How and Why to Sign-Up for Airline and Hotel Rewards Programs (and Which Ones You Should Open First)
Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.
If you are just beginning in the miles and points hobby, the myriad of award programs, award points, and travel credit card options can be overwhelming.
Each airline and hotel chain has its own points program, and the rules and values seem to constantly change. Luckily, we spend a lot of time looking at these programs for you, and we’ve chosen the 7 airline and hotel rewards programs that we think are the best ones for new travelers to focus on in 2019.
Here’s how (and why) to sign-up for airline and hotel rewards programs!
How to Sign-Up for Airline and Hotel Loyalty Accounts (These Are the BEST Ones)
Keep in mind that most airline and hotel reward program points expire. For this reason, it is best to make sure you don’t spread your points too thin across many reward programs that you might not be able to maintain.
When searching for valuable loyalty programs, there are a handful of considerations:
- Value of points
- Ease of earning points
- Ease of redeeming points
- Consumer-friendly program rules
Each of the below programs have their own pros and cons. It is really important when deciding to invest in a rewards program that you choose one that fits your lifestyle. For example, even if a certain airline has a top-rated rewards program, it won’t do you any good if you are unlikely to use that airline, because they don’t fly into your home city (or have limited availability).
That said, opening airline and hotel loyalty accounts is totally free, and there is no “application” process. There’s no harm in opening every single loyalty account possible, and as you grow in miles & points you’ll find that you’re using far more than you initially thought you would!
Flexible Points Are the Best Way to Start
If you are just getting started, the best way to start earning points towards free travel is by applying for a credit card that allows you to earn flexible points. Flexible points never expire and can usually be transferred to many of the hotel and airline programs listed below.
This simplifies earning because one card can help you earn points for many different reward programs at once, and you can choose which program to attribute your points to later, when you are ready to book free travel. Flexible rewards are absolutely the best way to make sure you never miss an award sale or mistake fares too.
Now, on to the top 7 loyalty programs for free travel!
Both the Million Mile Secrets staff and readers alike have grown fond of the Southwest rewards program over the years. As other airlines have moved towards charging fees for everything from checked bags to itinerary changes, Southwest has bucked the trend by being one of the most consumer-friendly airlines in the US.
All Southwest flights use “single-cabin” airplane layouts, meaning there is no First Class, Business Class, or even Premium Economy seats. It’s all coach.
Furthermore, while every other major domestic airline has now launched a Basic Economy option (“cheaper,” but lots of hidden fees if you’re not careful), Southwest has resisted this temptation. You can enjoy up to 2 free checked bags on every flight and no fees for changing your itinerary.
Everyone at Million Mile Secrets agrees that the Southwest Companion Pass is the single best deal in award travel. Upon earning a Southwest Companion Pass, you can bring a companion with you on any Southwest flight for nearly free (pay just taxes & fees, which is often ~$11 round-trip). This works out to virtually a 50% discount on airline travel when you travel with a friend or partner. There is no limit to how much you can use the Companion Pass while it remains active.
To get the Companion Pass, you must earn 110,000 Southwest points in a calendar year, which allows you to keep the pass for the remainder of the year you earn it, plus the entire next year. 110,000 points might seem daunting at first, but it’s much easier to achieve than you might think. Check out our post here to learn why!
In the spirit of full disclosure, not everyone is a fan of Southwest’s unique style. Southwest does not offer any pre-assigned seating, which many people (myself included) hate. Alternatively, you can choose to pay a little extra for first dibs on a seat which basically guarantees that you won’t be relegated to a middle seat.
The Southwest rewards program is very easy to use, making it great for beginners. Point earning is a simple multiple of your ticket price (between 6 and 12 points per $1 depending on the fare type) meaning that you will know exactly how many points you’ll receive without needing to do anything too complicated.
Conversely, redeeming points is based off the cash value of the ticket. This means there are no award charts, reduced mileage awards, and other things to complicate the redemption process. You generally receive a value of 1.5 cents per Southwest point. While advanced point hobbyists might see this as a negative (it is harder to find great deals), newer folks will appreciate its simplicity.
Hyatt wins its place on this list mainly because of the value it offers for award nights. You can enjoy very comfortable accommodations starting at only 5,000 points per night. Since many of these hotels normally run $100+ per night, it shouldn’t be difficult to receive a value of 2 cents per point from Hyatt ($100 / 5,000 points = 2 cents each). We’ve seen point values much higher than that at 5-star locations like the luxurious Park Hyatt branded hotels.
Another reason Hyatt gets so much love is that they offer one of the most premium free breakfasts of any major hotel chain. I really do feel satisfied with the high quality breakfast Hyatt generally offers, and find it to be one of the best free breakfast options available from a hotel chain.
Jason even enjoyed a $360 free breakfast from Michelin Star rated Blue Tavern restaurant while staying at the Park Hyatt Washington, DC.
It is also worth mentioning that Hyatt has a deal with MGM resorts in Las Vegas to give you great access to many of their specialty resorts around Vegas and beyond. They will even match your elite status from Hyatt!
Another huge win for Hyatt is that it’s a Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer partner. It’s one of our favorite destinations for Chase Ultimate Rewards points. In addition, Hyatt offers their own branded card -the World of Hyatt Credit Card – that comes with a free award night at a category 1 to 4 hotel each account anniversary after you pay the annual fee.
Delta can be a great beginner rewards program because it offers a bit of everything. One of the strongest elements of their rewards program is the fact that your Delta miles will never expire.
There are also no blackout dates on award flights, which is especially helpful for folks who like to use points to get away during popular vacation dates like the Christmas season, 4th of July, or Spring Break.
In addition, I find Delta’s online site and mobile apps to be some of the easiest to use in the entire industry.
Delta offers arguably the best fancy-seat experience for domestic travel. While we usually see amazing First and Business Class seats relegated to international long-haul flights, Delta offers this experience on many of their long domestic flights, or even short flights between the US & Canada. For example, I flew Delta One First Class between Vancouver, Canada, and Los Angeles (only about a 3-hour flight!).
You can even earn Delta miles by flying on 20+ partner airlines. Delta’s SkyTeam partners enable you to use Delta miles towards flights all over the world. Overall they have a really valuable rewards program that everyone can get something from.
4. American Airlines
The American Airlines loyalty program is one of the most popular award programs in large part because there are lots of ways to earn American Airlines miles!
American Airlines has a valuable off-peak award chart that can save you miles when you fly coach to places like Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe (to find the exact dates, go to this page and click “Details on award travel“). As an additional bonus, folks with certain American Airlines credit cards can stretch their points even further with quarterly “reduced mileage awards”.
American Airlines is a member of the oneworld alliance, which means you can use your miles to fly on some of the best airlines in the world! This alliance is especially prominent when flying airlines in the Asia and Oceania regions. Check out our guide to booking American Airlines award flights for more tips on how you can use American Airlines miles.
Marriott is the largest hotel group in the world by total number of rooms. This is one of the many reasons I love the Marriott rewards program.
Just because the name MARRIOTT isn’t on the side of the building doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use your Marriott points for a free stay. Marriott hotels include:
- AC Hotels by Marriott
- Autograph Collection Hotels
- Bulgari (you can’t redeem Marriott points for stays at Bulgari hotels, however)
- Courtyard by Marriott
- Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott
- Gaylord Hotels
- JW Marriott
- Marriott Executive Apartments
- Marriott Hotels
- Marriott Vacation Club
- Moxy Hotels
- Protea Hotels
- Renaissance Hotels
- Residence Inn by Marriott
- Ritz-Carlton Reserve
- Springhill Suites by Marriott
- TownePlace Suites by Marriott
If you want to start earning elite status towards a hotel group, then Marriott is a great one to work toward because you will be able to enjoy the perks of your elite status nearly everywhere you travel.
At most Marriott hotel brands you will earn 10 Marriott points per $1 you spend (which add up quickly). The points have a great redemption value, too. Joseph is headed to the Maldives later this year, and will receive at LEAST 1.7 cents per point in value.
The best way to earn Marriott points quickly is by opening credit cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card and earning their welcome bonuses. They earn Marriott points from everyday purchases, plus offer big welcome bonuses that will keep you earning steady Marriott points towards free travel.
Another massive hotel chain is Hilton, and there are tons of ways to earn Hilton points. Hilton, like other hotels, categorize their hotels according to brand. That’s because each hotel brand has distinct characteristics they use to market their hotel to a certain kind of traveler.
There are currently 14 Hilton hotel brands:
- Embassy Suites
- Hampton Inn
- Hilton Garden Inn
- Hilton Grand Vacations
- Homewood Suites
- Tapestry Collection
- Waldorf Astoria
You will enjoy your stay at a Hilton hotel even more with hotel elite status, with delightful perks like premium Wi-Fi, free bottled water, free breakfast, and room upgrades (when available). The exact benefits will vary based on the level of elite status you have with Hilton. I think Hilton’s elite status program is one of the strongest in the hotel industry, and is the primary reason that it makes the list.
One of Hilton’s signature benefits for elite members is the 5th night free perk. It allows you to enjoy even longer award trips because your 5th night of a 5+ consecutive night award stay will cost ZERO points. This significantly reduces the cost of Hilton award stays and makes for a great opportunity to get more value from your hard-earned points.
The easiest way to earn points towards free stays at Hilton and to enjoy complimentary elite status is with one of the Hilton Honors American Express cards. Joseph thinks the Hilton Gold level Elite Status is the best value in hotel elite statuses. I would have to personally agree, because Hilton Gold elite status is fairly easy to earn (it’s even offered complimentary for Hilton Honors American Express Ascend cardholders) and packs a ton of benefits into that level of status.
Point values aren’t quite as high as those from Marriott, but you can earn them MUCH faster. Plus, when you combine extra perks that you can get from elite status such as a complimentary room upgrade or free breakfast, I think it more than makes up for it.
7. United Airlines
United Airlines is the world’s largest commercial airline based on the number of destinations served. If you are looking for the one airline that will literally take you anywhere, United Airlines is probably as close as you’re going to get.
The reason United Airlines is the last airline on this list is because their rewards program is by far the most complicated and has the most restrictions. There are lots of ways that they find to reduce the miles you earn, especially when you shop for flight deals.
For example, in the past I’ve paid for a round-trip flight between Seattle and Rome, only to earn less than 1,500 total United Airlines miles! I have actually earned more miles than that by simply using their shopping portal!
Also be warned that your miles will expire after just 18 months of inactivity and they DO have blackout dates. In order to keep miles from expiring, just make sure you continue to earn (or redeem) your points. As long as you have some sort of activity in your account, all of your points will remain active.
Despite these negatives, United Airlines miles are still valuable to collect because they can take you nearly anywhere. Their Star Alliance airline partnership is one of the strongest for getting you great deals on flights to Europe, which is often one of the most popular destinations for beginners in the points hobby.
Folks starting out with earning miles and points towards free travel have lots of reward programs to choose from, and it can often feel overwhelming. But we have chosen the best 7 reward programs to start out with. These programs are the best for beginners because they offer great value and are easy to use:
- American Airlines
- United Airlines
Whether you plan to open a hotel or airline credit card or you just want to start racking up the points for your paid travel, everyone should register for the above loyalty programs.
What is your favorite rewards program? List your favorite hotel and airline reward program in the comments below and tell us why.
And subscribe to our newsletter for more helpful beginner tips:
[gravityform id=”3″ title=”false” description=”false”]
Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)