Many of us travel not only for leisure, but also for business. And in some cases, we even have the opportunity to combine both into a single trip (which I like to do whenever I can). Traveling is great! Well, at least as long as things work out well.
The travel industry has been very creative in keeping guests loyal to a single company or network. For them, loyal guests mean more revenue, better planning and even more insight into travelers’ habits. For us as guests, if we use these programs well, they can really make a difference. But don’t get lured into the shiny promises of travel companies. You might get lost! So let’s take a rational and experience-based approach on Loyalty Programs, shall we?
Why Being Loyal Matters
One airline program, one hotel program and one rental car program.
I have a general rule for myself to focus on one main loyalty program for each industry, that means one airline program, one hotel program and one rental car program. Am I a member of other programs? Yes of course, but I don’t put my focus there. And I never use more than one from the same alliance.
Benefits of loyalty programs vary by industry and company. In the airline industry, things have been pretty much standardized nowadays, but there are still huge differences. Here’s why you should be enrolled (and have status) in an airline loyalty program:
- Collecting miles for free award flights or upgrades – a basic benefit every loyalty program has. The more you spend with an alliance, the more you get. Use your miles wisely, though!
- Additional baggage allowance – depending on membership tier, airlines give usually one additional bag for free, or even more. This is one of the most useful benefits, because it helps avoid a lot of cost.
- Lounge access – a goodie that is often overvalued. The value of a soft drink is not too high compared to other benefits that airlines give you, and meals in lounges are normally horrible (with exceptions). Still, nice to have access to quiet chairs or even sleeping beds on a long layover.
- Priority check-in, security check and boarding – most airlines have either one or more of these “fast lane” type benefits for their status customers. To me, time is extremely valuable, and these benefits give more time back for my personal life, and they can reduce stress when you’re running late.
- Priority boarding – for me one of the key benefits with every airline, since it saves you most of the hassle of cramping your stuff into already full overhead hand luggage compartments. On winter flights, when I’m among the last ones to board, more than once I had to stuff everything under my seat, reducing comfort dramatically. Priority boarding means a sure place for your hand luggage (especially if you took a little more than allowed)
- Upgrades – depending on the airline, companies do upgrade status passengers first – for example when coach is fully booked.
- Other benefits – such as elite magazines, free seat reservation, access to exit row seats and a ton of “soft benefits” (benefits that are not advertised) give you always full attention of the airline personnel once you wave that platinum card.
For the frequent traveler nowadays, many of these benefits are essential to a comfortable journey. This is why I recommend to choose only one airline (alliance), enroll in their loyalty program, and fly with them as much as you can. It will give you elite status faster, and you can enjoy all benefits on the alliance network. A second airline program only makes sense if you are REALLY flying a lot and you can hit elite targets for both airlines (which I rarely see). The only reasons to maybe entertain a second program are collection of occasional miles for off-network flights and status match upgrades (see below more on that).
So what is a status match? Some airlines have occasional promotions where they offer you Elite status in their loyalty program if you have the same status with another airline network. Say, you have a Gold status with Star Alliance and British offers you their equivalent to Gold (called Sapphire in oneworld’s term). These offers are extremely rare, but occur from time to time and give you typically one year of Elite Status with the other airline network, including of course all the benefits. And everything for free, of course.
How to get a status match? Typically, airlines advertise those in their e-mail newsletters or on their website, but you can also just call and ask your target airline for any promotions. I have done status matches twice in the last five years, and believe me, it is a great thing when you finally get one!
Choosing an airline loyalty program
Star Alliance offers the best airline network worldwide.
It is hard to give general advice on how to choose a program. Much of it will depend on your location and your usual travel destinations, and the airlines available there. But if you have a choice, I clearly recommend Star Alliance airlines above all. The Star Alliance loyalty programs are lightyears ahead of other networks such as Skyteam or oneworld (which to me is the worst) and offers most benefits network-wide, no questions asked. As for the member airline, I personally think Lufthansa has the best loyalty program (they were the one to invent airline loyalty programs, by the way). Their service is faultless, and terms are clear and fair.
If you have to go for Skyteam, I recommend Delta’s Skymiles program, even if you don’t live in the US (more on that below). I find their terms better than any other Skyteam airline. And for oneworld, I like both American’s AAdvantage as well as Air Berlin’s topbonus. Be aware though, that both Skyteam and oneworld typically restrict many of their benefits once you fly with other (even alliance partner) airlines.
Hotel loyalty programs
Hotels treat their Elite guests like kings. Literally.
You might think, does this even make sense? How many nights do I even stay with a single company per year? Even though, consider enrolling in one primary hotel programme. Here’s why.
First of all, hotel loyalty points typically can be converted into airline miles. Most programs allow to select an airline to automatically deposit your loyalty points there. While that might be a great option, there are many reasons not to convert. But hold on a second for that one.
Hotel chains have come up with great ideas for loyal customers, so if you consider becoming an Elite status member of one, here’s what they have in store for you:
- Upgrades to the next room category or even suite rooms – a neat benefit that can be worth a lot of money considering suite rates
- Free breakfast and internet – this can save you a lot of $$$ especially when you travel for leisure.
- Late check-out, early check-in – a benefit that usually gives you until 4pm for checkout, also very valuable and usually only available at hefty surcharges.
- Elite treatment – hotels really care about their Elite customers. Personalized attention and a “can do” attitude towards almost any request is guaranteed for top-tier customers.
- Airline Miles Conversions. I use to keep my hotel points in the hotel loyalty program and only convert to airline miles when I need them. Starwood’s SPG program allows me to transfer any amount of points to any airline in the world, anytime. So whenever I need a free award flight, I can do it with any airline of my choice. I just open a loyalty program account there (if I don’t have one yet), transfer the points, and book my award ticket. This makes SPG points the most valuable “currency” out there because of its flexibility.
- Cross-promotions – This is where it gets interesting. Read on for more information on this.
So, consider you spend around 40 to 50 nights per year in hotels. Which is typical for a business traveler, and then add also leisure. In many cases, the choice of hotel chain is really just random, so why not stick to one chain (or company) and get all the benefits of Elite status? I’ve tried it, and it is not that difficult. Given equal or similar prices, I now always stay in hotels belonging to one group wherever I stay. It keeps adding nights toward Elite status, and they treat me like a real VIP.
How to choose a hotel loyalty program?
Living the #spglife
Also here, it depends on where you travel often. Most of the time, a company with many hotels will make it easier to find one wherever you go. But also benefits vary greatly. For me, the king of hotel loyalty programs is Starwood’s SPG program. It offers amazing benefits and it is not that hard to achieve Elite (Platinum is their highest) Status. And SPG is very, very creative in adding more, innovative benefits almost every months. Some of the highlights include their recent partnership with Uber, giving you Starpoints for every Uber ride. They have a cross-promotion with Delta, Emirates and Caesar’s Palace Hotels, which means you get both airline miles AND hotel points when you fly with one of these airlines OR stay in a Starwood hotel. Now is that cool?