How To Choose A Travel Rewards Program

If you’re new to the world of travel rewards programs, you probably feel overwhelmed with choices. Just about every airline and hotel chain has its own rewards system, not to mention travel rewards credit cards. However, many programs deliver little in actual rewards. If you arm yourself with a good list of criteria, it’s easy to separate the best travel loyalty programs from the fluff. Luckily for you, we’ve already done that. Read on for a comprehensive checklist you can use to evaluate any travel rewards program, as well as our favorites by category.

How to evaluate a travel rewards program

Whether you’re a beginner travel hacker or a seasoned pro, everyone wants the same things: discounted, free or upgraded flights, rental cars, and hotel rooms; and perks that create a smoother travel experience along the way. Lots of loyalty programs offer these rewards, but if you scour the fine print you may realize that actually earning a reward is harder than getting a PhD in physics. So what should you look for?

Network size and diversity

The bigger and more varied the network, the greater your options will be for redeeming rewards. For example, Southwest and JetBlue airlines have easy-to-understand loyalty programs, but fly to less destinations than a giant like United or Delta. The larger airlines also partner with international carriers, meaning you might score perks (or at least earn miles) with many other airlines. An airline withfour partners might be better than one with fewer or no partners because you’ll have more flights to choose from and a better chance of finding a seat on the flight you want when you redeem rewards.

Average time to redemption

Will you earn a free flight in your lifetime? Depending on how often you travel, and/or how much you spend with a rewards credit card, your wait time for reward accumulation will vary. Look for the program that will best reward your lifestyle. For example, if you don’t fly frequently, you’ll have better luck earning points toward a free flight from a credit card that gives you points for every dollar spent.

How can rewards be used?

Does the program offer flexibility in redeeming rewards or are its rules restrictive? For instance, an airline rewards program could have so many blackout dates you’re unlikely to find an award ticket during the times you want to travel. Considering what you want to use your rewards for can help you distinguish between a program that’s a good fit and one that’s a waste of your time.

Your best fit

As you can see, a lot of the selection logic comes down to finding the program that best matches your needs and lifestyle. Before you even begin comparing programs, write down a list of what you’re hoping to get out of it: (Free flights and/or hotel rooms for an annual vacation? Smaller perks you can use more often to make your travels more pleasant?) as well as the activities your life already includes that will earn you rewards. For example, a person who travels often for work can easily earn rewards toward leisure travel. Someone who can charge most of their daily expenses and pay off the balance each month can rack up rewards points without getting into credit card debt.

When free isn’t really free

When I got married in 2008, my dad offered me the points from his American Express business card to use for honeymoon plane tickets. It seemed like a wonderful idea, but there was a big caveat. I could redeem the points for two plane tickets, but I would have to pay the fuel surcharge.

Do you remember how much gas cost in 2008? Let’s just say it was a lot higher than today. The fuel surcharge for each ticket was in the hundreds of dollars, nearly half the cost of the actual ticket. Even stranger, the surcharge went up or down depending on the destination airport. My husband and I scrapped our original plan to travel to Rome and looked for the cheapest European city to fly to, which turned out to be Dublin.

The moral of this story? My dad’s credit card rewards points were helpful, but not the entirely free gift I assumed they’d be. And the variability of the fuel surcharge altered our original plans (though we had a perfectly lovely time in Ireland). So watch out for caveats-every program has them, but some are more restrictive than others. While airlines might not charge fuel surcharges today (for the moment), you are typically still expected to pay taxes and other fees in cash, even when you redeem miles for a ticket.

Related: Check out Priceline’s list of round trip tickets under $150.

A few of the best travel rewards programs for beginners

Airlines

American Airlines AAdvantage

Best for: People who live in eastern, southern, or central US cities who want to fly around the world.

Main benefits: You can earn miles from flights on American and its large network of airlines, as well as purchases from American’s other partners. Miles can be redeemed for flights, upgrades, and other vacation needs such as hotel rooms and car rentals. It’s also possible to redeem miles for retail products.

Caveats: You must maintain an active account-mileage credits expire after 18 months of inactivity. You can only redeem one seat per reward flight, so any traveling companions will have to pay their own way.

Delta SkyMiles

Best for: Less-frequent travelers living near Delta hub cities (Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and others).

Main benefits: You earn SkyMiles on Delta and partner flights. Unlike American’s and United’s programs, SkyMiles do not expire. SkyMiles can be redeemed for flights and other travel. The Miles + Cash program allows you to reduce the price of a cash ticket even if you you don’t have enough miles to cover the entire fare. This, and the fact miles never expire, make SkyMiles attractive for occasional travelers.

Caveats: Delta recently changed how SkyMiles are earned. Earned SkyMiles are now based on ticket price, not miles flown. So if you always book the cheapest fare, you’ll earn fewer miles than someone purchasing a more expensive refundable or first-class ticket.

United MileagePlus

Best for: Anyone who lives near a major American city and wants to travel within the US or abroad.

Main Benefits: United’s network consists of more than 35 airlines. There are over 1,000 destinations available across the world. And in addition to flights, you can redeem points for hotel stays, train tickets, and other travel necessities.

Caveats: As with American’s program, your United miles will be voided if you keep your account inactive for more than 18 months. The rest of the program’s fine print is complicated, so read carefully. And keep in mind that only a certain number of seats on each flight can be redeemed with reward points, so it may be hard to get your first choice.

Southwest Rapid Rewards 

Best for: Travelers who want a straightforward loyalty program that earns free travel within the US and to Mexico and the Caribbean.

Main Benefits: You can earn points from flights and hotel stays. There are no blackout dates, and any open seat is eligible for award redemption.

Caveats: Non-US destinations are limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. You’ll find that the number of points you need to earn a free flight varies, and you cannot contribute cash to redeem a flight.

Hotels

Marriott Rewards

Best for: This comprehensive program has something for everyone, whether you’re a business or leisure traveler. Wherever you want to go, there’s likely to be a Marriott there. That’s why we previously named it one of the best travel rewards programs for beginning travel hackers.

Main Benefits: Marriott’s hotel network includes more than 3,000 locations in over 70 countries. There are no blackout dates and you can also use points toward flights and rental cars.

Caveats: Points will expire after two years of inactivity. If you want to stay at a higher tier hotel, you’ll need a large point balance.

Best Western Rewards 

Best for: Budget-minded business and leisure travelers.

Main benefits: Best Western has over 4,000 hotels across the world, making it easy to find a place to stay wherever you travel. You can use points for free hotel rooms, airline miles, and other rewards. Best of all, your rewards points won’t expire if you live in North America.

Caveats: There are restrictions on free hotel rooms based on availability and quota control. As with Marriott, stays in the highest tier Best Western hotels require the largest number of points.

Hilton HHonors

Best for: Travelers who want a more streamlined hotel experience.

Main benefits: Even the entry-level tier of Hilton HHonors snags you a 10 percent discount on rooms when you book directly through Hilton as well as free WiFi in all hotels. If you download the HHonors app you can choose your room, check-in on your phone and – in some hotels – even use your phone as your room key. If you also belong to an airline loyalty program, you can “double dip” and earn both HHonors points and frequent flyer miles with your Hilton stays.

Caveats: Points expire after 12 months of inactivity. Award stays at high-end hotels require a lot of points.

Starwood Preferred Guest

Best for: More-frequent travelers who prefer higher end hotels (including W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, Aloft).

Main benefits: Frequent travelers are big fans of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program because elite tiers (Gold starts at 10 stays or 25 nights per year) offer both accelerated earning and free amenities like premium WiFi, room upgrades, and members-only lounges. “Starpoints” can be redeemed for hotel stays or flights.

Caveats: Points expires after 12 months of inactivity. There are few budget hotel options in the Starwood chain. Marriott is on pace to acquire Starwood; the effect on the SPG program is unclear.

Kimpton Karma Rewards

Best for: People who enjoy staying at boutique hotels in major US cities.

Main benefits: While its network is nowhere near the size of Marriott’s or Best Western’s, Kimpton offers its reward members personalization options such as a preferred pillow style or room location. Other perks include the ability to transfer rewards and infrequent blackout dates.

Caveats: You won’t earn points on rooms booked through third-party sites or at discounted prices. Room upgrades expire a year after receipt.

Credit card rewards

Many airline and hotel rewards programs have affiliated credit cards that allow you to earn points or miles faster with your everyday purchases. Most of these branded travel rewards credit cards carry annual fees and don’t offer as generous a reward structure as generic travel rewards credit cards that give you miles toward any hotel or airline.

That said, branded loyalty credit cards can come in handy if you become loyal to one airline or hotel chain because they give you additional perks like free checked backs, priority check-in and more.

Related: How much is a credit card mile really worth?

If you’re not a frequent traveler, you will earn free travel faster with a general-purpose travel rewards credit card than by booking flights and hotels. If you have spotless credit and don’t mind an annual fee, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card is, in our opinion, the Cadillac of such credit cards (read our review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card here).

The Capital One VentureOne credit card is a good second choice if you don’t want to pay an annual fee or you have good credit, but less than seven years credit history.