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Which Travel Rewards Program Is Right for You?

To help you figure out which programs are right for you, we've evaluated frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs based on how great the perks are -- and how easy it is use them.
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It only takes a few minutes to join a travel rewards program -- all you need to do is provide some personal information and you can start earning points to use on free flights, hotel stays and other perks. But if you want to make the most out of your membership, you'll want to determine which programs provide the best means for consolidating your airline miles and hotel points.

Comparing frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty clubs isn't easy. An Internet search yields hundreds of tips on how to use travel rewards programs to never pay for a flight or hotel room again ... as long as you're willing to devote hours of your day to credit card applications and flash-sale monitoring. And then there's the fine print: limitations and blackout dates can kill the promise of unrestricted free travel.

To help you figure out which programs are right for you, U.S. News Travel evaluated frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs based on how great the perks are -- and how easy it is use them.

Top Airline Programs

To identify the top frequent flyer programs, we compared airline programs based on factors that everyday travelers care about. How many places can you fly with this airline? How many flight options do you have on each route? How many points does it take to travel on the most popular routes? And how long does it take to earn those points? To help you answer these questions, we analyzed more than 1,500 data points (such as average flight prices, earnings ratios and the number of flights available for booking with rewards) for 10 major U.S.-based frequent flyer programs.

Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards program earned the No. 1 spot on our list. The airline's already low prices mean that fewer miles are required for a free flight, while its recent merger with AirTran provides more travel options and the ability to use rewards on both carriers. United Airlines' MileagePlus program took second place, while Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles program came in third.

Top Hotel Programs

We used a similar approach to compare hotel loyalty programs. Among the top questions we sought to answer: How many hotels participate in the program? How many destinations can you visit, and how varied are the lodging options? How quickly can you earn a free night?

We scrutinized 16 hotel loyalty programs in our analysis, and Marriott Rewards came out on top. Marriott's portfolio consists of thousands of hotels occupying real estate around the world. The hospitality group's brands cater to a wide variety of budgets, while its five-points-per-dollar earnings ratio makes it easy to quickly rack up rewards. The Best Western Rewards program placed second and the Starwood Preferred Guest program came in third.

What does this mean for you?

Although these rankings have identified the best rewards programs, the winners may not necessarily be the right choice for you. U.S. News Travel's rewards program profiles can help you determine which program works best for your lifestyle once you've considered the following factors:

What are your travel habits?

The thing about joining an airline or hotel rewards program is that you actually have to be loyal to the brand to make the most of your membership. Before you enroll, consider how you normally book flights and hotel rooms: Do you tend to fly with the same carrier and stay in the same type of hotel? Or do you stick to third-party booking websites and opt for the best deal? If you often follow the latter, you may want to rethink either your booking strategy or your desire to join a loyalty program. (No, joining all programs won't work -- you'll just end up receiving dozens of emails every month from all your programs reminding you of how few points you have in each account. Plus, many programs do not allow you to earn rewards for reservations unless they are made directly with the hotel or airline.) If you're willing to commit to one or two brands, then you can continue with the decision-making process.

Where do you live?

While this question doesn't apply to hotel programs, you will need to take your home base into account when selecting a frequent flyer program. Southwest Rapid Rewards may hold the No. 1 spot on our rankings, but joining the program won't do you any good if neither Southwest nor AirTran services your home airport. Make sure to check which airlines fly in and out of your primary hub. You can do this by visiting the airline or the airport's website -- both should offer a list of destinations serviced or carriers welcomed, respectively.

Where do you go?

Your intended destinations matter when choosing a program. If you're hoping to rack up hotel rewards on business trips or earn frequent flyer miles for annual family reunions, you'll want to make sure that the program you sign up for provides earning opportunities in those destinations or for those routes.

How often do you travel?

You have to take into account how frequently you intend to use your membership in order to make it worthwhile. If you're regularly away from home, you don't need to put too much stock in the life expectancy of your points. But if you only travel a few times a year, you're going to want to find a program with rewards that don't expire. You should also look for a program with a higher earnings ratio (more rewards per dollar, mile, flight segment or hotel night), which will lessen the time it takes you to accumulate a meaningful number of points or miles. U.S. News Travel evaluates how easy it is to earn a free night or a free flight with each program by calculating how quickly members earn rewards and how many points are required for free travel.

One bit of advice: Don't join a travel rewards program in order to motivate yourself to travel more frequently, because it won't. Instead of registering for a program because you hope you can take advantage of it, sign up for a program that you know will benefit you.

Where do you want to go?

This is a very different question than "where do you go?" Once you've earned enough rewards through business travel or by attending family reunions, you may want to treat yourself to a vacation. When selecting a rewards program, you want to keep your wanderlust in the back of your mind -- if you dream of visiting Paris, don't sign up for a frequent flyer program if the airline doesn't fly to Europe. If your ideal getaway involves lounging on the beach in the Caribbean, make sure you can use your hotel points for a room with a sea view at an island hotel. After all, you've earned it.

[Learn more about the Best Travel Rewards Programs]

--Miriam Weiner

Want to learn more about travel rewards? Join @USNewsTravel & @USNewsMoney for a Twitter chat on Tuesday, July 23 at 2 p.m. EST; chatting at #rewards.