BUDGET TRAVEL ADVICE

The Breakdown on 8 Membership Programs

Can't decide if it's worth joining a hotel or airline loyalty program? We took eight of the most popular rewards programs and found out exactly how they work—from how long it really takes to get rewards to all the additional perks you get by being brand loyal.

By Melinda Page, Monday, Feb 6, 2012, 5:57 PM

(Carlosphotos / Dreamstime.com)

AIRLINES

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES RAPID REWARDS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points toward free flights (and that's it...the simplicity is one of this program's best points). Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards credit card holders have more options and can redeem points for flights, hotel stays, car rentals, and gift cards from brands like Best Buy, iTunes, and Amazon.com—or  exchange them for cruises, spa packages, and other unique experiences.

How long does it take to get rewards? The number of reward points you earn depends on the type of flight you book—Business Select flights earn twice as many points (12 points per dollar) as Southwest's Wanna Get Away flights (6 points per dollar), so the more you're willing to spend on a ticket, the more points you'll rack up per trip.

What is the range of redemption options? Lower priced airline fares mean fewer points are used, so take advantage of Southwest's Wanna Get Away fares, which typically cost you 60 points per dollar, meaning you'll need to redeem 6,000 points for a $100 base fare Wanna Get Away ticket versus having to cash in 26,400 points (at 120 points per dollar) for a Business Select base ticket.

How easy is it to use? Reward reservations are easy to make online and don't require planning months in advance. Booking an award over the phone does not cost extra.

What are the fees? No membership fees are charged, but there's an up to $10 September 11 security fee for all rewards. There are no fees for canceling a trip and redepositing the award in your account, changing your award ticket itinerary, or booking at the last minute.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? You'll earn 600 points by staying at partner hotels and renting cars thru participating companies. Additional partnerships include freecreditscore.com, Teleflora.com, and SuperShuttle among others.

Are there special promotions available only to members? Double- and triple-mile bonuses are sometimes offered for flying to and from specific markets. A current promotion gives you 25,000 bonus points—enough for a free round-trip flight-when you sign up for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Card.

What are some other perks? It's all about status. Earn 35,000 points and become an A-List member, while 70,000 points makes you an A-List Preferred member, and 110,000 miles earns you a free companion pass. At any level of A-List membership, you'll get priority boarding and check-in, as well as a private hotline for customer service. A-List Preferred members also get free onboard WiFi (when available).

DELTA SKYMILES
What kind of rewards do you get?
Miles, which can be used toward upgrades, hotel stays, magazine subscriptions and merchandise (like digital cameras) from Delta's SkyMiles Marketplace. You can also donate your miles to one of Delta's Skywish Charities, or redeem them for free tickets to Broadway shows.

How long does it take to get rewards? As long as it takes you to fly 25,000 miles (or rack up an equivalent number of miles through partnership purchases).

What is the range of redemption options? Thanks to numerous airline partners, miles can be redeemed on 16,000 daily flights going to 65 different countries. A three-tiered system is used for determining seat availability: 25,000-mile awards are limited, more seats are available for 40,000 miles, and 60,000 miles will get you any available seat in coach. More miles are needed to book international and premium tickets.

How easy is it to use? Finding awards for just 25,000 miles is a challenge; there's a 331-day window prior to departure during which you can book award travel, and you'll need to start searching for flights as early as possible and fly during off-peak months. Checking award availability often is sometimes rewarded, as the airline can release seats at any time during that 331-day window. Click here to view more tips how to snag award travel.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, but you'll pay $150 to redeposit award miles, $50 to make any changes on the day of travel, and up to $10 for the September 11 security fee, plus any additional taxes and fees for international travel (which can be as high as  $600 for destinations abroad) and $20 for reserving an award over the phone instead of online.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No, although seats available for 25,000 miles are limited, especially on peak travel days. Check early and often.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? More than 140 are offered; you get miles when you fly on other airlines like Air France and Korean Air, and for signing up for everything from financial services from Fidelity to earning 1,500 miles when you join Netflix.

Are there special promotions available only to members? No.

What are some other perks? Sign up for a Delta SkyMiles AmEx card and check your first bag free. Other perks don't kick in until you reach elite status or when you book a premium ticket.

JETBLUE TRUEBLUE
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which can be redeemed only for flights. Thanks to a new partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, you can use points for flights to the islands, or redeem them for magazine subscriptions.

How long does it take to get rewards? You can score a one-way flight starting at 5,000 points, while round-trip flights start at 10,000 points. Double your points by booking through jetblue.com (you'll earn six points per dollar spent instead of the usual three), and be on the lookout for promotions throughout the year that offer extra bonus miles.

What is the range of redemption options? You can book awards to any of JetBlue's 71 destinations throughout the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. The number of seats available for awards isn't restricted, but you'll need a lot more points for peak times or routes with high fares.

How easy is it to use? The program is straightforward, but because the number of points needed for an award is determined on a flight-by-flight basis, it can be hard to predict how many you'll need for a specific trip. However, points can be used for any flight at any time.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees and nothing is charged when you book an Award Flight—taxes are $2.50 for Award Flights and may vary depending on the destination.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No. As long as there is a seat available and you have the points, you're free to fly.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? Members can earn points by flying with partner airlines—Hawaiian Airlines, Emirates, and select international routes via American Airlines—renting a car with Hertz, Budget, or Avis, or by staying at any participating Marriott or Hilton hotels. Points can also be earned by joining Netflix or by shopping online with companies like Gilt and Proper Cloth.

Are there special promotions available only to members? Check JetBlue.com for promotions that maximize point earning potential on certain routes.

What are some other perks? Members can transfer and share points with other each other, and earn extra points by purchasing any JetBlue Getaways vacation package.

AMERICAN AIRLINES AADVANTAGE
What kind of rewards do you get? AAdvantage members can redeem miles for travel on American Airlines, American Eagle, the American Connection carrier and more than 20 Oneworld Alliance and other participating airlines. Miles can also be used for airline upgrades, American Airlines Vacation Packages, Admirals Club membership, car rentals, hotel stays, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, gift cards, and more. Miles can also be donated to the Miles for Kids in Need program.

How long does it take to get rewards? As long as it takes to fly 25,000 miles round trip or 12,500 miles one way (or rack up an equivalent number of miles through partnership purchases).

What is the range of redemption options? American Airlines and its Oneworld alliance partners fly almost everywhere. MileSAAver awards (which start at 25,000 round-trip miles) are subject to capacity controls and have different mileage requirements for peak and off-peak flights. You'll have better luck scoring the flight you want with AAnytime awards, which require more miles (starting at 50,000 round trip) but are unrestricted. Good deals can be had flying to Hawaii, Europe, and Japan when you fly off-peak using MileSAAver awards. American introduced Dynamic Air Awards in 2011, allowing elite status members to book any economy class seat for even less.

How easy is it to use? The availability of awards is generally good, and they're easy to book online. You can also use your miles to book multicity and one-way fares, allowing you to combine first-class and economy travel in one tripor to fly one way without wasting points.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, but you'll have to pay a $20 fee for booking over the phone (when booking an award on some partner airlines, you'll have to pay the fee because calling customer service is the only option-you can, however, book awards online for partners like Alaska Airlines, British Airways, and Hawaiian Airlines among others). There's also a  $75 fee for booking less than 21 days in advance, and a $150 fee for any changes made to a MileSAAver award ticket (there's no charge for AAnytime awards). You'll also have to pay up to $10 for the September 11 security fee and up to an additional $180 in taxes and fees for international travel.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No, although seats are more limited during peak travel times. Some flights may not be available for certain award types; routes with less than daily service may also have limited award seats available.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? You can earn additional miles through partnerships with more than 1,000 participating companies, including a wide range of hotel chains, airlines, car rental companies, financial companies, and more than 500 retailers like the North Face and Barnes & Noble through the AAdvantage eShopping Mall. The AAdvantage Dining program also allows members to earn AAdvantage miles at thousands of participating restaurants, bars and clubs.

Are there special promotions available only to members? Occasionally, the airline will offer bonuses like double miles for flights; you have to register to qualify, so check online for offers before making reservations. Keep an eye out for more deals and contests posted on the AAdvantage Facebook and Twitter pages.

What are some other perks? The perks kick in once you earn elite status.

HOTELS


MARRIOTT REWARDS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which you can convert to airline miles or redeem for free hotel stays, rental cars or merchandise like Furla handbags and seats from the original Yankee Stadium. Through Marriott's Customize Your Rewards program (available to elite members-the lowest tier, Silver, requires at least 10 nights a year), you can also request almost anything: tickets to the U.S. Open or to Broadway shows, or jewelry from Tiffany & Co. If you have the points needed, the reward is yours.

How long does it take to get rewards? Spend $750 (equivalent to 7,500 points) and you'll earn a free night at a category 1 hotel like a Fairfield Inn (you'll have to spend double that at a Residence Inn or Towne Place Suites, where you only get five points per $1 spent). A free night at a category 7 hotel requires 35,000 points, equivalent to $3,500. To stay in Rome, Times Square, or London, you'll need 40,000 points.

What is the range of redemption options? You can use your points at any Marriott property, or make reservations at a Ritz-Carlton online. You can also redeem points for room upgrades (usually 5,000 per night), another nice feature that many other hotel loyalty programs don't offer.

How easy is it to use? Thanks to a new Instant Redemption program, you can book a room on the spot if one is available, or use points to pay for spa treatments and food and beverages during a stay without having to plan in advance. Although transferring points is free, they can only be transferred to a spouse, and paperwork is required.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, and no fees for redepositing unused points back into the account or for transferring points.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? Out of Marriott's 3,600 properties, only four high-end locations (including two in Hawaii and one in Rome) have blackout dates, although they do offer plenty of open days for members.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? Earn points with Hertz, CruisesOnly, Orient Express, and more than 30 airline partners (most of the big ones, although American is not among them).

Are there special promotions available only to members? The Marriott Rewards website offers numerous members-only promotions, including reduced rates at specific hotels, opportunities to earn bonus points, and discounts with partners.

What are some other perks? Redeem points for four nights at one property, and you'll get a fifth night free; otherwise, a few extra perks are available, but most start at elite status.

IHG's PRIORITY CLUB REWARDS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which you can convert to airline miles or redeem for free hotel stays; Any Hotel, Anywhere AmEx cards, which can be used like cash at any hotel; Hertz car rentals; gift cards for stores like Banana Republic; iTunes gift cards; and golf equipment. You can also convert your points into a donation to one of several charities, including the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. And you can trade points for merchandise like iPods, Victorinox watches, and magazine subscriptions. Don't see what you want? Use the Priority Club Concierge: You tell them what you want, and they tell you how many points you need.

How long does it take to get rewards? Digital Rewards (music, games, and computer software downloads) start at 1,200 points, so even beginners can cash in. You'll rack up 10 Priority Club Points for every $1 at select Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, and InterContinental Hotels around the world, and 5 Priority Club Points for ever $1 spent at Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites, or earn points when shopping with their partners.

What is the range of redemption options? None of IHG's luxury properties are off-limits-book  a room in almost any destination using your points through IHG's new Hotels Anywhere program. Or you can redeem points for Any Hotel, Anywhere AmEx cards, which can be used like cash at any hotel. Members can also earn points through the Priority Club Shopping website or by visiting certain restaurants through their Dining program.

How easy is it to use? Booking reward nights online is easy, and there's also a dedicated Priority Club Rewards 800-number, so you can redeem your points over the phone at no charge. They also have apps for the iPhone as well as on Android platforms, Google TV, and Kindle Fire so you can have access on the go.

What are the fees? No membership fees are charged. For Hotels Anywhere reservations, there's a minimum $35 fee for any changes or cancellations to a booking, plus any resort fees are extra. A $5 fee is charged for every 1,000 points transferred to another member's account. And when you redeposit points, a processing fee may apply.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? Tons. Earn points with most major airlines (you can opt to earn airline miles instead of hotel points), Hertz, USA Today, FTD, Fedex, and more. An exclusive Priority Club Select Visa card lets you earn points for purchases on the card.

Are there special promotions available only to members? Members have access to PointBreaks rewards, allowing them to book rooms at specific hotels for just 5,000 points. Another program, Last Minute Reward Nights, lets members redeem points at a 50% discounted rate than the usual point redemption rate one weekend per month. Earn 1,000 bonus points this summer when you stay in any IHG hotel thru Sept. 3, 2012-and an extra 250 points per stay for booking through priorityclub.com or through their Priority Club Rewards Mobile App.

What are some other perks? All members get a free newspaper on weekdays and late checkout until 2 p.m. if available.

HILTON HHONORS
What kind of rewards do you get? Points, which, in addition to free stays at more than 3,800 hotels worldwide, you can redeem for park passes to Disneyland (options from 90,000 points), car rentals, cruise certificates, gift cards to Starbucks, jewelry from Tiffany & Co., electronics, Broadway show tickets, and more.

How long does it take to get rewards? Thanks to what Hilton calls Double Dipping, you can earn hotel points and airline miles for the same stay. Or you can opt to earn bonus points instead of miles and receive 10 points per eligible $1 spent. You also get the same number of points per dollar spent regardless of whether you stay at a Hampton Inn or a Waldorf Astoria. Once you spend a minimum of $500, you qualify for a free night at a Hampton Inn (7,500 points), or spend $3,334 (50,000-80,000 points, depending on your selected earnings style) for a free night at a Waldorf.

What is the range of redemption options? All properties can be booked if a room is available; nothing is off-limits. Use your points to upgrade to a premium room, combine your points with money when booking to score a less expensive stay, or donate them to your favorite charity thru the Hilton HHonors Giving Back Program.

How easy is it to use? There's no fee to change your itinerary, and booking can be done online, right up until the last minute. There's also a reservation line for making reservations over the phone. A new iPhone application allows you to redeem points while on the go.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees. There's a $25 fee for every 10,000 points when transferring points to another member (up to 200,000 points; after that, there's no fee).

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No. Points do not expire, but members must keep their account active by purchasing or donating points, or staying at a Hilton property once every 12 months.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? You can earn and redeem points with more than 50 airlines, six car-rental companies, and multiple dining partners among others through the Global Online Shopping Mall..

Are there special promotions available only to members? Members have access to Point Stretcher Rewards, which require 40 percent fewer points and can be booked online. Check their Facebook page for timely promotions like Triple Your Trip, giving members the opportunity to earn triple points on stays Friday thru Sunday and double points on stays Monday thru Thursday for travel thru September 30, 2012—another promotion gives members the chance to win one of seven once-in-a-lifetime vacations thru August 31, 2012.

What are some other perks? Members (regardless of status) get a special reservation line, speedier check-in and check-out, and even late check-out upon request (if available). Additional perks are available as you move up the membership status ladder-Silver, Gold, and Diamond level members are rewarded with frequent room upgrades, free wireless internet, and health club privileges depending on the hotel.

STARWOOD PREFERRED GUEST
What kind of rewards do you get? Starpoints, which you can redeem for a free night at 1,090 participating Starwood properties or for flights on more than 350 airlines with no blackout dates. Or redeem points for Amtrak train tickets, airline miles or ticket purchases, and gift cards to Starbucks, iTunes, and Amazon.com. Members also have access to Starwood's Moments, where you can use points to bid on experiences like seeing Lady Gaga perform in Vienna or attending a Madonna concert in Edinburgh.

How long does it take to get rewards? You get two Starpoints for every eligible $1 spent. Free nights at Category 1 hotels (Four Points by Sheraton and some Sheratons in international destinations) can be had for 2,000 points, so spend $1,000 and you'll get a free night. Category 7 hotels (the W Retreat & Spa Maldives, some St. Regis locations) require a minimum of 30,000 points—the equivalent of $15,000—for a free night.

What is the range of redemption options? You can earn and redeem points at more than 1,000 properties around the world starting at 2,000 Starpoints. But the best properties have a point premium, starting at 60,000 Starpoints per night depending on the hotel, its category, its room types, the time of year, and/or its mandatory requirements. You can also redeem points for room and suite upgrades as well as award flights without blackout dates on hundreds of airlines worldwide.

How easy is it to use? Properties that require a point premium (categories 5-7) can only be booked over the phone through a customer service center, not online. You can, however, ibook awards at standard properties online, over the phone, or at the hotel.

What are the fees? There are no membership fees, and no fees for transferring points to another member within the same household. There's no fee for changing an award, but if a property has a late cancellation fee and you fail to show up, you'll be responsible for it.

Are there any blackout dates associated with travel? No, not when you're redeeming points, but blackout dates may apply for bookings made using a combination of cash and points or when points are used for upgrades.

What partnerships does this reward program offer? Earn and redeem points with Amtrak, charity partners UNICEF and The American Red Cross, more than 350 airlines, two rental-car agencies, magazines, and several retail partners including Gap and Williams-Sonoma.

Are there special promotions available only to members? The website spg.com offers numerous members-only promotions, which may include room discounts and opportunities to earn triple Starpoints. Several other programs like On Tour with SPG and Starwood's Moments offer exclusive experiences only bookable with Starpoints.

What are some other perks? Additional perks kick in only after you reach elite status, but any member can redeem points for four nights at a higher-end property (Category 3 and higher) and get a fifth night free. There's also a separate toll-free customer service number for each of the three Preferred Guest levels.