Travel Rewards Credit Cards

Dec 23

Year-End Awards: The “Frequees”

It’s the year end and this will likely be my last post of the year. Have a happy and safe new year, and I’ll see you in 2018.

Until then, let’s hand out some awards in the first annual “Frequees.” I have no particular criteria and the judges are me, news anchor Rod Remington and my daughter’s new Elf on the Shelf, Annabelle.

Company Of The Year: JetBlue

jetblue

The blue ribbon goes to the Blue airline                              Photo Credit: Creative Commons

I’ve always had a soft spot for JetBlue. It’s an airline that actually makes you feel good. I remember having a conversation in 2002 with a security person at the Minneapolis Airport, who saw that I was carrying some JetBlue literature. He told me that JetBlue was his favorite airline, even though they didn’t fly to Minneapolis and wouldn’t for another 15 years. The next year, JetBlue was named fifth in a poll of meals on domestic carriers. JetBlue doesn’t serve meals*. It’s just a hospitality company that happens to run an airline.

In a year in which most travel companies devalued their programs, JetBlue would have been able to win this award by standing still. But its business continues to evolve, and that evolution generally favors the customer. They continue to add new cities, significantly expanded the outstanding Mint product and offer the best credit card in the industry.

The big hole, of course, is the lack of east-west international travel. True, you can earn miles on several partners, but only Hawaiian allows redemptions and JetBlue itself doesn’t offer anything on its own metal. Something to shoot for in 2018.

Best Airline Program For Domestic Flights: JetBlue

jetblue

With a cool blue hue

Another easy call. JetBlue runs a program that is typical for low cost carriers, in that you earn points based on the dollars you spend. When you want to redeem, it’s easy. Every single flight that they sell has a ticket price in either dollars or points, with TrueBlue points worth about 1.5 cents each ( a little lower for Mint redemptions).

The program’s simplicity is exceeded by its generosity. You earn three points per dollar spent (worth approximately 4.5 cents, or 4.5%) as well as another three points per dollar if you book at jetblue.com. You’re now up to a 9% rebate in the form of points. Paying for your flight with a JetBlue credit card? That’s another three or six points, depending on which card you have. The higher value card also rebates 10% of any points that you redeem. And if you have JetBlue’s Mosaic status, you receive an additional three points. Altogether, you can get back up to about 25% of what you pay for flights!**

Best Airline Program  For International Travelers: American

A bear jumps out of a bush and starts chasing two hikes. They both start running for their lives, but then one of them stops to put on his running shoes.

His friends says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!”

His friend replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you!”

 

This is the one where I struggled the most (and my apologies to those of you who don’t fly American carriers at all; I’m just not equipped to discuss those programs), and it’s not because I had so many fine choices to pick from.

Over the years, airlines have devalued their programs. Moving to a dollar-based earning system has made it more difficult for the average traveler to earn miles, although the big spenders will benefit. Likewise, as miles become a secondary currency, the supply has grown, leading to inflation.

Truthfully, I’ve found Delta to offer the most useful program among the Big 3 (Delta, American, United), particularly as it relates to the high end of elite status, but I couldn’t bring myself to give an award to a company that doesn’t have an award chart. And I couldn’t bring myself to give any sort of award to United.

So that left me with American. American has good international partners going east, west and south from the US, and the program is the most straightforward of the Big 3, although there aren’t a ton of differences. And you can rack up some pretty big miles with partners such as BankDirect.

There are plenty of negatives in American’s program, though. It recently added a fourth tier to elite status, devaluing their formerly mid-tier Platinums. And if you’re flying to Europe, both British Airways and Iberia add surcharges to awards, which means that you could be paying a hefty chunk of cash, particularly if you are flying up front.

Congratulations, AA. You’ve won by not losing.

Best Hotel Program, Major Chain: Marriott

frenchmen's reef, marriott

Marriott’s Frenchmen’s Reef.

I had already started to write up a long post naming Starwood’s SPG as program of the year when I realized that I was busy trying to justify an award to a program that might be gone a year from now. And with Marriott having picked up a few of the key innovations from SPG, such as the guaranteed 4pm check-out for Gold and Platinum members (except at resorts and conference centers), it is probably the better way to go now.

Marriott offers a little bit of everything. Its hotels run the gamut in terms of quality and luxury, from mid-tier to luxury. You’ll have thousands of hotels to choose from for both earning and burning points, as well as the unique ability to redeem for a package of both points and miles. Marriott also has a true luxury brand with Ritz Carlton, which is a big step up from Hilton’s Waldorf brand.

Marriott has yet to merge SPG into its own program, despite having bought Starwood over a year ago, but they’re showing hopeful signs, such as the above mentioned late checkout. I’m hoping that it will also carry over another benefit, free upgrades to suites. It could also use some help when it comes to a decent quarterly promotion.

Meanwhile, other programs have stepped back. Hilton eliminated its award chart and Hyatt completely revamped its elite program (and not for the better). Starwood is good, but it doesn’t have the breadth of categories of hotels that Marriott does. IHG has never really been in the running.

Best Hotel Programs, Midscale And Upscale Categories: Club Carlson

Club Carlson is the program that I call the little program that could. The owner of the Radisson brand, among others, offers decent redemptions and over 1,000 hotels to choose from, with properties all over the world. What really stands out, though, is the quality of their promotions, which significantly exceed that of their competitors.

Wyndham is a high quality runner-up. It has more hotels than Club Carlson, with over 8,000, and every night costs 15,000 points, regardless of the property at which you are redeeming.

 


 

*The other possibility, of course, is that this is simply commentary on the quality of airline food. An economist would question how having no choice is better than having a choice between bad food and nothing, but that’s a discussion for another time.

**The math: three points each for base spend, booking online and Mosaic status. Six additional points per dollar if you pay with your JetBlue Plus Card. That’s 15 points. At 1.5 cents per point, that’s a redemption value of 22.5%. Add in the 10% points refund that you get when you redeem and you’ll finish right around 25%.

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