This is my rough guide to thinking about airlines and hotels. This can be useful, because it helps to understand announcements and changes that each one makes and also for transparency as you read my own writing. Specifically, these are my rough biases or frames as I think about each of the major U.S. airlines and hotel chains. I love some things about each one, but each also has its flaws.
Overall I fly American Airlines most, but I do fly everyone, and I stay at Hyatt most and recommend Marriott as a primary ‘backup’ chain since Hyatt isn’t everywhere you might travel.
- Delta: has been a little bit better operationally and a little bit friendlier than their major US competitors though their reliability has been tarnished the past couple of years. They may be 80% as good an airline as they think they are. You don’t fly Delta because of SkyMiles, but in spite of SkyMiles. This airline plays hardball – with its customers, its employees, partners, and with legislators. In a 50-50 deal, Delta takes the hyphen.
- United: has been a basket case for 30 years. The Continental merger was supposed to bring better management to the airline, but that better management had already left and things got worse. After they lost their CEO in a public corruption scandal, it seemed like Oscar Munoz might actually turn the carrier around. Then he brought in American’s Scott Kirby and Andrew Nocella to run the show. We saw numerous cuts, from onboard business class product to MileagePlus, yet Polaris lounges and bedding are a bright spot. Unreliable inflight internet makes United basically un-flyable for me. They’ve committed to improve that but a year and a half later we haven’t seen it. Despite devaluations the loyalty program has access to Star Alliance awards without fuel surcharges so there’s still value here.
Ultimately there have been some customer-friendly moves that have come under CEO Scott Kirby’s leadership, but he still has a decades-long history of destroying customer experience.
- American: should be a better airline than it is. They have the best overall business class hard product even before bringing on new suites with doors, and treat ConciergeKey members very well in all things except award availability. I fly them because Delta isn’t an option geographically and their working internet keeps me productive. However they’ve degraded their coach product substantially; don’t have a clear mission for employees; and focus on operational performance over customers without getting the operation right. American has greater potential to be better than it is today than any other US airline.
- Southwest: offers a great product for short haul flying with more legroom and friendlier policies. Their loyalty program is basically a rebate card, they’re mass transportation not aspirational but employees broadly seem not to mind their jobs. I don’t want to take a 5 hour flight on Southwest though, and that won’t change even as they add USB seat power.
- Alaska: Regional West Coast player that was much better than the competition, but overpaying for Virgin America and integration struggles have meant less maneuvering room from Wall Street and forced them to copy more of their competitors moves not just charting their own path.
- JetBlue: Regional East Coast player that’s a little bit better than competitors from a product standpoint, though outside of their Mint product diminishing that difference (free internet is a standout), and with some operational challenges and a mediocre loyalty program. If their acquisition of Spirit goes through that distraction is likely to make them worse.
- Spirit: Getting surprisingly better operationally, last summer notwithstanding. The Big Front Seat has been one of the best deals in travel, though it’s gotten much more expensive. It took them awhile but they participate in PreCheck and are rolling out inflight internet. Their loyalty program is even improved, it’s worth signing up, but not staying loyal for. The differences between the major carriers and ultra low cost leader Spirit are narrowing. Just avoid regular coach’s legroom, and be sure to do everything self-serve in advance. Overall better than Frontier, but we may look this driver of competition to JetBlue.
- Frontier: They’re cheap and not as good as Spirit but if you live in a market where they operate and can handle no inflight internet their 100,000 mile status is attainable via credit card spend which is on par with flight miles and makes all tickets refundable and gives you flying without fees. Lack of internet though, for me, is a deal killer.
US-Based Hotel Chains:
- Hyatt: has the best recognition program of any of the major hotel loyalty programs, but their footprint is too small to work for many customers. They’ve made some innovative moves to try to close the gap but ultimately they’re only about 15% the size of Marriott and Hilton. Their suite upgrade and breakfast benefits are better than peers’, but they don’t bonus elites as well.
- Marriott: has a better loyalty program on paper than Hilton, offering suite upgrades and guaranteed late checkout. They have a fantastic collection of properties. However too many properties have run rogue under the new program, and whenever something doesn’t work right there’s little recourse – agents are mostly helpless to fix problems or clueless about how the program is even supposed to work.
- Hilton: awards lower rebates to members than Marriott, IHG, or Hyatt. They don’t promise suite upgrades or late check-out to top elites. Still, most of their best properties offer reasonable redemption value when saver awards exist and rates are at their highest and their credit cards confer status super easily. Exchanging breakfast for Gold elites and higher in the local market in favor of a food and beverage credit that’s frequently too small to cover the cost of breakfast is a shame – the flexibility is great, but should have been done as a choice (breakfast or a credit) to avoid being a devaluation of a key point of differentiation.
- IHG One Rewards: is a good earn-and-burn program and the chain is everywhere. Up until this year it had little in the way of elite benefits, but that’s changed in a big way and I’m a fan – finally adding choice benefits of club lounge, breakfast for diamonds, and even confirmed suites 14 days in advance (not valid on prepaid rates or awards). Late checkout still isn’t guaranteed.