Which Airline and Hotel Program is the Best?

The Freddie Awards were held in Seattle on Thursday night. They’re the awards for the best airline, hotel and credit card loyalty programs voted on by millions of frequent travelers around the world.

They’re one way to answer which program is best. Not for everyone and at all times (not everyone casts their vote for the same program!) but they’re a real people’s choice award (although the voting is structured so that it’s not a ‘popularity contest’ – voters rank programs and small programs with a passionate and satisfied member base can do well).

I had the honor of emceeing the awards, and presenting trophies on behalf of members tot he programs that earned them.

Here’s USA Today coverage and Skift coverage of the event. And here are full results.

I was interviewed by KOMO TV in Seattle about the awards as well (and for future segments on summer travel and on carryon luggage).

A Special Venue

This year’s event was held at the Museum of Flight. Dinner was held beneath a stealth plane and the stage was beneath a US Air 737.

The museum’s flight simulators were all set up for guests. They had fighter planes with one person flying the aircraft and another manning the guns. I think people enjoyed flying inverted (and actually being upside down) the most.

Which Programs are the Best?

I’m only one vote, and many of my preferred programs didn’t win. I’ll often shake my head at what members value most, and then I’m humbled because I realize I may be missing something. I think about programs a certain way, and many travelers want something completely different.

IHG Rewards Club won more Freddies than any other hotel program, including two for their ‘Big Win’ promotion. They’re everywhere and they’ve been creative over the past year.

In the Americas the hotel chain with the most awards was Marriott. They won 4 trophies overall, all in the Americas. They were Program of the Year and their MegaBonus promotion (two stays earns a free night at up to a mid-tier category property) was deemed best.

My own hotel programs of choice are Hyatt Gold Passport and then Starwood Preferred Guest. On the whole I think that the smaller programs are more generous (they need to be – if they aren’t everywhere then being loyal to the chain really is a choice). But I often hear Marriott members passionate declare that:

  • They’re everywhere I go, so I can always earn my points.
  • They’re consistent. They deliver what they promise every time.

I don’t think they promise enough, for my own preferences, but they do for most people.

Meanwhile, both Starwood and Hyatt did well — with Hyatt earning Best Elite Program in the Americas and in Asia, and Hyatt earning Program of the Year in Asia (they’ve grown tremendously there).

In Europe the strongest performer was Air France KLM. In the Asia Pacific region the airline with the most awards was Virgin Australia. I can speak to their award availability at least which is excellent.

And in the Americas the results were split:

  • The most prestigious of awards went to American AAdvantage — Program of the Year and Best Elite Level
  • Best Promotion (100% bonus on purchased miles, sometimes referred to at “The Double”) went to Avianca’s LifeMiles and so did Best Redemption Ability for their one-way Star Alliance awards without fuel surcharges bookable online and with a reasonable award chart.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards won Best Customer Service and also Best Loyalty Credit Card. People like the service, the simplicity, and the clarity of what they get.

An interesting moment was Suzanne Rubin’s acceptance of the Program of the Year Award. She went to the microphone and didn’t brag about the program. She didn’t kvell about the accomplishment. She humbly acknowledged to members that they have to do better, and promised to do better, than how they rolled out their recent changes. She echoed similar thoughts in my conversations with her. The proof will come soon enough given the number of changes to come as American and US Airways align and then integrate.

Special Recognition for Delta, Starwood, Hyatt, MGM, and a Lifetime Achievement Award

In addition to the traveler-voted awards, in some years we present ‘Industry Impact Awards’ recognizing achievements and innovations for frequent flyers in the previous year and also lifetime contributions that have shaped the industry.

This year there were three presented:

  1. Starwood and Delta for Crossover Rewards. Airlines and hotels have long partnered with points earning and transfers. Airlines have even owned hotels, like United and Westin and Pan Am and Intercontinental. But this was the most innovative attempt yet by an airline and hotel loyalty program to work together, to reward the business of each others’ best customers and extend elite recognition as well.
  2. Hyatt and MGM for their hotel partnership. Airlines have codesharing and alliances, and I’ve always been surprised that hotels haven’t filled gaps in their geographic footprint in the same way. Hyatt and MGM offered not just reciprocal earning and redemption but also elite status recognition — providing real reach to the MGM program throughout the Hyatt chain, and filling a gap in Hyatt’s portfolio in Las Vegas and other gambling destinations.
  3. Rupert Duchesne is currently the head of Aimia but was responsible for the spinoff of Aeroplan from Air Canada. He has also been a key player in most of the other independent entity structures of frequent flyer programs across the board. More than anyone he has shown that loyalty programs are standalone businesses valued by the market. I have a hard time imagining that Etihad could be building its own alliance around the world, with frequent flyer programs as their beach head, without the work that Duchesne had done.

Last year the Freddies were held at USA Today‘s headquarters in Northern Virginia. We’ve held awards at Citi Field in New York. Continuing the tradition of interesting venues, 2015 will be at the newly renovated and about to relaunch Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It seems as if Ms. Rubin said she was selling a bridge, you’d excitedly offer to buy it. The while “do better” mantra is such an insulting, transparent smokescreen. They knew exactly what they were doing, and made a business decision to move forward with it.

    If they were really concerned with “doing better” by their members, there’s an obvious route. Keep the changes but insistitute a 3-6 month notice period.

    I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, Ms. Rubin certainly WILL hold her trophy quite proudly.

  2. Hi Gary,

    You mentioned both Starwood and Hyatt did well but only mentioned Hyatt, is there a typo somewhere in the below statement?

    Meanwhile, both Starwood and Hyatt did well — with Hyatt earning Best Elite Program in the Americas and in Asia, and Hyatt earning Program of the Year in Asia (they’ve grown tremendously there).

  3. What is the stealth plane? It looks rather like an SR-71, but there isn’t one list as being in their collection. Is it the M-21?

  4. Did Suzanne EXPLICITLY promise to do better than HOW THEY ROLLED OUT THEIR RECENT CHANGES?

  5. Imagine, awarding the man who runs the worst FF program in NAmerica (AE has gone from best to worst in four years, just read the AC forum on FT or MP) with the highest copays for awards of any program. It may have been innovative to spin AE off from AC, but it was a pure business move to liberate several hundred million from the AC bankruptcy proceedings. AE has very little today to do with airlines or frequent flyers so this special recognition is certainly misplaced. Just ask the hundreds of former AE/AC elites who have bailed from the program for UA’s MP!

  6. @italdesign, yes I brought a bible up to the stage. We swore her in. And hooked up a lie detector. 🙂

    Look, she got up on stage at the event. She didn’t have to mention this at all. She clearly wanted to us it as an opportunity to begin a rapprochement.

    Obviously how the next changes are handled will tell us a lot more than words will. But it struck me as significant that she would proactively take the opportunity to address this – when accepting an award – so I doubt she was being disingenuous. What would be the upside?

  7. Brian L., you are correct, the SR-71 and M-21 look very similar, and the one in the picture above is the Museum of Flight’s M-21. If you ever get to visit, check out the D-21 drone that is meant to be launched from the M-21. Interesting tidbit of history. 🙂

  8. “What would be the upside?”

    Umm…having you (and perhaps others if they take the bait) laud her on your blog the next day?

  9. Gary, I was just wondering if she explicitly referenced the recent rollout when she said they will do better, rather than a generic “We’ll continue to make improvements”. Sounds like she did.

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