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

By Christopher Elliott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F01

Call me a frequent-flier program skeptic.

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?

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 celliott@ngs.org.

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