Online Booking Site Elite Status Remains Unrewarding

This afternoon I received my renewal email for Expedia’s Elite Plus program. I’m not sure plus what, exactly.

They offer a dedicated phone line where you don’t have to wait on hold for interminable amounts of time, and they waive their own imposed change fees (that you wouldn’t have had to pay if you’d book your travel through the airline or hotel directly anyway). At least this fee waiver used to be part of the program, I can’t seem to find it on the website any longer. And I haven’t found their ‘elite’ customer service to be better, just faster to pick up the phone.

Beyond that they give you “early access to sales” and “exclusive offers.” I think I’ve been in this program as long as it’s existed, and had some sort of VIP status with them long before that, and I’ve never gotten early access to sales or exclusive offers that were actually valuable. Perhaps this just means that I’m marketed to more or that my marketing emails go out early in the automated queue?

When the “Elite Plus” program was first introduced in fall 2007, it included a complimentary subscription to Mileage Manager, which would now be quite worthwhile since Mileage Manager has introduced an online award search tool that will perform searches repeatedly overnight and email you when availability has changed for an award. (It’s limited to awards searchable on major US program websites, but still quite useful.)

Sadly, there really are no more ‘value adds’ to the program.

Qualifying takes 15 hotel nights booked through Expedia, or $10,000 in spend. I easily make it under the latter criteria, since I frequently use Expedia when booking travel for others — I like the user interface, it stores data including frequent flyer numbers on lots of folks, is pretty decent for combining mutiple airlines (Orbitz is probably better but I hate their checkout process). And most importantly, until recently they offered 1% cashback (sometimes as much as 2.4%) via Fatwallet — I wound up a Fatwallet Cashback VIP member as well. Hah. Fatwallet moved to offering $3 fixed per airline ticket, so I moved to eBates (if you join via my referral link and make a $20 purchase from an online partner, we both pick up a bonus $5, though you can probably get the bonus without using my link as wel). They still offer 1% cash back on airfare purchases made through Expedia.

I assume I’m still an OrbitzVIP but I’m actually not sure.  Their offerings were similar, a priority phone number and getting extra marketing sent to you in the guise of “special offers for our best customers.” As I dig into it, it appears that the Priority Access program still exists, but I cannot tell if I’m still a member. Perhaps not! I was a year and a half ago when they first rolled it out. (But they do publish the 800# on that page, so perhaps anyone can get their calls answered more quickly by Orbitz?)

I seem to recall that Travelocity had a program that once upon a time at least used to send you occasional airline club passes.  They revamped the program in 2005 (original thinking, they called theirs Travelocity VIP).  When I go to the website for it, I get a message that the offer has expired. Does anyone out there know if Travelocity has replaced this program with something else?

Meanwhile, Hotels.com offered an actual rewards program that provided free nights. They still do, but Loyalty Traveler reports that they’ve just gutted the core value of that program, effective next month.

It seems to me that the online booking engines are missing something here. They caught onto the clue train briefly, realizing that a good chunk of their revenue comes from their most frequent customers and that there’s otherwise very little differentiation between the major booking services. And unlike the airlines, they don’t even have ‘the most non-stops from a given city’ to cause customers to differentiate between them. So they struck on a familiar idea: a loyalty program of some sort. But these have all more or less languished.

It does seem as if they could do some real value-added, though I haven’t worked through the economics of how. Perhaps a base-level Priority Pass membership. I liked that Expedia offered a partnership with Mileage Manager. Travelocity used to give out lounge passes. Real tangible benefits.

Prior to the VIP programs I used to get gifts from Expedia, I once got a nice leather travel wallet. And I got a picture frame, where I was supposed to think about photos from the next vacation I’d book on Expedia. And they gave me a nice bright yellow leather luggage tag.

They were right to tie recognition to definable levels of activity or spend. I know I can shoot for something. And they’d darn well better provide more than their median level of customer service. That’s just a baseline, though, it doesn’t make me want to book with Expedia over a travel provider directly (other than for the cash back…). And I certainly avoid them for hotels, since so many chains are reticent to provide points or elite benefits for stays booked through such channels. It seems so easy and low cost to come up with something better than schlocky additional marketing pitches as a ‘benefit’ of loyalty to the booking sites.

And yet none of them have really cracked that nut yet.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Last night I spent over an hour with Expedia Plus and their ineptness.

    The Plus desk does not get you any high caliber staff – still the same booking people.

    And if you call the normal number they say they can not help you and they MUST transfer you to the Elite desk.

    Why????

    Agree 100% with you – there is no benefit to the “status”

  2. If rewarding loyalty works for other facets of the travel industry, you would think it would work for online travel agencies. Even small tokens of appreciation would likely increase loyalty.

  3. I am still a Travelocity VIP…it gets me discounts that are HORRID (better offers available on any other site) and a special phone number and email address which do…nothing. I still speak to the same people in India who really don’t know anything about travel, and are not helpful at all. Luckily I know the numbers for the HQ of Travelocity, but unfortunately I have had to use it more than once. I would rather book with the airlines directly, but when you need a travel package, or a multiairline trip, Travelocity is ok.

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