For many travelers, a free flight or hotel stay feels more elusive than ever.
Program trends have made it tougher to rack up miles and points. American Airlines recently announced it would join Delta and United in awarding miles based on fare rather than distance flown, with the new program expected to be in place sometime this year. (Smaller airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest, also use spend-based programs.)
On the hotel side, chains have shifted away from awarding loyalty points if you book with a third-party site instead of directly with them. None of the dozen biggest programs offer awards in such cases, according to a recent analysis from CardHub.com.
Leisure travelers who only make a few trips each year — and tend to focus on finding bargain rates — may find such changes a loyalty killer. But even business travelers focused on gaining status rather than free travel may find it's time to reassess their strategies.
"Calculate the dividend you get from the program," said Jeff Berry, research director for Colloquy, a loyalty market research firm.
Some programs have more value potential than others. A new CardHub.com report found JetBlue is the most rewarding airline for frequent flyers, while Delta offers more value for average and light travelers. Among hotels, they note, Wyndham Rewards was the best for travelers of all spending levels. (See charts below for airline and hotel reward scores.)
But it's more complex than that.
Consider what kind of travel you do and how much you're likely to spend, explained Berry, as well as what kind of benefit you're looking for. Free travel? Elite status? Then see which approaches make the most sense.