New US News Rewards Program Rankings Are Out, And They’re A Big ‘Ol Pile Of Goo

The U.S. News Travel Rewards program rankings are out and they are a big ‘ol mess, largely because the methodology they use to rank programs makes little sense – which they’ve known for years and haven’t done anything meaningful to improve.

This year is worse than ever because they say they didn’t even bother searching award availability to determine which airline programs are best, blaming the pandemic. And hotel rankings even appear to punish hotel chains offering strong coverage in smaller markets.

Here are their best airline frequent flyer programs:

  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • United MileagePlus
  • HawaiianMiles
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Free Spirit
  • FRONTIER Miles
  • And here are their hotel program rankings:

  • World of Hyatt
  • Wyndham Rewards
  • Marriott Bonvoy
  • Choice Privileges
  • IHG One Rewards
  • Best Western Rewards
  • Radisson Rewards Americas
  • Sonesta Travel Pass
  • INVITED
  • Leaders Club
  • Hilton Honors
  • ALL – Accor Live Limitless
  • Stash Hotel Rewards
  • Omni Select Guest
  • I Prefer Hotel Rewards
  • Their claims this year about which programs are the absolute best (#1) are actually quite reasonable, just not for the reasons that get them there. And the rankings below first are utterly incoherent.

    These Rankings Are Mostly Nonsense

    The airline rankings are mostly non-sense. Delta SkyMiles is a dumpster fire. Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles is among the least valuable programs in the world, whose main redeeming feature is extra upgrade availability for higher mileage prices. American AAdvantage drops from 3 to 6 in these rankings this year even as the program has gotten better during the pandemic (such as free award redeposits, most things count towards elite status).

    Frontier’s program is probably better than Spirit’s (though Spirit mostly copied Frontier), though Spirit is the better airline in my view.

    It strikes me odd that they include the Small Luxury Hotels of the World program, and Leading Hotels of the World Leaders Club, but not GHA Discovery which went through a substantial revamp. They say the criteria for inclusion is “at least 50 properties, 10 or more of which are located in the United States” and GHA qualifies.

    Hyatt has at least displaced Wyndham Rewards as best program in this list. When they’d select Wyndham’s program as somehow being best that was sufficiently self-refuting that you could understand that they had to be feeding nonsense data into their model.

    I get that IHG’s program revamp just happened this spring, and that their points are less valuable than in the past, so it’s not entirely beyond reason to rank Choice Privileges ahead of them (though I wouldn’t). But Choice and Best Western ahead of Hilton Honors and Accor?

    They Pick The Wrong Moment To Pick The Best Hotel Program

    Hyatt deserves to be the best program though its hotel footprint doesn’t work for everyone since it’s much smaller than Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Accor or Wyndham. It takes the number one spot, though, after arguably becoming worse than in prior years with the introduction of both peak and off-peak redemption pricing and a new more expensive redemption category 8 – making their points worth less. They’re still better than other programs, but it’s only as the program becomes ‘less better’ that U.S. News finally recognizes them.

    Meanwhile they flag “Wyndham Rewards, known for its award availability and large network of hotels in popular vacation destinations” as second place when rewards cost more points than they used to, offers few hotels people would dream about spending their points at, and certainly their hotel network and award availability doesn’t distinguish them from Hilton or Marriott. The one thing that is a differentiator goes unmentioned, the ability to redeem points for Vacasa homesharing stays.

    Their Reasons For Ranking Airline Programs Sure Are Odd

    Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan wins best program. That’s reasonable. Mileage Plan still offers distance-based points-earning and award charts, and has introduced new elite benefits (with its American Airlines partnership), joined a global alliance, and now offers a new higher elite tier.

    What’s always striking is the selection of Delta SkyMiles as second best (again). Delta sends out disingenuous releases each year implying that they ‘won’ this ranking when they didn’t. Delta claims to have been named “a” best travel rewards program by U.S. News which I guess is true, from a certain point of view. It’s an especially odd claim though when the head of the program even explains they don’t try to drive the most value to program members.

    Meanwhile Delta gets its nod because of “its award flight options at lower point thresholds and high airline quality rating,” though the distance in quality between Delta and others is largely a relic of pre-pandemic times. Their operational reliability has fallen back to earth.

    But here’s a strange one, “United MileagePlus ranks No. 3 for its large network of flight routes and easier path to elite status.” Arguably its elite status is harder to earn than peers and is both confusing (‘PQPs’) and based largely on ticket spend. American Airlines AAdvantage is certainly the ‘easiest’ since most miles now count towards status, not just flying, while Delta lets you earn substantial credit towards status via credit card and roll over qualifying miles from one year to the next.

    So How Do They Come Up With These Rankings? Airline Rankings

    These sure are odd results, but odd results flow from odd methodology. For the rankings of best frequent flyer program they actually tell you in the fine print that they did not consider award availability in the analysis, which you’d never know from their press release touting Delta for its “award flight options at lower point thresholds.”

    Please note: Due to insufficient data, likely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s continued effect on travel, Award Flight Availability was not factored into the scoring formula for the 2022-2023 ranking. As such, other components were weighted higher to reach the 100% scoring threshold.

    So what are the factors they are considering?

    • Ease of Earning Free Round-Trip Flight (47% weight): Remember this is theoretical since they are clear they did not consider actual availability of awards!

      Instead for earning they looked at “the typical miles or points earned” on a flight, and the “typical cost and miles required for the average flight” based on Department of Transportation data. In other words, in a revenue-based earning model the more expensive an airline’s tickets are, the better their frequent flyer program will rank. And for redemption they looked at “up to” 16 fairly random award searches all within 3 months of travel that they conducted last month to come up with average redemption prices.

    • Additional Benefits (25% weight): combines elite programs, non-flight points-earning and redemption, points expiration policies, and co-brand credit card benefits. Programs do better based on having experience redemption and hotel redemption options, without regard to the value those options offer.

      Moreover “having more than one” credit card is better, again without regard to whether those cards offer great value. Offering a status match program is considered a plus.

      Oddly, United is specifically called out by U.S. News for ranking well because of its elite program yet the methodology is supposed to privilege those programs that “do not require members spend a minimum amount of money to achieve elite status,” while United’s program is based on amount of money spent rather than miles flown or points earned from a variety of activities.

    • Network Coverage (10% weight) Flying to more destinations makes the rewards program better in this model. So to rank well an airline needs to be a member of a global alliance or have partnerships which approximate the same.

    • Number of Daily Flights (10% weight) Here they are talking just about an airline’s own domestic flights, and not flights on partner airlines. This disadvantages the triumvirate of American-JetBlue-Alaska, while disadvantaging smaller airlines generally.

    • Airline Quality Rating (8% weight) using the annual Wichita State University study, though I’m not sure how this fits into the quality of the airline loyalty program.

    • Award Flight Availability (0% weight) in a normal year they claim to look at “16 of each airline’s highly trafficked short, medium and long routes on four different round-trip dates between July and September.” They simultaneously say they couldn’t do this for these rankings “likely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s continued effect on travel” leading to “insufficient data” when they’re only doing 16 award searches per airline, but also that they did do this for the ‘ease of earning’ category. Like I say, internally incoherent.

    Somehow despite garbage in-garbage out they come up with the same and quite defensible winner as in past years, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, though the rest of their rankings makes little sense.

    So How Do They Come Up With These Rankings? Hotel Rankings

    They look mostly at how many nights you need or how much you need to spend in order to earn a free night, with a secondary focus on being able to redeem points in various locations and for different kinds of hotels, with everything else thrown together into a catch-all. Large hotel chains that are concentrated in a few major cities score best.

    • Ease of Earning Free Night (45% weight) They look the number of paid nights needed for a free night across 20 destinations, and do not look at the quality of lodging received for those nights. Chains with low end redemption properties will benefit, which may explain why Wyndham Rewards has done so well in the past. Meanwhile experience-only programs “receive a score of 0.”

    • Additional Benefits (25% weight) mashes together elite benefits, earning and redeeming points for things other than hotel stays, and whether or not points expire. Shopping portal earning is a bonus point here. Having multiple co-brand credit cards is a plus.

    • Geographic Coverage (15% weight): They have a large-city bias, since they aren’t looking at number of hotels or number of cities the chain is in but the number of hotels offering rooms for sale “within a 15-mile radius of 20 major business and leisure travel destinations in the U.S. and abroad.” This helps Hyatt, since they’re often in major cities (even if they don’t have as many hotels in each as Marriott). But it doesn’t get at whether the chain has properties in small cities outside of the largest destinations.

    • Number of Hotels in Network (10% weight): “[A] program that features more than 4,000 participating hotels receives a score of 5, while a program with fewer than 100 participating hotels earns a score of 1.” Getting over 1000 hotels likely helped Hyatt. The smallest programs, no matter how much value they deliver to members, have a built-in disadvantage.

    • Property Diversity (5% weight) Chains are given “up to 8 diversity points” for having different kinds of hotels “(beachfront, airport, city, mountains)” at different price points “(luxury, upscale, mid-range, budget)”.

    It’s so odd to see Hyatt win under this criteria. They have the best elite program, to be sure, but elite is only a portion of the ‘other benefits’ category which includes non-hotel redemption, something Hyatt actually doesn’t offer much of (beyond transfers of points to airlines). Hyatt also lacks a shopping portal for points-earning so would expect to be downgraded in this category. And Hyatt’s earn-and-burn proposition isn’t their strong suit, especially for elite members who see lower elite bonuses than are offered by other programs.

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