The ups and downs of travel loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay in California is set on a rugged bluff overlooking the Pacific and is part of Marriott’s loyalty program. We stayed here last year.

We’re just back from a brief summer holiday.  As usual, we traveled via our usual airline (in whose loyalty program we have been ‘gold elites’ for the past several years) and stayed for a few days in our usual hotel chain (in whose loyalty program we hold ‘platinum’ status – ostensibly much better than gold status).  We also spent several days in another brand of hotel.  This coupled with travelling at the peak of the summer season (is it not possible to prepare for the inevitable airport security screening even if you don’t travel often?) has led us to a few interesting observations and questions about airline and hotel loyalty programs.

For years now, or ever since the advent of the travel blog, travel writers have been weighing in on these loyalty programs, and this includes polls about the best frequent-flyer program and the best hotel loyalty program.  There are also myriad awards for the best of these programs.  The trouble with these polls and awards is the same problem exhibited by those readers’ choice awards we have discussed before in relation to cruises: that is, anyone rating the programs probably doesn’t have experience with more than one or perhaps two such programs, so how can there be any kind of useful comparison?  No, it’s a matter of trial and error for the discerning traveler when selecting and participating in these loyalty programs.  We’ll use our own programs as anecdotal evidence.

We’ve both been loyal Air Canada Aeroplan members for well over 20 years.  Our reasons for selecting this program are the following:

  • Our air travel inevitably begins or ends in Canada since that’s where we live.
  • Air Canada, despite its many detractors, is a safe, solid, clean, reliable airline.
  • Air Canada belongs to Star Alliance which is both the oldest and largest airline alliance in the world.  This means that we can get to practically anywhere in the word and still earn Aeroplan points.
  • We believe that you should never set foot on an airplane without being a member of its loyalty program – you should earn points on every trip on the off chance you ever accumulate enough to get some of their perks – which we’re getting to.
Whenever you travel on a cruise line, you are either automatically enrolled in their loyalty program or offered the opportunity to join. Their ‘perks’ require a completely separate blog post!

We have also been members of the Marriott hotel chain’s loyalty program for many years.  Our reasons for selecting this program (although we do belong to others for those odd occasions when there are no Marriotts around or we want to try a new experience) are as follows:

  • We ended up at a Marriott in down town Toronto one time many years ago when our first-choice hotel was fully booked.  The staff at the Eaton Centre Marriott on Bay Street was so fabulous that we never went back to our old favorite.  From the time when our then-eleven-year-old son started training at the National Ballet School until he graduated at eighteen (five years ago) and beyond, we have stayed there seven or eight times a year.  We have also stayed at Marriott Hotels all over the world, and their staffs never cease to amaze.  They must know a thing or two about staff training and nurturing!
  • What we’ve learned since then is that it’s easy to redeem Marriott points and we’ve done so happily for many years.  They have been particularly handy when travelling with an adult offspring or two to cover the costs of the extra rooms in expensive cities (like Paris!).
  • As above, we believe that you should never set foot in a hotel that is part of a loyalty program without being a member.

All of that being said, we have lately begun to wonder about the erosion of the so-called perks that follow from being a loyal member of such a program.

Just last week as walked through the terminal at Pearson International Airport in Toronto we were accosted by an American Express sales person who wanted to ‘sell’ us his credit card.  One of the perks he mentioned was access to Maple Leaf lounges, the lounges owned by Air Canada to which we have access as gold elite members of Aeroplan.

Then, as we entered the concierge lounge at the Toronto Marriott for breakfast to find there was hardly a seat in the place, we wondered about this perk, too.

So, we asked, when is a perk not a perk?  Our answer is simple: when everyone has it.  And so this is our conundrum with these programs.  So many credit cards have especially airline perks like lounge access and priority boarding as ‘benefits’ that it seems there is almost no one left who doesn’t’ have these ‘perks.’

If you’ve ever been in an airport business-class lounge when there have been several delays or cancellations, you know that it’s like the black hole of Calcutta.  We had the most dreadful experience of these lounges several years ago in Frankfurt (the Lufthansa lounge).  We had actually paid for our business class ticket, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of everyone else in there – and we’ve been in in there under those circumstances ourselves.  How do we know they weren’t flying business class?  Because when you get on the plane with everyone else who has that perk, you can see where they’re sitting.

And of course there’s the priority boarding ‘perk.’  Over the past two or three years, it has become increasingly clear that half of the travelers today seem to have this perk.  Have you seen the race to the priority lane the minute they make the boarding announcement?  This is, of course, really a race for bin space.  There’s nothing worse than being last on the plane only to find that you may have paid top dollar for your seat but there is no bin space left for your measly little carry-on bag since someone has stuffed an enormous wheelie above your head.

Our message here to airlines and hotels: Before you offer someone a perk, you better make sure it really is one!

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