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The Navigator: Frequent-flier programs' cons outweigh the pros
Not right. There's more to loyalty programs than meets the eye, according to consumer advocate Jo Anne Shumard. "Cards that offer perks to consumers often do so at a premium interest rate," she warned. "I even have one for airline miles, but it's almost three times the interest rate of my lowest credit card interest rate."
Who should participate in a loyalty program?
If you're a managed frequent business traveler, you have my blessing. By "managed" I mean that your company works with preferred vendors, and you fly, drive and stay with a set of companies whether you want to or not.
Your loyalty isn't for sale. Your points are just a byproduct of your business trips, and you're far less likely to participate in irrational point-collecting or making silly mileage runs at the end of the year to qualify for coveted elite status, which entitles you to extra-special treatment when you're on the road. For instance, "Chairman's Preferred"-level frequent fliers on US Airways get priority check-in, security lanes and early boarding, unlimited free upgrades in the United States, up to three free checked bags and complimentary airport club membership. Alas, to reach that level, you have to fly 100,000 miles within a calendar year (other terms also apply).
Christina Pappas, a Boston-based marketing consultant and frequent traveler, thinks it's important that you control the miles, not the other way around. "All things being equal, I'll try to remain loyal when possible," she told me. "But there are times when it doesn't make sense for me to make two connections just to get my points."
If you're an unmanaged frequent business traveler, and you want to collect points, you're playing a dangerous game. Falling in with the wrong crowd on FlyerTalk, a popular hangout for frequent travelers, isn't the biggest risk to you. It is, instead, making purchasing decisions that are in the interests of your program, but not you.
Bernard Pollack, a frequent traveler and loyalty program member who lives in Dakar, Senegal, and is an elite-level frequent traveler with US Airways, United, Hilton and Starwood, thinks that programs warp your perspective, often enticing you to spend more on travel or ignore better prices with a competitor. "I don't believe people should choose, and certainly not pay more for, certain airlines, hotels and cars because of the loyalty programs," he said.
What if you're traveling for pleasure? If your trips are infrequent, you should stay on the sidelines, says Allison Danziger, director of TripAdvisor Flights. "One specific case is where a traveler would fly less often than the frequent flier mile expiration window for their program," she added. "Frequent flier miles on most carriers expire after one to three years of inactivity." In other words, your miles would expire before you could use them, obviously negating any benefit.
If you're a frequent leisure traveler, then sure, go for it, but with the same caveat I offered the unmanaged business travelers: Don't get addicted and don't let it control you.
Look, I could spend a couple of paragraphs talking up loyalty programs in an effort to convince you that I can be balanced on this subject. And while it's true that these schemes aren't without benefit, I figure that they have enough apologists already. Besides, that's not my department; I handle the complaints.
Speaking of complaints, here's a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of offering their loyalty to a travel company. It comes to us by way of Robin Forman, a retired librarian in Miami and a frequent leisure traveler. She used some of the American Airlines miles that she'd collected by flying and making purchases with a Citibank MasterCard to upgrade on a flight from Brussels to Chicago. But when the flight was canceled after the recent volcanic eruption, the carrier pocketed a $350 "service charge" for using the miles.
Forman asked for a refund. "Service charges are necessary to help offset the costs associated with these transactions," an airline representative told her in an e-mail rejecting her request. "I'm sorry my response couldn't be more positive."
Yeah, me too.
Mileage addicts may argue that people like Forman should double down and focus their loyalty on a single company. After all, top-tier elites don't have to pay a lot of the fees that garden-variety frequent travelers do. But I see her story as a reason to reconsider loyalty programs entirely. Not to pick on American Airlines -- a lot of the legacy airlines have these annoying fees for ticket awards -- but if this is loyalty, what's the point?
And that's the thing: The harder you look at so-called "rewards" programs in travel, the harder it is to believe in them. They successfully entice travelers to drive, fly and stay with a particular company, giving them a level of service the companies should offer every customer.
But more often than not, the loyalty goes only one way.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate. E-mail him at email@example.com.