airport space
Cathay Pacific Lounge at HKG

This may be the first ever article about loyalty programs that fails to mention a single one, but there’s a reason for that. Think of it like a WebMD for your loyalty blues, where it’s better to read without thinking of any pre-conceived ideas through one airline or hotel loyalty program, and rather let yourself fill in the blanks. It’s time for travellers to start voting with their feet and consider taking the frustrating steps to secure better travel for the future.

You’re right – no loyalty program is safe, because in today’s world they tend to change the game without warning. If that happened to your loyalty program recently, where there was no advanced warning or opportunity to make hay while the sun still shined, think about the breach of trust that represents.

You pledged loyalty, they proverbially cut your throat in the night in exchange because business is good.

We’re seeing the first transparent shift from a loyalty program being a tool to encourage consumer behavior, perhaps even at a real cost, to a marketing tool which may actually be more valuable and important than the airline fleet, or hotel group itself. As long as the bean counters treat loyalty programs like piggy banks to extract extra revenue without anything in return, we will continue to pound dirt.

There’s a fair balance, and many of us are just-not-getting-it.

a pool with palm trees and chairs and umbrellasIt’s downright appalling, and unfortunately it’s far too close to normal. If this sounds all too familiar, ask around about the programs that tend not to stealth devalue their benefits, at least historically speaking. And then, think about the deep dive.

When it comes to benefits, whether you’re flying or sleeping, the devil is in the details. No blackout dates with one loyalty program can mean something entirely different with another. It’s not fair, but it’s marketing, and if you want to stay on top, you need to know what that policy explicitly states. For hotels, we recently did a deep dive on that.

The hardest part about negative loyalty program changes is the psychological conundrum it puts you in. You are mad, you wish it didn’t happen, but you also don’t want to venture off into the wild, losing out on the (dwindling) travel benefits you currently enjoy. With that in mind, there’s never been a better time to really learn about status matching, or taking a challenge.

These status matches and elite challenges allow you to instantly gain comparable benefits with another airline or hotel, or if not, earn them within 3 months of busy travel. They’re designed to draw in weary travellers tired of being under appreciated or duped, and it’s safe to say a few people out there might be feeling like that.

An important distinction with matches and challenges is that you don’t give up anything. You just gain, and keep your current status for however long it’s valid.

a room with a long couch and a tableYou take a walk on the wild side and then at the very least, you know how the programs stack up. Maybe the airline where your upgrades never clear is instantly seen as inferior to the airline that gives you a status match, or maybe you realize they’re all basically the same – the important thing is that you realize.

In times of booming economies, airlines and hotels forget what loyalty means, yet when markets turn, like 08′ they will practically walk you to the plane on a cloud of air with people throwing rose petals if you pledge even a fraction of the business. The only way to make a travel brand take notice is to touch their bottom line, and seeing valuable travellers take their business elsewhere is the only way.

My favorite story of the last week came via a comment on the blog. A high value flyer, clearly spending $50k plus a year with a major airline had enough after recently qualification changes, even though they didn’t personally hit them. They now send their former airline an email with a screenshot of their major purchases on other airlines. However ineffective it may actually be, it’s great spirit.

Eventually you’ve just gotta ask yourself, am I a glutton for punishment who therefore deserves what’s coming, or am I an empowered traveller who can put on their boots and march into the hands of an airline or hotel that’s doing it better. It may not last forever, but even a little bit of a good thing can be worth it, while it lasts…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. From my aspect that is what is happening with United. Previously, apart from maintaining AA EXP, I flew United to Premier Platinum status primarily to maintain Star Alliance Gold but also because the upgrades were nice perks…
    Given that all of my trips are regional and international (therefore unlikely to attain the PQF goals) and that I pay for them myself, I have no intention of contributing a minimum of $10k to United for flights (to achieve Gold status) in 2020 – let alone the $15k for Platinum status.
    When (if) I fly United this year, it will be to maintain Star Alliance Gold with another carrier.
    I anticipate that rather than the 12 or so regional and international flights of 2019 on United, I am likely to reduce to 4 or 5 this year… if that.
    So long United MileagePlus Premier – it was nice knowing you!

  2. Good article. I’ve been traveling extensively since the mid 80s and have accumulated around 8 million frequent flyer miles and a seemingly endless number of hotel points and car rental credits (most of which have all been put to good use). Every time there is a change to a program or adjustment to cost of award (e.g., dynamic pricing for airlines, category changes for hotels) people complain about it harming “their” value, that the program isn’t rewarding “loyalty” and, usually, a threat to go somewhere else (which will just do the same thing eventually).

    Maybe I’m callous but I look at it from the business aspect. All these companies are out to make a profit first and foremost. Any “loyalty” they feel to you is simply due to how much revenue you give them. Frankly, they are required to make changes to maximize value of their programs in order to deliver shareholder value (their primary mission as a business). Maybe people don’t like it but that is reality. Again, if you find yourself in a program that doesn’t “reward” or “value” you by all means change but understand they all have warts and will eventually do something to displease you.

    Now on loyalty. One of the benefits of traveling so much is I’m lifetime 2nd-3rd level elite on 2 major airlines (American and Delta) and lifetime Titanium (not even offered any more) on Marriott. In addition, I have top level status (or right below it) on 4-5 other hotel groups based on either matches or credit cards I carry. In other words I don’t need to chase status and that really frees me up to fly anyone I want or stay anywhere I desire. I always check where I’m going, what are the various ways to get there, how much it costs, the trade offs in experience (discounter versus full fare airline for example) and then make a decision. I do the same for hotels. Also, I use the value charts for points/miles and only use my collected currency if it represents a value over paying cash (which just earns more miles). I’m lucky enough to be retired with a lot of time to travel (and flexibility) plus the means to pay for any travel I want so realize I’m in the minority but I agree with you that loyalty to any particular brand is crazy in today’s world (especially when you can basically “buy” loyalty at many hotel chains with just the right credit card).

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