20 years of the Freddies: Travelers name top loyalty programs

Who offers the best frequent flier program in the Americas? More than 600,000 road warriors recently rated Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan top of the heap. If business takes you to international ports of call, you might consider enrolling in Etihad Airways Etihad Guest or Jet Airways Jet Privilege, as frequent fliers voted these programs the best in the Europe/Middle East/Africa region and the Asia/Pacific region respectively.

These honors were announced at the annual Freddies Awards ceremony in Phoenix last week. Like the Oscars for motion pictures, the Freddies are the most-coveted award for frequent traveler programs. Now celebrating its 20th year, the Freddies are the brain child of frequent flier guru, Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer and arguably the world's most knowledgeable frequent traveler.

Named for the late Sir Freddie Laker, who pioneered discount travel across the Atlantic, Petersen launched the awards to answer the question asked of him most often: "Hey Randy, who's got the best frequent flier program?" Unfortunately, there is no patent answer to that question, according to Petersen. It's different if you have 30,000 miles or 300,000 miles and if you live in Madison, Wis., or Dallas, he says. It also depends on what you intend to do with those miles. "Do you want to upgrade or go to Europe?" he asks.

Twenty years later it's still the most popular question, but Petersen can now respond: "These are the programs that really score the highest among travelers."

During the Freddies' initial launch in 1988, just 864 frequent travelers voted for nine total awards. This year 57 prizes were awarded across 11 categories and three world regions. In addition to the best overall program, travelers voted for the program with the best elite level, the best website, the best bonus promotion and more. This year, 25 awards changed owners and the El Al Israel Airlines Matmid Club and Korean Air SKYPASS won their first Freddie awards ever. A complete listing of this year's winners is available at Freddie Awards.com.

More highlights from this year's winners include:

Tops in the Americas. Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards took six of eight airline awards. Marriott Rewards took Program of the Year honors and dominated the hotel category with the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, each earning 10 of the 25 hotel award. The Intercontinental Hotel Group Priority Club Rewards program also won four Freddies.

For the second consecutive year the SPG American Express co-branded affinity credit card ranked first in the Americas. Three of the top rated affinity credit cards are co-sponsored by hotels. "This is the only category where hotels and airlines compete directly against each other," says Petersen. David Flueck, Vice President, SPG Program and Operations, believes his card is popular among frequent travelers because they may redeem points for air travel in addition to rooms at the chain's 900 properties in 95 countries. The SPG card also gives users 25,000 airline miles for every $20,000 spent and two points for every dollar spent at an SPG property.

India's finest. In the Asia/Pacific region Jet Airways won seven Freddies including Program of the Year. Though only 15 years old, the Indian airline has expanded rapidly and now flies to 59 worldwide destinations including New York and Toronto.

New but good. Middle Eastern airlines captured eight of the nine awards in their region which also includes Europe. Though the airline is only five years old and their frequent flier program is less than two years old, Abu Dhabi based Etihad, captured four Freddie awards this year. Beyond free air travel, Etihad offers a tantalizing array of "lifestyle awards" like an Abu Dhabi golf outing, a London theater trip, or a Swiss ski safari. Fliers may also redeem miles for iPods, diamond rings, and many other merchandise offerings.

These days, newer and smaller airlines win the lion's share of Freddie Awards because they offer "new generation" award programs, according to Petersen. Even so, Petersen believes legacy airlines are making a comeback. Petersen gave a special award to Northwest Airlines for its "WorldPerks University", which helps WorldPerks members make the best decisions to maximize their miles.

Best promotion. Delta SkyMiles won this year's award for "Best Bonus Promotion" in the Americas, offering travelers up to 25,000 bonus SkyMiles by simply transacting with any of Delta's100+ non-airline partners. SkyMiles members earned 5,000 bonus miles for each partner purchase during the promotion according to Jeff Robertson, Managing Director of the SkyMiles program. You could earn 15,000 bonus miles by simply staying in a Hilton, renting an Avis car, and charging $1 to your Delta Airlines SkyMiles American Express card during this promotion. For those who missed the partner promotion, Robertson says they'll do it again later this year.

Three cheers for transparency. Petersen also acknowledged SAS Scandinavian Airlines with an award for their "EuroBonus" award seat prognosis product that gives fliers perfect transparency to see the exact number of award seats available on any given flight.

Free travel that's really free. Lufthansa and Qantas Airways earned awards for programs allowing frequent fliers to use miles to cover taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges that are usually assessed on award tickets on most airlines. Petersen also acknowledged Brussels Airlines and Royal Jordanian Airlines, which allow travelers to use miles to pay for excess baggage. Petersen wondered if any of these innovative programs may soon be adopted by U.S. airlines to make award travel truly free.

A million miles for dessert. This year's ceremony included a guest appearance by "The Pudding Guy", David Phillips, who earned more than 1.2 million miles by purchasing over 12,000 individual pudding servings in a promotion offered by Healthy Choice. Phillips donated most of the pudding to charities that helped him remove the UPC labels required for proof of purchase. Including his tax deduction, Phillips earned enough miles for 31 trips to Europe at an average cost of $75 per ticket and life long Gold status in American Airlines' AAdvantage program where he redeemed most of those miles.

While the Freddies highlight the best programs, they also provide valuable feedback to airlines and hotels on improving their existing programs. This year's 365 attendees included many executives representing loyalty programs across the globe.

Many airlines and hotel companies ask Petersen how they can win a Freddie Award. "It's all about providing value to your members," Petersen says. Petersen believes the Freddies benefit all travelers as the competition spurs constant improvements in airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Do you have a favorite program? Any tricks for how to earn miles or loyalty points? What are your biggest frustrations with loyalty programs? Sound off below.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at travel@usatoday.com.