A favorite strategy of budget-watchers nationwide is to sign up for flight deal-finding services that do all the work for you.
Whether you go with a free subscription or an upgraded paid version that gets you the top of the top in terms of deals, these sites employ real people who search the internet waves at all hours of the day for amazing flight prices from anywhere to anywhere:
As soon as they find something that matches your departure airport, they let you know by email, and it’s up to you to grab or leave it. Best of all, you go straight to the airline’s website to handle the transaction, meaning you’ll get the miles and elite status benefits you deserve!
But sometimes, you want to do the work yourself. Even better is that the DIY flight-finding sites can also search for hotels and rental cars, making it easy to plan the whole thing. Here are our favorite sites to search almost every airline, hotel, and car company you can think of:
Unless you plan on sticking with the loyalty programs of these sites (for those that have them), don’t forget to go straight to the hotel or airline’s website to actually book, as this is the only way to earn their points and miles and get any elite benefits. The only other exception would be if you found an unbelievable, unbeatable deal that wasn’t available otherwise.