During my working and traveling career, United Airlines was my “go to” airline. They were not necessarily the best, but flew to many of the places my work would take me. At the time, TWA had a better upgrade program (meaning FREE) and many “red eye” flights to the east coast. Like most of you who fly for business, I ended up with United, probably over a million miles since the mid 1970’s.
But I have spent those miles over the years. I often took my family to Hawaii, using miles for airline tickets, and hotel reward points for suites and condos.
As these loyalty programs continue to devalue my miles, I have used them up, mostly for upgrades to Business or First Class on longer flights to Europe and Asia.
Currently, I still accumulate miles for my longer flights, and for using Visa credit cards for United, Alaska, and Marriott programs. As I have mentioned before, the foreign airlines have better flights, and amenities, particularly in Business and First Class. But both Alaska and United have affiliations with several foreign airlines. For example, on my last trip to eastern Europe, I flew Virgin America to NYC (earned miles on Alaska), and then Singapore Airlines to Frankfurt (earned miles on United or Singapore).
So, you ask, which one is the best? Experts ranks Jet Blue as the best, closely followed by Alaska, Southworst, and Delta. Two of the larger programs, United, and American fell short.
The JD Power study said:
The study was based on four key factors—earning and redeeming rewards, program benefits, account management and member communication—and found that airline loyalty programs that reward customers with more than just miles tend to be the most successful when it comes to member satisfaction.
J.D. Power found that customer satisfaction improves dramatically when members are able to earn rewards that can be used for things like restaurants, car rentals and product purchases. On average, satisfaction increases between 68 and 77 points. By comparison, earning airline flights adds just two points to overall fulfillment.
Frequent fliers’ favorite benefits are lowest price guarantee and waived same-day change fees, which account for 109- and 104-point increases in customer satisfaction, respectively.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, status members (814) are more content with their airline loyalty program than general members (744). However, there’s incentive for airlines to help more members achieve status since those passengers are more likely to advocate for the carrier and its rewards program.
I would agree, when I earned higher status with an airline, I received more perks, like free upgrades. But here is the rub. Airlines would rather sell those seats, even at some discount, than give them to their most loyal customers. Even my favorite mileage redemption feature, using miles to upgrade often comes with either substantial fees, or requiring the purchase of premium coach tickets.
So, what to do? I say keep it simple. Decide which airline best serves your needs. For us, Alaska flies from Fresno to two of our favorite locations, Seattle and Hawaii. I tend to fly Star Alliance flights for European and Asian trips. It is easier than trying to maintain several frequent flyer accounts, which can expire from disuse.
But the key to loyalty programs resides with the hotel programs. First, they tend to “devalue” your award points less often. They offer a free night when you use their Visa card. And they offer some “member only” prices when reserving rooms online. This is where Marriott seems to be the best for us. In addition, with owning a Marriott timeshare, we can always opt for the points if we decide not to use our timeshare. They also give us instant “Gold” status.
Gold status places us with 50 nights, and a 25% bonus on all Marriott hotel stays. Other benefits include free continental breakfast, and one guest in the Executive Lounge. Other features are automatic 4pm late checkout, though I never use it. Also, complimentary room upgrades and free internet are included.
So, bottom line: Alaska and United (reluctantly), and Marriott for hotel stays. That does not mean I won’t fly other airlines if the price is right. And I do stay at Hiltons and Holidays Inns periodically, and when significantly cheaper. And I would fly Southworst if they came to Fresno!