There are a ton of airlines to choose from around the world, and an even greater number of hotel chains. 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, but if you're flying many times a year and expect to rack up thousands of miles and earn elite status, being loyal to a particular brand is key.
Your first priority when choosing an airline or hotel chain should be location. Does the airline offer non-stop flights from your home airport to a variety of cities around the world? And 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 DC are key hubs for airlines operating flights to Europe, while Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver offer the greatest number of trans-Pacific flights. Airlines may have multiple hubs, however, and traveling between them is often very easy, with dozens of flights available each day.
Say you're based in New York, but you travel to both Asia and Europe on a regular basis. American Airlines, Delta, and United all have hubs in the New York area, at JFK and Newark airport. You'll find non-stop flights to many cities in Europe and some in Asia, but if you need to venture on to other destinations on those continents, accessing one of the airline's other hubs in the US shouldn't be difficult. These carriers are also ideal for domestic travel from NYC, though United offers the largest number of non-stop destinations from New York City, out of its hub in Newark.
If you're based in Philadelphia, however, American Airlines is probably your best bet. Following the merger with US Airways, American now operates the majority of flights leaving Philadelphia, including non-stop flights to cities like London, Rome, and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, if you live in Atlanta, Delta should probably be your preferred airline, since you'll have access to non-stop flights to cities like Tokyo and Johannesburg.
For hotels, browse the major chains to see if they offer top-rated hotels in cities you frequent. Hilton and Marriott are two of the largest luxury chains worldwide, followed by Starwood and Hyatt. 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.
If you're paying for your own travel, price may be an even bigger factor than convenience. For work-related travel, it probably makes sense to spend more money to get a non-stop flight, in order to maximize your productivity and minimize time in transit. Leisure travelers, however, are often willing to add in multiple connections in order to save, with one and two-stop routings often saving hundreds of dollars, particularly on international routes.
While airlines typically price flights competitively, offering very similar fares on identical routes, hotel rates can vary dramatically, making one property a clear winner in terms of price. Travelers are very price-sensitive when it comes to hotels, even when on a business trip, and for longer stays, it might be more logical to book a lower-priced room, even if that means forfeiting elite-qualifying nights and other perks. To figure out which hotel is best, subtract the perceived value of included perks from the nightly rate, so if a Hyatt hotel is $20 cheaper but you know you'll get free internet and breakfast at a Westin, if might be more reasonable to book the latter.
You're here to learn about free travel, so redemption opportunities are clearly a priority. Airlines and hotels compete on price, but they also have to compete on perks, so 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, 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. When paying with a Hyatt credit card, for example, you'll earn up to five points per dollar spent at Hyatt hotels. Similarly, airlines offer bonus miles when you book a flight with their own branded card.