Edited by Joe Cortez; June 2018
There are a ton of airlines and hotel chains to choose from around the world. If you don't expect to travel more than once a year, it makes sense to book the flights and hotel rooms that are most convenient and cost-effective for your needs.
But if you're flying many times a year and expect to rack up thousands of airline miles and hotel points, loyalty to a particular brand is key. Which one does it make sense for your travel habits? Your decision should come down to three key points: convenience, price and award
Determining loyalty through convenience
Your first priority when choosing an airline or hotel chain loyalty should be location. Does the airline offer non-stop flights from your home airport to a variety of cities around the world? For hotels, will you find member properties in the cities you travel to most? Depending on where you live and where you travel to, the options will vary significantly.
Airlines operate flights out of hub cities. These are typically large population centers, but they're also positioned for ideal oceanic crossings. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are key hubs for airlines operating flights to Europe. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver offer the greatest number of trans-Pacific flights. Airlines may have multiple hubs and traveling between them is often very easy, with dozens of flights available each day.
How do you determine your most convenient option? If you live in New York, but you travel to both Asia and Europe on a regular basis, you have plenty of options. All three legacy airlines -- American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United -- have hubs in the New York area. You'll find non-stop flights to many cities in Europe and some in Asia through their extended networks. But if you need to venture on to other destinations, accessing one of the airline's other hubs in the US shouldn't be difficult.
If you're based in Philadelphia or Charlotte, North Carolina, American is probably your best bet. Following the merger with US Airways, American now operates the majority of flights leaving both cities, including non-stop flights international destinations including London, Rome, and Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, if you live in Atlanta, consider putting your loyalty with Delta. Through the home airline and their SkyTeam partners, you'll have access to non-stop flights to cities like Tokyo and Johannesburg.
What if you don't live in a hub city and are forced to connect? You will have several factors to choose from, including flight time, price and number of stopovers. Use a tool like Hipmunk to determine the balance of time, layovers and overall stress
For hotels, browse the major chains to see if they offer top-rated hotels in your favorite cities. If you limit stays to these particular hotel chains, you may earn elite perks like room upgrades, free WiFi, and daily continental breakfast, along with discounted rates, bonus points, and expanded room availability.
Determining loyalty through price
If you're paying for your own travel, price may be an even bigger factor than convenience. Depending on your work policies, it could make sense to spend more money to get a non-stop flight to maximize your productivity and minimize time in transit. Leisure travelers, however, are often willing to add in multiple connections in order to save money.
Many airlines require flyers to spend a minimum amount of money every year to earn loyalty status. If you can spend $2,500 or more on airfare every year (before taxes and fees), being loyal to one of the legacy carriers could pay dividends. But if you are a leisure flyer who wants to use all of their earned miles, consider who will give you the biggest bang for your buck. If you live near an airport served by Southwest Airlines, Rapid Rewards may be the best option for earning points and redeeming flights.
While airlines typically price flights competitively, hotel rates can vary dramatically. Depending on where you are going, one property can be a clear winner in terms of price. If you are on a budget, earning points or status through hotel stays may not be your best option. But if you are staying multiple nights at hotels that are most convenient to your stay, then you could be a good night's sleep away from big rewards.
To figure out which hotel is best, subtract the perceived value of included perks from the nightly rate. In practice: If a Hyatt hotel is $20 cheaper but you get free internet and breakfast at a Westin, if might be more reasonable to book the Westin for the additional perks.
Determining loyalty through redemption opportunities
When considering loyalty, redemption opportunities are clearly a priority. Airlines and hotels compete on price -- but they also have to compete on perks, like award rates and redemption options.
Award rates for nights and flights are often comparable between similar products. Once you identify an airline or hotel that works best for you based on the criteria above, it's key to stick with it by booking travel that earns credit in that program. Points can often be transferred between airlines and hotels, but they can never be moved from one airline to another, or between a pair of hotel chains, unless you're willing to take a big hit by making transfers via Points.com.
Spend time researching not only the flights and hotel rooms you can book with cash, but also how you'll be able to spend the points you earn. Once you identify an airline and hotel chain, you should also sign up for a branded credit card, letting you earn additional miles and points when paying for flights and hotel rooms.
Although navigating loyalty programs may sound difficult, getting the most out of your travel is as easy as looking through three points. By determining your best options based on convenience, price and redemption options, you can get rewarded for every trip.