Bigger Is Not Always Better — Up close and personal with select smaller loyalty programs

Bigger Is Not Always Better — Up close and personal with select smaller loyalty programs

Offering a frequent traveler program is a bit of a habit these days — everyone seems to have one. While programs like American AAdvantage, United Mileage Plus and Marriott Rewards tend to get most of the attention, a group of smaller, lesser-known programs are becoming increasingly popular for offering unique, personal and very rewarding experiences.

A recent survey on WebFlyer.com, however, found that a lot of frequent travelers still don’t see many advantages to the smaller programs (evidently, these travelers are too busy heading for the Titanium upgrade line). When asked if smaller airlines offer any advantages over larger programs, only about 40% answered in the affirmative. And of these same frequent travelers polled, a full 64% acknowledged that they prefer to accumulate miles in “major” programs, even though most claimed they find it easier to redeem awards with smaller programs.

So, who are these relatively diminutive programs that are gathering a small and very loyal following? They are, by and large, very similar to the larger programs in many ways. Though most have memberships in the hundreds of thousands, rather than the tens of millions, they offer many of the same features and benefits provided by their super-sized brethren. However, the successful smaller programs tend to be more personable and generally lack the voluminous program partnerships and instant gratification, which many frequent flyers have come to rely on.

The smaller programs offer another very appealing benefit. Members often find they get problems fixed faster than when dealing with a larger program because the smaller programs are unhampered by the rigid rules and requirements necessary to satisfy an enormously diverse membership base. According to frequent traveler Matt Fehrner, “you have to get used to changing rules because these big programs have too many members to deliver all the benefits you may want.”

So, allow us to introduce you to four such special programs which you might find yourself a member of in the months and years to come. But like anything else — you may want to keep this secret to yourself.

Budget Perfect Drive
This program provides the easiest way imaginable to earn free car rentals for your next award vacation, and it provides the best way to earn a lot of other things for your personal life as well.

Back in April of 1998, when car rental companies started to look beyond miles towards less-commonplace award offerings, Budget created Perfect Drive with the idea of giving away golf clubs. The program was a huge success and, while it hasn’t led to dramatic increases in point accumulations for members, it nonetheless is a real winner.

One member of the program, Steve Plotnick, switched to Budget from Avis when most car rental earnings were lowered to 50 miles per day. Though Plotnick averages 40 to 50 rentals each year, and was an admitted fan of Avis’ double-upgrade policy, he doesn’t regret the change. “I wanted a program that would give me something that made sense for all the rentals I have,” said Plotnick. In the last couple of years he has been able to use points for an entire set of clubs from Callaway. “As far as the rental company goes and the cars; I can’t say there is any difference between the car companies. I do miss the double-car upgrades, but 50 miles per day just does not have enough of a value for me.”

Perfect Drive is unique in many ways. For instance, communication with members is done 100% electronically. Talk about your wired membership base. In fact, some 78% of redemptions are completed online. And if you’re looking for a smart program, you’ve come to the right place. Earlier this year, Perfect Drive added Roots as an athletic wear reward. This was before the Olympics mind you and we all saw how popular that name became. And that isn’t the program’s only savvy partner choice — others include Bolle Eyewear, Serengeti Eyewear and Bushnell binoculars. Finally, the SpaWish award is becoming increasingly popular, which allows members to redeem their points for visits to Spas around the world.

Obviously, when redeeming for awards, members have much more to choose from than just free car rentals (though car rentals still account for the majority of rewards). And if you’re short some points, just purchase what you need at 10 cents apiece. It seems that Perfect Drive has thought of everything — almost.

Members can’t double-dip and earn both points and frequent flyer miles. But you can still redeem your points with Perfect Drive for miles of your choice at close to the same ratio of earning you would have if you had chosen miles in the first place.

With all the choices members receive from this program, it would seem that Perfect Drive is the perfect program name.

Wyndham ByRequest
You really have to love a program that asks the question: What’s Your Request? Especially when your answer is to earn 1,000 frequent flyer miles each time you stay.

This isn’t your normal frequent traveler program. Wyndham ByRequest finished an impressive runner-up to Starwood Preferred Guest in the Best Customer Service category at this year’s Freddie Awards. And the program fared well in several other categories as well, often earning ratings on par with Hyatt Gold Passport.

ByRequest member Elizabeth Israel of Seattle, WA says, “Although this program began as a ‘woman’s program,’ men love (it) just as much. The ByRequest program is designed for all travelers who want that extra bit of attention and amenities while they’re away from home. This program makes you feel as though you are welcomed and not an intrusion.”

One of the best aspects of this program is its interest in treating you how you would want to be treated. ByRequest members can select the type of pillow they would like, as well as their preferred amenities — the choices range from fruit to pretzels, from water to beer — so whether you are a health nut or a nut about junk food, Wyndham will satisfy. Once you complete your profile and selections, you are emailed and snail mailed your ByRequest number. This number enables you to begin receiving the amenities immediately.

Your ByRequest number affords you other amenities as well. These extras include an automatic upgrade depending upon availability, newspapers, free high-speed Internet service (depending upon availability at the property), free toll-free access, and 500 miles per stay credited to the airline of your choice. Oftentimes, Wyndham ByRequest offers specials such as double or triple miles for stays at various properties.

Israel goes on to say “This is a program that provides immediate gratification. Guests are provided with extras during their stay rather than waiting until later. Having the ability to select what I enjoy and then having it available when I check in is a treat. Free 1-800 telephone calls along with high-speed Internet access makes a difference when on the road for business. Finally, having the choice of what airline I want to apply my points to is also nice. The bonus programs they have had means that you can add up to an additional 2,000 points to your airline program with one stay at Wyndham.”

Many travelers will not like the fact that stays do not count towards any future free stays and you will not achieve any type of elite status at this chain. This is a program about you and your experience as a hotel guest and, from all that we can gather, it’s one that delivers on that premise.

Baymont Guest Ovations
Welcome To Guest Ovations, How Can We Be of Service? Is this a great attitude or what? Baymont operates more than 200 hotels in 30 states and it makes no secret that it is in the limited-service lodging business. Baymont’s program, called Guest Ovations, contains components that no one has ever thought of before. It has always had ‘No Blackout Dates,’ it has always had point sharing among significant others and, believe it or not, the only redemption method it knows is “Rewards On The Spot.” Guest Ovations even has an elite-level program.

So, what’s so special about all this? Well, Guest Ovations has always been this way, even before it became fashionable. And there’s another special feature to this program — it offers three different currencies. You can collect points to be redeemed for free nights, collect frequent flyer miles or convert your Guest Ovations points into American Express Membership Rewards points. What other airline or hotel program allows its members to do that?

Remember the elite-level program mentioned earlier? Some of the crowning touches you’ll experience as a Gold member include a reserved parking space in optimal locations at Baymont Inns & Suites and Woodfield Suites hotels, room upgrades and complimentary use of fax, copier and meeting facilities. You can qualify for Gold Member status with as few as 25 nights per year. And, when you refer friends or co-workers to the program who then stay at least one night, you can count each referral as one credit toward your 25 nights. And, Gold members earn a 50% bonus with each stay.

If miles are your thing, you’ll earn one frequent flyer mile for every dollar you spend and airline partners include American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, Midwest Express Frequent Flyer and Northwest WorldPerks. You can choose to earn one American Express Membership Rewards point for every dollar you spend and convert those points into other airlines or other hotel programs. Now that is flexibility. And of course, you can earn 10 points per dollar spent toward all the rewards that Guest Ovations has to offer, including dining certificates, shopping, merchandise, travel vacations, etc.

Now you understand why this may be one of the most rewarding hotel programs you never knew.

To find out more, call (800) 301-0300 and yes, we are members. In fact, just last week we received a free reward allowing us to stay a second night free.

AirTran A+ Rewards
This airline is actually making money these days, so they are doing something right and it could be that their frequent flyer program is bringing in customers for them.

This is without a doubt the most unusual frequent flyer program in the world. I’ll give you two examples that prove this point: 1) they have a partnership with American Express that offers members double reward credits every time they use an American Express card to purchase tickets on AirTran — that means members can fly three roundtrips in coach and earn a free ticket anywhere the AirTran flies or, even better, fly one and a half trips in business class for a free ticket. Does your airline frequent flyer program do that? 2) Now, are you ready for the coolest frequent flyer perk in the industry? Fly 12 roundtrips in coach (or six roundtrips when you make your purchase with an American Express card) and this airline will actually allow you to fly anywhere in the United States on a competing carrier. That’s right, you can use your reward to fly on American, America West, Midwest Express, Northwest, United or US Airways. Heck, this type of “alliance” makes everyone else look like S&H Green Stamps. Imagine cashing in an actual frequent flyer award for loyalty to one airline and you can use it to fly any other airline.

Now, the program does have quite a few restrictions, but members aren’t complaining too loudly. As usual, AirTran A+ Rewards has blackout dates and capacity controls for rewards, but this IS a low-cost carrier. The down side of this program is that it is entirely manual. You collect vouchers (and, inevitably, you’ll likely lose several along the way) and the program works on a 12-month voucher expiration policy. Think Southwest Rapid Rewards. Always expanding, A+ Rewards may make collecting vouchers the start of an old habit (remember the original frequent flyer program: Western Airlines?).

A+ Rewards also runs very clever promotions such as the ‘1, 2, 3, Fly!’ program that was launched after the events of 9/11. This promotion gave all members, regardless of method of payment, the ability to earn one free ticket for every three flown. It’s been 12 years since other frequent flyer programs have offered a similar promotion, AirTran makes it modern.

Again, this is one very unusual frequent flyer program to keep an eye on — especially if you have an American Express card.

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