- Personal finance site NerdWallet ranked the top five most valuable airline and hotel rewards programs based on rate of return on dollars spent.
- Alaska Airlines' Alaska Miles came out on top among carriers, while Radisson Rewards is the best hotel program.
- "Travelers who don't sign up for these loyalty programs can leave significant money on the table," said NerdWallet travel expert Sam Kemmis.
Ever wonder if you've been loyal to the right airline, hotel or other travel provider all this time? Are those rewards points you've been diligently racking up the best deal available, or do competitors offer better deals?
It turns out that if you've been flying Alaska Airlines to stay at Radisson Hotels, you've been reaping the most rewards, according to NerdWallet. The consumer finance site released its rankings for the most valuable airline and hotel rewards programs in 2022, and those two travel suppliers topped the lists.
"The easiest way to think about the value of airline and hotel rewards programs is how much they pay you back per dollar spent," said Sam Kemmis, travel expert at NerdWallet. "For example, if you earn one point per dollar spent and each point is worth 1 cent, you're getting 1% back."
Alaska's Mileage Plan, the most valuable airline program in NerdWallet's analysis, offers 9.1% back, while Radisson Rewards offers 12%. Most airline and hotel programs offer somewhere between 5% and 10% back, Kemmis noted, adding that basically adds up to free cash.
"Travelers who don't sign up for these loyalty programs can leave significant money on the table," he said.
Programs from Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Delta Air Lines round out the top five most valuable airline schemes in the NerdWallet rankings. Among hotel programs, World of Hyatt came in second and Wyndham Rewards third, followed by IHG Rewards and then, tied for fifth, Best Western Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy. (See chart for details.)
Not signing up at all is a mistake, but so is just sitting on rewards points forever, Kemmis cautioned.
"The biggest mistake you can make is to sit on a pile of points and wait for the 'perfect' redemption," he said, noting that while some points and miles expire, all are subject to "devaluation," which is similar to inflation.
"Travel rewards are a kind of currency that is controlled completely by the airlines, hotels and credit cards that issue them," Kemmis added. "So if you wait too long to use your points, they could suddenly become much less valuable."
As great as rewards rates of return are, other factors of course play into which brands and programs travelers choose. The airline offering the most nonstops from your home airport, for example, may have a less generous program but still the most convenient and/or affordable flights. Kemmis said these reasons can run the gamut from elite status perks to sheet thread counts.
In fact, NerdWallet's overall rankings of airline and hotel rewards programs — as opposed to just "most valuable" — shuffles things up a bit. American Airlines' AAdvantage program comes in at No. 2 overall, for instance, although Alaska Miles still comes out on top.
But what about credit card points? Why bother with supplier programs when card points can usually be used just about anywhere?
"Credit card and airline/hotel rewards programs are not a zero-sum game; in fact, they often complement each other," Kemmis said. "If you pay for a flight with a credit card that earns lots of points on travel spending, you'll earn both credit card points and airline miles for the same trip."
However, the value of credit card points plummets if you're paying high interest rates on card balances that never go down.
"You want to make sure you're paying your cards off in full each month and maintaining a good credit score before you go signing up for new cards," he noted.