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Best Budget Travel Loyalty Programs in 2023

Introduction

Travel rewards programs can be complex and overwhelming to navigate. With so many options available, it can be challenging to determine which airline and hotel loyalty programs offer the best value for budget-conscious travelers. Luckily, we at NerdWallet have done the research for you. After months of data collection and analysis, we have determined the best domestic hotel and airline loyalty programs for budget travelers in 2023.

How We Picked

When evaluating these loyalty programs, we considered that different travelers have different priorities. Some may value luxurious hotel amenities, while others may prioritize affordable flights or additional perks. To provide an objective ranking, we focused on elements of travel programs that offer clear and measurable benefits. We then assigned a single overall rating to each program based on the following criteria:

Airlines

  1. Rewards rate
  2. Basic economy fares
  3. Elite rewards rate
  4. Pet policies
  5. In-flight entertainment
  6. Fee rate

Hotels

  1. Rewards rate
  2. Elite status program value
  3. Resort and parking fees
  4. Pet policies and fees

We rated each airline and hotel brand on a five-point scale for each category and calculated a weighted average to determine the overall winner in each category. Read on to learn more about our rankings and how we determined the best budget travel loyalty programs.

The Best Airline Rewards Program: Alaska Airlines

For the fourth year in a row, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan takes the top spot as the best airline rewards program. Alaska Airlines stood out from the competition by consistently scoring above average in all rating categories. From the value of earned reward miles to customer-friendly pet policies, Alaska Airlines proved to be the most favorable option for budget-conscious travelers.

While Alaska Airlines took the lead, it’s important to note how other airlines performed in each category. Low-cost airline Spirit ranked predictably low due to its focus on cheap fares with minimal additional benefits. United, surprisingly, ranked near the bottom of the list due to its lackluster mileage earning rate, basic economy offering, and pet policies.

The Best Hotel Rewards Program: World of Hyatt

In the hotel loyalty program category, the World of Hyatt takes the top spot with authority. Hyatt’s loyalty program scored exceptionally high in the rewards rate category, meaning travelers can earn points more quickly for free stays compared to other hotel brands. Hyatt also offers a high elite earning rate, providing greater recognition and benefits for frequent travelers with elite status.

While Hyatt emerged as the winner, other hotel brands faced some drawbacks. Hilton, for example, received a lower score due to its poor rewards rate and lower point values compared to the competition. Wyndham also suffered with a low score in elite status perks and pet policies. Radisson was the only program to receive above-average scores in every category.

Methodology

To determine the best travel rewards programs, we followed a rigorous methodology to evaluate and compare airlines and hotels.

Airlines

Programs Evaluated

We considered nine eligible U.S.-based airlines with publicly available rewards search calendars: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United.

Winner Selection

We assessed each airline’s rewards rate, basic economy fares, elite rewards rate, pet policies, in-flight entertainment, and fee rate. Each factor was rated and weighted as follows:

  • Rewards rate (20%)
  • Basic economy (10%)
  • Elite status value rate (20%)
  • Operations (20%)
  • Fees (20%)
  • Entertainment and Wi-Fi (10%)
  • Pet policies (10%)

We assigned star ratings for each factor based on the range of values and determined the overall winner based on the weighted average of these ratings.

Hotels

Programs Evaluated

We evaluated six hotel brands with properties across the majority of U.S. states and loyalty programs with publicly available rewards search calendars: Best Western, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham.

Winner Selection

We compared the rewards rate, elite status program value, resort and parking fees, and pet policies for each hotel program. Each factor was rated and weighted as follows:

  • Rewards rate (30%)
  • Elite status value rate (30%)
  • Resort and parking fees (30%)
  • Pet fees and policies (10%)

We assigned star ratings for each factor based on the range of values and determined the overall winner based on the weighted average of these ratings.

Conclusion

When it comes to budget travel loyalty programs, Alaska Airlines and the World of Hyatt emerged as the winners in the airline and hotel categories, respectively. These programs offer clear and measurable benefits that cater to the needs of budget-conscious travelers. However, it’s essential to consider your own priorities and preferences when choosing a loyalty program. Whether you value affordable fares, generous rewards, or additional perks, there is a loyalty program that can meet your needs. Explore the options and make an informed decision to maximize your travel rewards in 2023.

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