To butcher Frank Fukuyama, it’s the end of credit card history and I’m the last man (holding onto a Diners Club card).
If there was any doubt at all, the Freddie Awards put an end to it. The card won an amazing 9 straight awards for best loyalty credit card. Last year surprised me, but I imagine there’s often a lag in benefit changes and consumer perception, in other words the card was coasting on its past glory and reputation. This year Diners Club didn’t even garner enough votes (1%) to have their support tallied and reported.
The Freddie Awards are a bit of a strange animal, a product has to clear the 1% threshold in votes — not nothing in a contest with over 400,000 voters, but not a huge hurdle — and then the interpersonally subjective mean “value vote” determines the winner. In the past Diners Club was bolstered by its hard core constituency, the savvy road warror who saw some amazing benefits: an incredibly flexible point transfer program, primary rental car insurance coverage, two full billing cycles to pay (great for folks whose employers take awhile to reimburse travel expenses), and the list goes on.
Over the past couple of years, ever since Diners Club became a Mastercard and became much more widely accepted, benefits have been guttted. Two factors are at play:
- Diners Club Rewards has lost airline transfer partners. Take United and Continental, for instance, both of which have Chase credit part products are their primary credit card partner. When Diners Club was a separate niche product there was really no competition or conflict with Chase. But when Diners Club became a Mastercard, Chase saw a threat and insisted on exercising its exclusivity arrangements.
- Lower margins per transaction. Processing charges as a Mastercard meant lower margins for Citibank (issuer of Diners Club in North America) on each transaction. These lower margins support lighter benefits. So Diners Club hasn’t just lost transfer partners, they’ve also altered their redemption charts such that transfers out to several hotel programs (and Southwest) are more costly. Meanwhile, other benefits have gone by the wayside…
- The end of 60 days to pay.
- Increased foreign currency transaction charges, bumping up from 2% to 3%.
- The end of the Restaurant Savings Program. Years ago they had their own dining benefit but more recently had switched to co-branding with iDine (now Rewards Network) and their cash back program. Most airlines and some hotel programs offer free membership and points-earning, but for a fee (“iDine Prime”) you can sign up for cash back without an airline/hotel partner. Diners Club brought you the premium cash back option built-in with the card. Rewards Network reduced their payouts, lessening the benefit. But now it’s gone completely. The ultimate irony is that the Diners Club card no longer has any dining benefit!
- Reduced value in the “tailored travel” program. When Diners started losing transfer partners they emphasized that it didn’t really matter much, you could use your points directly for paid travel. Tailored travel redemption rates have been cut by a third (from the introductory rate of 100 points = $1.50) to 100 points = $1.
- The end of 60 days to pay.
That’s just the short version, I’m sure other cardholders have their own take on which other benefit cuts are most important. There used to be an annual 100% transfer bonus with British Airways, that’s been reduced to 50% (although that happened before the card became a Mastercard). But at least the BA transfer option is still alive, I make good use of it. And the primary insurance coverage still exists, although I’ve heard rumblings that the Discover Open Road card offers this as well (although information on the website appears contradictory, and coverage is only up to 25,000 rather than 75,000 in most cases with Diners).
So you have a premium Mastercard at a premium price, $95, rather than the classic, benefits-rich card for the “in-the-know” road warrior. It’s a sad end to the most storied name in credit cards, ending not with a bang but with nary a whisper of its name at the Freddies.
** Note: this all begs the question, “so why did they do it?” In part, I do believe it was an error, the Diners Club folks thought the increased acceptance would more than compensate for reducing benefits in line with lower per-transaction fees. But the overriding reason is that the consumer card wasn’t the driver here, Diners has for years been predominantly a corporate credit card and the increased acceptance means much greater market share for them. Us road warrior types, though crucial to their underground popularity and word-of-mouth, were acceptable losses in the war for corporate deals. We were expendable, and we’ve been expended.