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The Navigator: Frequent-flier programs' cons outweigh the pros

Frequent-flier programs are a one-way ticket
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By Christopher Elliott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Call me a frequent-flier program skeptic.

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I take a dim view of any scheme that promises you the world in exchange for all your business. Not that I don't like sitting in first class, staying in a suite or being treated like a movie star. I mean, who doesn't?

Having covered the travel industry for most of my career, I just don't believe in "win-win" propositions. I think there's a steep and often hidden price to be paid when you collect miles. The game can easily turn into an obsession that disables your common sense, compelling you to make completely irrational purchasing decisions.

Fact is, offers of "free" products, perks and preferred status in exchange for racking up points through travel or credit-card purchases aren't for everyone. They probably aren't for you.

I won't suggest that loyalty programs are morally wrong and that they divide travelers into haves (the ones who get to board anytime on the red carpet) and have-nots (the unlucky schlubs wedged into the middle seats), even though I could probably write an entire column on that topic.

When I say I don't believe in "win-wins" I'm not even referring to the recent precipitous devaluations in mileage programs. For example, at the beginning of this year, Hilton "updated" its award levels for free stays, increasing the number of points you need. An exasperated reader in Philadelphia sent me the notice with the following advice for his fellow frequent guests: "Use your points -- now!"

Nor am I talking about the onerous "co-pays" that some airlines recently added for mileage redemption, like the one Perry Bird had to shell out when he recently tried to book an upgrade on a flight from Dulles International Airport to St. Martin. It used to cost 60,000 miles for a bump to business class on United Airlines. "Now, United wants my 60,000 miles and an additional $1,400 for the same upgrade," he told me. "Puhleese!"

I don't even have a problem with the maddening terms and conditions that stipulate that the points and miles don't belong to you and that companies reserve the right to change the rules anytime without notice. I'm not making this up. Here's an excerpt from American Airlines' terms and conditions: "Accrued mileage credit and award tickets do not constitute property of the member. . . . American Airlines may, in its discretion, change the AAdvantage program rules, regulations, travel awards and special offers at any time with or without notice."

No, in my view, the winners obviously are the travel companies that have seduced their best customers with creature comforts that they probably ought to be giving everyone, and the losers are the elite-level lemmings, who have become blindly brand-loyal.

Don't bother sending me hate mail. When word got around that I -- a loyalty-program atheist -- was working on a story about the value of reward programs, it didn't take long for the true believers to offer me a piece of their mind.

"Of course they're worth it," snapped Charles Owen, a college professor in East Lansing, Mich. "You look at the costs and the benefits. The only cost associated with collecting miles is our decision to have a SkyMiles American Express with the associated fee. Other than that, they just accumulate, and every now and then we use them."

And use them he has, to visit Europe and the Caribbean. Owen said he takes two "free" flights a year, thanks to a credit card that allows him to collect miles, which is also known as an affinity card. Apart from the annual fee on a card, these programs appear to have no downside. Sure, there are blackout dates and restrictions, and award seats aren't always available. But it's a free ticket, right?


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