Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who rewards your loyalty?

Who rewards your travel loyalty? And, the corollary to that question, Who deserves your loyalty? Airline mileage loyalty programs are nothing new—American Airlines started the first of such programs back in 1981, and other major airlines quickly followed suit. Next came airline-branded credit cards that earn you airline miles for each dollar spent. Now, many credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles that can ostensibly be used on many different airlines.

But just how useful or valuable are such rewards? The answer: their value and usefulness are going down the toilet. In 2008, the Year of the Fees, major airlines have instituted new fees and increased existing ones for redeeming your airline miles. That airline mileage program pioneer, American Airlines, will begin charging a minimum fee of $50 for mileage upgrades. US Airways charges $25 for you to redeem miles. Nickel-and-diming Continental won't even give you a minimum of 500 mileage miles for flights shorter than 500 miles (now, you'll just get actual miles flown).

All of the above assumes, of course, that you're even able to redeem your miles for an award. I won't waste words talking about what a fantasy that is. So I ask you again: who rewards your loyalty? Are all of your airline miles a real reward if you can't use them?

A few years back, I discovered the Starwood Preferred Guest program. It basically works the same as an airline loyalty program, but you typically use your points for free hotel stays at Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W, Le Meridien, St. Regis). The key difference: no blackout dates. If they have a room available, it's yours. They also offer a branded American Express card, which lets you earn Starpoints just like those airline credit cards earn you miles.

And the SPG program just got even better with the debut of SPG Flights. Now, members can redeem their Starpoints for flights on most airlines the same way they do for hotel stays: that is, no blackout dates—even during holidays or last-minute travel. If there's a seat available, it's yours.

So I'll ask you one more time: who rewards your loyalty? An airline that places so many restrictions on the redemption of loyalty points that it's nearly impossible to use them, and then charges you for the privilege when you can? Or a program that lets you redeem your points whenever and however you want, for a hotel stay at a huge network of excellent properties or a free flight on just about any airline?

And lest you pose a question to me, since this reads like an infomercial: no, I am not affiliated with Starwood in any way. I'm just one satisfied member.

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