It’s time to question one of the most basic tenets of travel: Everyone should participate in an airline loyalty program.
A tectonic shift in the world of travel rewards is forcing passengers to reconsider their allegiances — or whether it’s worth being loyal at all. Given the already hopelessly convoluted nature of these programs, I’m surprised it took so long.
Frequent fliers have been hardest hit. In recent months, both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines revised their programs so that only the biggest spenders get the best perks. Soon, flying often won’t be enough to reach an airline’s coveted elite status. Expect more companies to follow.
Experienced travelers are taking a hard look at their loyalty portfolios. They don’t always like what they see.
David Deehl, an attorney who lives in Miami, says he feels betrayed by recent loyalty program changes. As an elite-level traveler, he expects preferred treatment from his preferred carrier, Delta Air Lines. But when he missed a recent flight from Miami to London, he discovered his Silver Medallion status didn’t mean much: The airline asked him to pay an extra $3,400 to fly.
Delta’s revamped program, which, starting next year, awards elite status based on the amount of money spent and miles flown, makes it significantly harder to maintain Deehl’s Medallion status. It represented the final straw, he says. He’s burning the 400,000 leftover SkyMiles in his account and vows to buy future tickets based on price and convenience, not whether he can maintain his elite status or score a “free” award ticket.
“No more loyalty for me,” he says.
His decision, and that of others like him, may have dramatic repercussions. For years, loyalty programs flourished, thanks to a conventional wisdom that everyone should carry a rewards card. The programs grew at a cancerous rate, fed by an unskeptical mainstream media and a small army of bloggers who were generously compensated for endorsing the loyalty lifestyle. They hawked a handful of bank-issued affinity credit cards with excessive point-bonus awards for which they received a generous commission check whenever a reader signed up.
These program apologists will trot out their same tired reasons why you should always be loyal. The programs are free, they’ll say, and look at what I got by being faithful to my airline: a “free” ticket to Hawaii, or a “free” upgrade to business class.
These arguments are too easily debunked. Loyalty programs aren’t free. At a minimum, members fork over their valuable personal data and spending history, which is shared with a company’s marketing partners. Worst-case scenario? You spend more — maybe a lot more — on travel in a wrongheaded effort to reach elite status or score a “free” ticket. If you use one of those pricey affinity cards, you’re also paying an annual fee to collect points that, as a matter of fact, don’t even belong to you.
Here’s what is true: A few people are benefiting from loyalty programs, including top-tier frequent fliers, usually traveling on their company’s dime, and hobbyists who spend their free time figuring out a way to game the system.