How to choose a good airline or hotel loyalty program?

In the world of travel, loyalty programs are a major tool for airlines and hotels as much as their benefits are highly appreciated by frequent travelers.

However, not all of them are equal, not all of them are delivered in the same way and not all of them bring the same benefits to the customers. Here is a little guide for the traveler who is trying to decide which one to bet on and for the professional who wonders why clients are not fans of his program.

Choosing a loyalty program: a luxury not everyone has

Let’s start at the beginning: why compare and benchmark loyalty programs to choose the right one? If you are wondering, it is perhaps because for some reason you are not concerned.

Let’s be honest Hotel loyalty programs only really start to pay off if you spend at least 30 nights at the hotel per year. As far as air travel is concerned, as we have already seen, unless you do a few long-haul business flights several times a year or accumulate medium-haul flights (still in business, eco doesn’t pay much) you will have few chances to reach an “interesting” status and it will take you 5 years to afford a Paris-Toulouse in eco with the earned miles.

However, it can be interesting to be a member of a hotel loyalty program even if you only have the basic status.  For example, on Bonvoy, Marriott’s loyalty program, the basic status gives some interesting advantages. It also allows you to get discounts in hotel restaurants even if you don’t stay there.

It may also be that your travel schedule drastically limits the choice of programs of interest to you. If you travel only in France, it is obvious that the AccorHotels Club is the most interesting because you can find it everywhere. Try to find a Marriott Starwood or Hilton (or brands owned by them) in a medium or small provincial city, good luck. Or maybe you’ll settle for less than 10 cities.

If your travels take you everywhere in the world then the list is longer but it can be interesting to look at the “coverage” of each program for a given region of the world.

This ranking of the largest hotel groups can help you imagine which programs have the best global coverage, but beware that some of them are really focused on one region of the world and weaker elsewhere.

One does not arbitrate in the same way in the hotel industry as in the airline industry

Then the logic is a little different whether you are trying to compare hotel or airline programs.

In the hotel industry, the loyalty program is managed by a group (Marriott, Hilton, AccorHotels) and is common to all the brands of the group: points are earned in all the brands and the customer benefits from the program in all the brands of the group. So you’re going to choose between the hotel groups.

In the airline industry, loyalty programs are carried by the airlines,but their benefits apply not only to the airline itself, but also to all the airlines that are members of its alliance. Your status with Air France is recognized in all the airlines of the Skyteam alliance (Delta, Alitalia etc), as well as your Lufthansa status in the Star Alliance (Singapore Airlines, Thaï, Swiss….).

You may not have the choice of which airline you fly most often (if you are French Air France is a logical choice a priori you should not rule out Swiss, Lufthansa or British Airways, especially for long haul) but maybe you should choose another program than the one of the airline you are using. Not all are equal in the amount of effort required to achieve a desirable status and it may be in your best interest to credit your points to a partner airline. For example, if the Gold Star Alliance status makes you dream but the number of flights needed at Lufthansa makes you dizzy, you should know that there are other airlines in the alliance that allow you to get there twice as fast. But we’ll talk about that in detail in a future article.

Now back to the original topic: what makes a good loyalty program.

The earning of points

Whether you call them points, miles, avios or whatever, you earn two types of “points” when you fly or stay in a hotel: “award” points for flights and accommodations, and “status” points for higher status in the program. And not all programs are equally easy or generous.

For hotels it’s pretty simple: most often you count the nights for status and the money spent for awards. The benchmark is quite simple to know if your program makes you easily earn points compared to the others.

In the airline industry, it is more complicated and it often is quite complex: the distance flown, the class of reservation but also the fact that you fly or not on a partner airline.

For example, for “award points”, Turkish Airlines will not allow you to credit flights made in discounted Lufthansa booking classes on its program, while SAS credits almost everything made on other alliance airlines. On Flying Blue, if you fly with Air France or KLM, you earn miles not according to the distance flown but according to the price of the ticket. But if you fly with a partner airline, then you earn according to the distance. In other words,it’s better to travel with Skyteam alliance partners, because it credits better.

For the “status” points it’s just as complicated but here again a look at the schemes makes it easier to understand. For example, if you often go to the United States for work and have to fly domestically, I don’t know what the right program is, but certainly not Flying Blue.

XP accumulation scale on Flying Blue, valid for all SkyTeam flights or flights marketed by AF/KL/A5.

A New York-Los Angeles as well as a Seattle-Miami for example are considered as domestic flights. This means that you will only earn 2XP in Economy and 6 in Business, whereas given the distance, they correspond to long-haul flights which should earn you 8 or 24 XP depending on your class of travel. It’s stupid but that’s how it is.

We will soon share with you the method we have built (and the excel sheet that goes with it) to facilitate this type of benchmark.

Also pay attention to the validity period of the award points. I usually say that this is a false problem because if you stay 12 months or more without traveling you are not really loyal and you don’t deserve the benefits of the program but it is something to keep in mind.

The use of points

Earning points is good, enjoying them is better.

As for the “status” points, it is not complicated to compare the programs: what is the threshold for what status and what are the benefits associated with this status.

There is one thing to keep in mind: the easier the thresholds are to reach, the more clients reach them, and generally the lower the benefits of the program.

For the ” award ” points it’s more complicated. You have to look for the conversion scheme of points into flights or nights and see if you are not paid with monopoly money. If you have to make a trip around the world to offer you a Paris-Nice, there is something wrong.

Also be aware of a few subtleties:

– availability: are flights or reward nights possible on a quota of seats/rooms or on the whole inventory? Being able to afford a free ticket is great, but if only a few seats are available for purchase in miles on each flight you may never have availability for the dates of your choice unless you plan ahead.

– blackout dates: this mainly concerns the hotel industry and means that on certain dates a hotel may refuse to accept payment in points. Some programs tolerate backout dates, others do not.

Lounge access

Airlines offer their customers access to airport lounges. Some have only one type of lounge, others have several. Again, the thing to check is from which status you have access to the lounges and to which. At Air France this concerns Gold and Platinum status, while at Lufthansa it concerns all levels from Frequent Traveler. Air France offers only one type of lounge to its members (the La Première lounge is only accessible to La Première passengers regardless of status), Lufthansa has a Business, Senator and First lounge and HON Circle members have access to First.

The same applies to hotels. From what status do you have access to the lounges of the hotels that have them? It’s always nice to have an aperitif and a more or less elaborate snack (from a snack to a real buffet depending on the case) at the expense of the hotel.

Rollover

Rollover is when a program carries over to the next year the status points you earned the previous year in addition to what you neededto maintain your status.

For example on Flying Blue the Air France program the Gold status is 60XP per year. If I have 80 at the end of the qualification period I start the following year with a credit of 20!

Few programs offer it and this is a great advantage for frequent travelers. Imagine that, with the platinum status at 90XP, you end the year at 120XP…well, without this mechanism you will lose 30XP that will be useless to you even though you have earned them hard. This allows you to “capitalize” for the next year if you have a good year, which is often the case with the ups and downs of your professional life.

In the airline industry Delta also offers rollover, Hilton in the hotel industry with some limitations.

Upgrades

In the hotel industry, automatic or non-automatic upgrades are a standard benefit of good programs. It remains to be verified: at which status is one eligible for upgrades, what is the nature of the upgrade (superior category, best available room, possibility of upgrade in suite…)? Here again, things are very different from one program to another.

At Le Club AccorHotels, Gold guests receive an upgrade to the best room in the next category if available. And the platinum ones? No better.

At Marriott it’s the same for the Golds but the upper levels are not entitled to the superior category but to the best room available, suites included (and I can guarantee you that it is well respected).

Some programs also offer “Suite Night Awards”: once you achieve a certain status you have the right to request a certain number of  suite upgrades in the year. The difference with upgrades given at check-in is that you can “secure” them a bit in advance and sometimes have a suite that is not eligible for the normal upgrade.

The future version of Accor’s loyalty program, ALL (Accor Live Limitless), includes this type of benefit. 1 Suite Night Upgrade for platinum (60 nights) and one for every 4,000 points earned. At Marriott a Titanum Elite has 10. Who said stingy?

In the airline industry, upgrades are generally not part of the benefits of a loyalty program. One is upgraded out of necessity, not out of kindness(rebooking after an incident) or to free up economy seatsto sell tickets and the status in the program helps determine who will be upgraded. This helps if the airline needs to upgrade,but it is not a right or a benefit or something that is part of the normal operation of an airline.

Exceptionally some offer upgrade vouchers to their best customers. For example Air France for its Platinum Ultimate (2 upgrade certificates per year for 1,000 customers worldwide) or Lufthansa, which offers its Senator and HON Circle members 2 and 6 upgrade vouchers respectively at the time of award and each time the status is extended. A little less stingy and more accessible.

Liftetime Status

Some programs allow you, after a certain number of years of holding a status, to keep it for life, regardless of whether you continue to stay/flight enough to maintain it.

Sometimes this concerns only one status, sometimes several. Air France and its Flying Blue program only offer lifetime Platinum, Finnair for Gold and Platinum, British Airways for Gold (its highest status), SAS for its Gold status but not Platinum (no matter, both are worth a Star Alliance Gold). In the hotel industry Marriott offers lifetime status for all levels from Silver to Platinum.

The terms and conditions may differ. At Air France you will be required to have been a Platinum for 10 consecutive years. At Finnair and British Airways you will only be required to have accumulated a certain number of status points which strangely enough can make you Gold for life when you have never been higher than Silver (but at this pace it should take you 30 years). At Marriott you have to have a double accumulation of nights and years of status possession…you can have the right number of nights, if you are two years short of status possession you have to maintain it two more years.

Along with rollover and upgrades, this is one of our top criteria at TravelGuys.

“Status Sharing : Give a status to a friend

Some programs allow, when you have enough status, to give a status to a friend. For example SAS allows a Diamond to give a Gold to someone, and a Gold to give a Silver. Air France allows its Platinum members to give a Platinum to someone…as long as the giver has an Air France Amex Platinum and the receiver takes one…. which charges the same account.

This is a great advantage for couples, as it is never pleasant when one has access to the priority lanes and the other does not, when one can choose a seat in the entire cabin and the other has to wait for one to be assigned to him.

Soft Landing

And what happens if for some reason I not only fail to maintain my status, but also hardly travel at all this year? It’s never pleasant to go from Platinum to nothing because you had a health problem or the professional context made you travel less.

Some programs have a soft landing policy: you cannot lose more than one status level per year. Flying Blue in the airline industry or Marriott Bonvoy in the hotel industry offer this benefit to their members.

Status Match: switch from one program to another

You have a status on a program and want to go elsewhere? Some programs offer, under certain conditions, to give their competitors’ clients an equivalent status, which they are responsible for maintaining. This saves the status client the agony of becoming a non-status person again while they earn their status. And it’s a win-win for the host program, which has poached a highly loyal, high-potential member at little cost.

I won’t go into details as I have already explained the mechanism here.

Credit cards

Our American friends are lucky: all loyalty programs offer co-branded credit cards with different banks. Holding and using these cards allows you to earn more bonus and/or status points and many other benefits.

Unfortunately, in France there is very little of this type of card, since it is not possible to subscribe to a co-branded card from a foreign program if it is not explicitly offered on the French market. So apart from the Air France Amex and the British Airways Visa it’s a desert.

However, I would like to remind you that holding an Air France Amex allows you to pay in three instalments for all purchases made at Air France or KLM. And we like that!

The delivery of the program

Promises are only binding on those who listen to them. There are the promised benefits and the reality of how the program is delivered.

In the airline industry the question does not arise too much, but in the hotel industry it is a real issue.

Indeed, it is the hotel group that carries the program and the benefits for the members are, simply put, globally delivered by the hoteliers. And they often see as a cost what is a massive loyalty tool. Some brands find it very difficult to get their hoteliers to fall in line and keep the promise, especially when they are franchisees.

Historically, this has always been one of the weaknesses of AccorHotels, which does not know how to gain the respect of many of its hoteliers. On the other hand, Starwood was one of the most exemplary programs, but since its takeover by Marriott, it seems to be struggling a bit: not so much with the ex-Starwoods, but rather with the ex-Marriotts, who are dragging their feet a bit to deliver higher benefits to their clients than before, the new Marriott Bonvoy program being largely inspired by Starwood’s SPG.

There is no miracle recipe to inform you…. except asking other customers and frequent travelers forums.

Well, there’s a lot to say on the subject, but this should tell you whether a particular program is really delivering the value you expect.

Photo : Loyalty profram by kenary820via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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