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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.

(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.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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