A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!

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!

Lessons we wish more airlines would learn: Our Hawaiian Airlines experience

In February we headed out on our annual pilgrimage somewhere south to avoid a few weeks of nasty Canadian weather.  Usually, it’s a simple hop to Toronto and then onward to – well, just about anywhere “down south” as winter-weary Canadians like to say.  This year, our four weeks away found us on no less than ten – yes ten—airplane segments on three different airlines.  Needless to say, there is going to be a certain amount of comparing going on.

Soaring over the Napali coast.

We began our trip on our trusty Air Canada to whom we are quite loyal.  There is much for a discerning traveler to gain from being loyal.  Travel blogger and co-founder of airfare-prediction site FlightCaster Evan Konwiser (who knows more about airline loyalty programs than we ever will) offers five golden rules for air travels that include, among others, never travel anywhere without earning miles of one sort or another and focus on one airline at a time (you can read the rest of the rules at The Golden Rules of Loyalty Programs, and you should!).  We agree and have, indeed, gained elite status giving us some of the perks that make comfortable flying less of an oxymoron.  However, it doesn’t always work out that you can fly on your favorite – or even on one of its alliance members.

Air Canada belongs to the Star Alliance so when we’re connecting to places where AC doesn’t fly, we usually book a Star Alliance partner (then we can still earn loyalty miles).  This year, that meant flying on United Airlines from LA to Honolulu since we were stopping in LA for a few days enroute.  Oh dear, when Dorothy realized she wasn’t in Kansas anymore, she was predicting how an Air Canada frequent flyer would feel when faced with what passes for first class (yes, that’s what our ticket said) on this partner airline.

Since we are among the older (one boomer and one beyond) members of the population, we have no issue with older workers.  However, when flight attendants look like they should be lounging poolside at a retirement village in Florida, and have to turn sideways to make it up the aisles, we do begin to wonder how efficiently they would be able to move when faced with an emergency.  And what’s with all that scowling at passengers?  Then we had a great laugh when we saw the movie screen at the front of the cabin with its one movie on offer – we haven’t seen one of those since—well, since the last time we flew on an American-based airline a few years ago on our way to Puerto Rico (where Air Canada inconveniently does not fly).  A word of advice to our dear American friends: You really need to take a lesson from your partners north of the 49th parallel and in Europe (see Lufthansa).  Air Canada customers may complain as much as the rest of the flying world, but it’s clear to us most of the whiners haven’t traveled on American-based airlines lately.

We did, however, get safely to our destination relatively on time and with our luggage.  Who can reasonably ask for more these days?  Well, we can now that we’re-experienced Hawaiian Airlines – so our theory about American-based airlines doesn’t really hold up.

Our first experience with Hawaiian was some 10 years ago when we first ventured to Hawaii.  On our trip between Honolulu and Maui, we were booked on Hawaiian.  Our most vigorous memory of that event was the panic that preceded boarding: there were no assigned seats and the queuing began very early with a mad dash when the flight was called.  Our heads were spinning by the time we finally got on board and found remaining seats.  Needless to say that when we found ourselves booked on Hawaiian again, we were concerned.  We could have saved ourselves needless consternation because Hawaiian Airlines is what we would call a flawless operation from beginning to end – and we took four of their flights in a two-week period.

In 2012 Hawaiian Airlines commissioned textile designer Emma Howard to design the Hawaiian pattern for the new uniforms. They are wonderful.

Where does Hawaiian Airlines find its people?  To a person, they were flawlessly personable and helpful.  When we arrived at the airport in Honolulu to catch our flight to Kaua’i we were hopelessly confused at the baggage drop-off.  And we were not alone.  The system did seem a bit foreign, but helpful agents were able to get us in the right line, and now we know how to navigate their system.  (Let’s face it, the variations in policies regarding check-in and baggage drop off among airlines throughout the world is mind-boggling.  It would be nice if they could get it together.  This is a tall order, we fear though, since even the security screening rules differ wildly from one airport to another even in the same country – shoes on, shoes off, cases in a bin, cases not in a bin, sweaters on, sweaters off, aahhh…you understand and we’re digressing).

We were flying first-class on these flights, but since the distances are short and many of the airports small (not the case in Honolulu) we did not expect many amenities.  We were surprised to learn that there are indeed first-class lounges in all the airports and more than one in Honolulu.  Decorated in Hawaiian motifs, the lounges don’t offer much in the line of food or drink – not necessary in these cases – but they are quiet, air-conditioned oases.

We heard a number of announcements indicating that Hawaiian Airlines was pleased to offer their customers advanced seat selection which suggested to us that the change was fairly recent.  Wonderful!  Actually, the reason we booked first class was because of our fear of the panic for seats as a result of our initial experience.  We needn’t have worried.

Once on board, the flight attendants were happy, helpful and fitted with delightful Hawaiian-inspired uniforms (with prints designed by Hawaiian textile artist Emma Howard) that made us smile.  On these short flights, they even managed to get us a drink and a snack – Mai Tai’s were our drink of choice!

The people were wonderful—but perhaps even more impressive was the efficiency of this airline.  With a mere 30 minutes turn-around time on each occasion, they managed to get the passengers and their luggage off the planes, the embarking passengers and luggage on and get away on time, all without seeming rushed.  The morning we flew back from the Big Island to Honolulu on our way home, there had been a computer glitch earlier in the day that had caused some delays.  Our flight arrived in Kona 10 minutes late, and with that planned 30 minute-turn-around we fully expected to be late, a situation that might have resulted in rushed connections.  Not to fear, though!  They still managed to get luggage and passengers off and on, and take off on time – a turnaround time of 21 minutes!

You might be thinking that we’re talking about a little turbo-prop plane with few passengers aboard, but they fly 717’s on these routes.  These full flights had 123 passengers on board and they still managed it.  We watched the baggage handlers efficiently moving luggage on and off the planes, and it seems to us that employees from other airlines could learn a thing or two.  In all our years of travel we have never experienced such fast arrival of our luggage – and that goes for small airports throughout the Caribbean.

Despite the fact that Hawaiian Airlines is not a member of the Star Alliance and thus we did not accumulate any frequent flyer points for the four flights we took, we enjoyed every minute of it, will do it again (may try one of their trans-Pacific flights next time) and would recommend them to anyone!

* Photo sources: http://mauinow.com/2011/10/10/hawaiian-airlines-adds-fifth-new-airbus/;


Comfortable air travel: Not an oxymoron

Noise-cancelling earphones = Increased air travel comfort

Oh how flying has changed from the days of the smiling Pan Am stewardesses [sic] who served real food on real china even to economy passengers who could actually shift their legs in comfort.  At least, that’s how it looks when we watch the new piece of television nostalgia that is this season’s Pan Am.  But it’s the 21st century, and much has changed.  That said, as we put the finishing touches on arrangements for our winter holiday to Hawaii (that’s after we return from our Christmas in the south of France – more about that to  come), it occurs to us that we’ve learned a thing or two about discernment in air travel these days.

We’ve been thinking about all the things that we’ve learned to maximize our comfort when traveling by air so that the journey is part of the experience rather than being that-which-must-be-endured to get to the good stuff.  It’s also worth considering whether add-ons offered by the airlines are worth it for you and might actually contribute to a near-luxurious experience.

Here are our four rules for discerning air travel:

Rule #1: Be very judicious about your seat selection. 

Our obsession in this realm began some years ago when we flew to Seattle to meet our son who was doing a summer exchange program with the Pacific Northwest Ballet school.  We decided to meet him, drive down the coast to San Francisco and fly home to the east coast from there.  We had little choice at the point of decision but to book three seats in economy on the “red-eye” after which we fell out of the plane, kissing the ground and vowing that we’d never travel like that again.  So, if you can afford business class on any flight over three hours, just do it (or don’t complain).  If you can’t afford business class (and remember that the airplanes run seat sales on business class during low business travel seasons such as Christmas), the discerning traveler can still be judicious about seat selection.

Find the rest of this at http://www.seatguru.com

The most important thing you need to do is to visit www.seatguru.com.  First, as you are making your booking (even if you are using a travel agent, do this first), look at the aircraft type for the flight you are interested in.  Then go to Seartguru and find the airline and the aircraft. Look at the cabin configuration and their assessment of the seat (for example, if there is no bin space above this seat, it will tell you; if there is a bit of extra leg room, it will tell you; if the seat does not recline because it is in front of an exit row, it will tell you etc.)

If you are flying in economy on an airline that offers premium seats such as those at bulkheads and on exit rows, if your flight is long, you will find that there is great value to spending the extra cash.

Rule #2: Never arrive at an airport without your seat already selected (and preferably at time of booking).

Oh the comfort of the Air Canada Executive-first seats

As we were planning the upcoming Hawaii adventure, we were reminded of a previous trip when we used this inter-island airline.  At that time, there was no advance seat selection at all.  That meant that before boarding was called, people began to line up – a situation that we did not understand.  We were to find out  quickly.  When boarding was finally called, the crush to get onboard was frightening.  No one had a seat and everyone wanted to be first to get a “good” one.  This year, we’re booked on first class seats on Hawaiian Airlines between islands to avoid this particular nightmare.

Rule #3: Never get on an airplane without noise-cancelling earphones.

No exceptions.  Invest in a set of noise-cancelling earphones, attach them to your music source (our choice is an iPhone; our earphone choice is Bose) and you’ll never care again if there is a wailing infant on the plane. Of course you can’t use them during take-off and landing, but they will be a godsend during the flight and they can attach to the plane’s entertainment system if you’d like to watch a movie.

We learned this lesson on a flight from Barcelona to Paris a couple of years ago (Iberian Airlines if you must know).  When we boarded the plane (on which we had been unable to get anything other than two center seats in economy) we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of people from China.  We could only conclude that they had not received the memo about being quiet on airplanes (forgive us for this expectation: we’re Canadians and on Air Canada, things tend to be quiet unless there’s a wailing infant on board; see above).  These people seemed to think that talking across three or four rows was business as usual.  It was the longest two hours of our lives.

Rule #3: Invest in the lounge-access card for your airline of choice.

If you typically fly on one airline much more than another (which you should since there are many perks to being a frequent flyer) and you are not usually paying for business class flights, the investment in the access card will greatly improve your comfort when flying.  This is particularly evident when your flight is delayed.  It is another add-on that is worth the investment.

Rule #4: Never get on an airplane without some food on your person.

…and this holds true even if you’re flying first or business class.  We always take protein bars because they are non-messy, easy to carry and can be carried over from one trip to another if they are not used (until they reach their best-before date of course).  The importance of this habit was brought home to us on a flight from Toronto to Antigua one winter.  The plane was unable to land in Antigua (evidently they didn’t have a guidance system for fog), so we ended up spending the first night of our Antigua vacation in Barbados.  The next morning, we were up very early so that the plane could take us to Antigua as planned.  We arrived early at the airport via airline transport without breakfast (too early at the place we stayed) to find that the only sustenance available was coffee.  We had no idea when our next meal would be so we broke out the protein bars and had a pleasant wait until the plane finally boarded.  The issue of extra food becomes especially important when a flight is delayed on the ground.

Our son flew from JFK to Toronto earlier this year and the flight was delayed two hours on the tarmac!  He had no food, and since the flight was so short, there was not food on board.  He was mighty hungry when he finally arrived at his destination.

So, there are our four rules that we never ignore – and our airplane trips are (almost) fun.