Christopher Elliott is one of those great enigmas in travel, I actually like some of the things he has to say and so I think he can get a bad rap from frequent flyers at times. Though in his Travel Troubleshooter columns I think he often sides with customers and against travel providers even when the travel providers are in the right, a bit too much ‘sympathy for the little guy’ rather than a focus on justice but he frequently lets his readers vote on whether to intercede so I suppose his readers are as much at fault!
Where he really misses the mark, and sometimes even goes totally off the rails, is in his criticisms of frequent flyer programs. This new piece from the January/February National Geographic Traveler is a perfect case in point, Chris is just out of his depth on the facts and that leads him to erroneous conclusions and bad advice.
He begins by harkening back to a ‘golden age’ of travel points rewards, when you earned points just for travel and it was easy to redeem those points, when the truth is in many ways the exact opposite.
t used to be so simple.
If you belonged to a loyalty program, you’d get a point for every mile flown. Collect enough of ’em and you’d qualify for a round-trip ticket. The same formula worked for hotels and rental cars.
But today you can score miles without darkening the door of an aircraft, hotel, or rental car. Buy a box of cereal? Ka-ching! Talk on a cell phone? More miles. Get a mortgage? Even more! Unfortunately, the “free” ticket comes with a bundle of restrictions, including blackout and expiration dates, and extra charges or higher minimums to fly on more desirable dates.
…It didn’t start out this way: When American Airlines offered the first mileage-based rewards program in 1981, it wanted to reward its frequent customers and generate loyalty to the company—a mutually beneficial compact. Back then, airlines attracted customers the old-fashioned way: with good service and competitive prices.
Within a few weeks of AAdvantage’s launch, United unveiled its own frequent flier program, followed by TWA and Delta. Plans in those early years were simple and straightforward: On many airlines you could get a coach ticket for 20,000 miles with no expiration dates.
First of all, when American and other programs launched their frequent flyer programs, you could not get a coach ticket for 20,000 miles roundtrip.
United Airlines introduced ‘saver awards’ at that price point in 1988, a full seven years after the introduction of the modern frequent flyer program. And when those 20,000 mile rewards were introduced, they came with capacity controls. There was never a time when the median frequent flyer program offered 20,000 mile rewards without capacity controls. It simply never existed.
The original rewards, without capacity controls, were offered at 40,000 miles roundtrip. And when airlines introduced half off awards that booked into seats the airlines didn’t expect to sell, they still offered double mileage awards without capacity controls.
To a large extent they still do. Sure, those 20,000 mile awards are now usually 25,000 miles. And double miles awards are now 50,000 miles. Delta offers last seat availability for 60,000 miles and United will begin offering those 50,000 mile rewards with true last seat availability to their co-branded credit card holders next year. But those are certainly exceptions.
The point is that the world Chris described simply never existed, his facts are wrong. And that doesn’t even get into the matter of partner and alliance awards, the ability to use your points across a wide array of airline partners and even combine those partners into a single award ticket, something that didn’t exist in the first twenty years of frequent flyer programs.
Furthermore, Chris’ claim that it ‘used to be that way’ for the ease of redemptions in hotel programs too? Quite the contrary. Most hotel rewards until very recently came with capacity controls. When the Starwood Preferred Guest program was introduced, its unique selling proposition was the lack of capacity controls — you could have any standard room that was available for sale with your points. In the past few years Hyatt, Hilton, and to large extent Marriott have matched this. It is now easier to redeem your hotel points than it has ever been in the past.
But the debut of rewards programs coincided with the deregulation of the airline industry, which led to a shift away from service as a selling point. Cheap fares moved most of the tickets.
Wow, how many canards can you cram into two sentences?
Deregulation preceded the introduction of frequent flyer programs by four years. It’s certainly true that when the government no longer enforced monopolies on domestic routes, and no longer set prices, airlines had to compete. And one way that they competed was on the basis of value provided to consumers through their frequent flyer programs.
But Chris Elliott says above that he liked the good old days of those programs, up through the 80’s in fact, so surely he can’t place his complaints now at the feet of deregulation, without a theory of why it took at least 10 years from deregulation for him to become unhappy with the course of events?
Furthermore, yesterday Dan Webb posted a really useful chart on historical airfares. Even with the big spike in airfares over the past two years, with oil prices at historic highs and planes full, prices are still about 15% below where they were in 1995 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Somehow the consumer advocate Elliott thinks this is bad for consumers?
The airlines have perfected the art of manipulation, crafting ever more complicated incentives to stimulate our worst hoarding instincts. And as the points-earning opportunities mushroom, the real rewards are being contained behind growing walls of elite and super-elite status, available to only a chosen few.
Cue evil laugh! What Elliott calls the art of manipulation, one might also just as easily call “offering a value proposition that appeals to consumers.”
And here I think he conflates two very different things — elite status and redeemable miles.
There is very little difference in redeeming miles for general members versus elite members. Take United, their 50,000 mile flyers do not receive any better award availability at all than the general member. A 100,000 mile flyer will have access to additional coach reward seats, on United only. No additional reward seats for a premium cabin, no additional award seats for partners like Lufthansa or Thai.
Award tickets are hardly available ‘only to a chosen few’ (unless that chosen few numbers in the millions, those with enough miles in their accounts to redeem!). Instead, the same international first class seats are available to every single member of the program with enough miles in their account — except for United’s “Global Services” members who can effectively book awards into upgrade buckets on United metal only, though this is very much the exception that proves the rule.
While Elliott cites blogs on BoardingArea (like this one!) as “evidence of our collective delusion” I think he really misses the point. In fact, he gets unhinged when he claims that “miles have negative value.”
Instead, I’d argue that this column of his has negative value, to the extent it convinces some readers not to participate in loyalty programs. The programs are free. You add your account number, track your points at AwardWallet, make sure they don’t expire with just a little bit of activity every few years, and eventually you get something for almost zero effort. You maybe won’t find five seats to Hawaii at the last minute over Presidents weekend. But you’ll certainly do better than ‘negative value’ and if you pay a little bit of attention you’ll even have opportunities to see the world in a style you couldn’t possibly afford on your own for just the price of taxes and maybe a fuel surcharge.
Elliott might even say he doesn’t disagree, just don’t spend more for your tickets to get miles. But he concludes the article saying “[Y]ou have to regulate your own behavior. So, kick the habit, now.”
When in reality, you shouldn’t “cut up the frequent flier affinity credit card.”
- Get the card that is best for you.
- Look at total trip cost — if you’re going to make elite status with an airline, it may be a lower cost solution overall to stick to a single airline or single alliance, based on savings from checked bags or extra legroom coach seats or better chance of re-accomodation during irregular operations.
- Check evreward.com for the best mileage and cash back deals from your online shopping.
- And consider cost, location, and overall treatment (including elite status treatment and promotions) when reserving a room.
For the super elite, it can really make sense to focus on a single airline or hotel chain. For everyone else, pay attention to miles and collect miles and save up, eventually you may have enough for what you want. And it costs very little to stay active and engaged.