More and more frequent travelers are turning to mileage-management services to track their account balances. But deciding on the best service from among the many available can be tricky. We take a look at the leading mileage tracking Web sites and rate each in the categories most important to frequent travelers.
“Not all that can be counted counts, and not all that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein
Al was a smart guy, no doubt about it. But when it comes to miles, he didn’t have a clue.
We are a species of number crunchers. Record-keeping is in our blood. From money to marmosets, if it can be counted, we’re going to keep tabs on it. And there are few places where this trait can be seen more clearly than in the sphere of mileage collection.
In the early 80s, the task of tracking miles was a relatively easy one. But as hotel, car rental and credit card companies entered the loyalty game, creating programs of their own, and partnerships proliferated, this once simple task quickly turned into a laborious chore.
Spying a potentially lucrative market niche, several companies jumped in with assorted solutions aimed at assisting members in tracking their program balances. From the manual keypunch consolidation service offered through the Frequent Flyer Club, a program originally launched in 1987 by the parent company of Inside Flyer magazine, to the multiple software applications offered on floppy disk, there was no shortage of account balance tracking solutions from which to choose — some obviously more useful than others. One of the early applications introduced, which went by the name of Bonus Wizard, even turned the process of tracking account balances into a sort of game.
These were fun and creative times. But this early proliferation of mileage consolidation services was also hampered by the limitations of technology. For the most part, the various applications on the market required users to input account balance information, and were hence subject to the creed of the computer era — garbage in, garbage out.
Over time, many of the airlines began to offer mileage/point statements online, which eased the process somewhat, but members who belonged to multiple programs were still forced to visit site after site after site … after site, to get a complete picture. But members weren’t relegated to this approach for long. A new crop of mileage-tracking services joined those few companies that had survived the early years — and they all staked their claims on the Web.
Now, frequent travelers have a host of services from which to choose, all of which automatically update account balances using Web-based technology. Finally, it seems the never-ending quest to track accumulated miles and points quickly and easily has been achieved. In fact, in a recent poll on WebFlyer.com, nearly 14 percent of respondents claimed they currently use a Web-based mileage management service. While that still leaves 86 percent of frequent travelers, many companies would be thrilled to capture even a small percentage of the vast and demographically rich frequent travel market.
With so many sites out there looking to attract the frequent traveler’s mileage-consolidation business, we thought we’d take a closer look at some of the more popular ones to find out how they rank in several key categories.
(in alphabetical order)
This on-again, off-again contender is now on again. As a partner with Netcentives/ClickRewards for many years before that company ran into financial difficulties, MaxMiles positioned itself as the leading online mileage-management service, with tens of thousands of customers. But when Netcentives/ClickRewards shut down (ClickRewards.com is now up and running again under new management), MaxMiles followed close behind. Like ClickRewards.com, MaxMiles.com has re-emerged, and is once again offering its generally well-regarded services to the frequent traveling public.
The gray beard among the contenders, MileageManager actually began as an offline service in the late 80s. The service went online in 2001 and has seen tremendous growth since. With a host of extra features, MileageManager.com is actually more than just a mileage consolidation service, but its focus resides primarily in this area.
(In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that the company that publishes Inside Flyer magazine also maintains a controlling interest in the MileageManager service. For this article, however, we have made a sincere effort to fairly judge all of the programs on their respective merits, though we do acknowledge a more thorough familiarity with this program. After much debate, we believed the article concept to be of value to you, our readers, and decided we would be remiss not to include this popular site in the discussion.)
This is one of two programs included in the rankings that is actually a form of software that is downloaded to the user’s computer. MilePro enjoys a dedicated following and a rich heritage, having been developed by Harris Turner, who sold another mileage-consolidation service application to BizTravel.com (before that site went under … we’re starting to sense a theme here).
Another downloadable software program, MileTracker also enjoys wide popularity, not only because of the quality of the service, but because it was developed, and is maintained, by an actual frequent flyer and regular contributor on the popular FlyerTalk.com message boards.
MyAirMiles provides its “Frequent Flyer Mileage Tracker” tool, which was developed by a company called ITRAVELTOOLS, Inc., as one component of a broader travel-related site. Though perhaps not quite as widely used as some of the other services on the list, MyAirMiles.com nevertheless retains a large following. The site was originally launched in 2000.
There was some debate as to whether or not this site should be included among the services reviewed. Launched in 2002, TotalMiles.com is still a relative newcomer to the game and has had little time to develop a wide membership base. Still, the site’s sole function is as a mileage-consolidation service and it deserves to be judged as such.
Perhaps the most intriguing site we looked at, Yodlee.com is a general consolidation service, offering frequent travel program consolidation as just one part of a larger operation that also includes online consolidation of bank and credit card accounts, investments, email services and more.
In addition to serving thousands of members since 1999, Yodlee is used as a back-end solution for several credit card companies who seek to offer mileage-consolidation services to their cardholders.
Each of these services were researched thoroughly and ranked from best to worst in five separate categories: Cost, Security, Ease of Use, Supported Programs and Functionality.
Let’s have a look at the results.
|1.||MileTracker – Free
MyAirMiles – Free
Yodlee – Free
|4.||TotalMiles – $12/year|
|5.||MileageManager – $14.95/year
MilePro – $14.95/year
|7.||MaxMiles – $29.95/year|
If price is your primary determining factor when choosing a mileage consolidation service, you can select from three that won’t cost you a dime; MileTracker, MyAirMiles and Yodlee. How can they offer their services for free, you ask? Good question.
Yodlee appears to be working on a business model aimed at selling its consolidation technology as a service to other companies who would like to offer the same service to their customers. As for MyAirMiles, your guess is as good as ours.
And MileTracker? Well, it’s a different beast altogether.
“I started working on MileTracker back in October 2001 as a simple ‘labor of love,'” says MileTracker creator Mike Hoeffner. “I was caught up in a FlyerTalk-inspired frenzy of earning miles and I found it frustrating trying to keep an eye on all of my accounts. I’ve offered MileTracker for free thus far because I still consider it to be very much in development mode.”
But, according to Hoeffner, future installments of the service may have an associated cost.
“The most likely scenario is that within a couple of months, there will be two versions available. One version will be free and will be similar to what’s available now, and a second ‘Pro/Plus’ version will offer significant enhancements for a fee (or a prior donation).”
Once you get into the paid services, TotalMiles, MileageManager and MilePro all come in under $15 per year, with TotalMiles being the least expensive among the three. At $29.95 per year, MaxMiles is by far the most expensive of the services reviewed.
Judging the level of security a site provides to its users is tricky business indeed. In their assorted documentation, most of these sites address this concern, often using terms indecipherable to the average person, such as “56-bit encryption” or “SSL secured.” Even if you were to assume each site actually had established effective security measures (a leap of faith at best), there is still no guarantee the measures put in place will be effective 100 percent of the time.
Then you have MilePro and MileTracker, both downloadable programs that store your account information on your own computer, rather than on a centrally-located Web database, eliminating the possibility that someone could hack the mileage consolidation system and steal your data. Because your information is seemingly protected from computer hackers, these services would, in theory, provide the highest level of security.
Ah, but not so fast. If you’re using a Microsoft Windows product, Mr. Gates’ company just recently announced a security flaw in its software that, if uncorrected through the use of a downloadable patch, makes it possible for hackers to breach your personal computer and steal information stored on it.
What’s that you say? You’re using a Macintosh so you don’t have to worry about the Windows flaw? True enough, but as of the time of this writing, neither MilePro nor MileTracker are available for the Mac.
So, with all that in mind, how, you might ask, did we compile our security rankings?
We did factor in the considerations mentioned above as much as possible. But we also looked at a host of other factors, such as past performance, the amount and type of data collected (hence vulnerable), available options for recourse should something go wrong, and confidence in the service as demonstrated by third-party affiliates.
Based on this combination of criteria, and after much deliberation, MileageManager and Yodlee ranked as the best in this category.
Yodlee scored high primarily for two reasons. First, because the service is free, there is no requirement to reveal credit card data, and if you don’t make the data available there is no possible way it can be stolen (having said this, Yodlee can also be used to consolidate bank and credit card account information, which, if used in this manner, nullifies any positives expressed here). And second, as we touched on earlier, Yodlee has established relationships with several of the leading credit card companies in the world to provide back-end functionality, and few are more concerned or careful about security issues than credit card companies.
MileageManager has also received votes of confidence by way of formed partnerships with many high-profile companies, such as USA Today, American Express and Points.com, to name a few. MileageManager’s longevity wins it points in this category as well.
“After 14 years of doing business, we have never had a privacy problem,” says Randy Petersen, owner of the MileageManager service. “I know of many examples when members have been cleaned out — by ex-spouses, spurned lovers and fired secretaries — but never as a result of a security breach of our system.”
But what really sets these two services apart when it comes to security are the guarantees each provide. In essence, both MileageManager and Yodlee have stated in writing that, should the service’s security be breached and mileage be lost as a result of data being compromised, users’ losses will be covered (of course, this is a paraphrase of each company’s actual statements — both services have distinct wording in their clauses, which can be found on their respective Web sites). Not only do such guarantees ease user’s minds, but they signal a high degree of confidence in the system.
Placing just below the top two are the MilePro and MileTracker services, each gaining high marks for being, in effect, desktop applications. Of the remaining three, neither MaxMiles, MyAirMiles nor TotalMiles offer any kind of guarantee, and none of the three have been operating for an extended length of time.
|1.||Yodlee – 74|
|2.||MileTracker – 66|
|3.||MileageManager – 45|
|4.||MaxMiles – 41|
|5.||MilePro – 22|
|6.||MyAirMiles – 12|
|7.||TotalMiles – 11|
What good is a mileage management service that doesn’t support the frequent travel programs you want tracked?
The whole point of a mileage consolidation service is to help travelers who have multiple program accounts keep track of them all. If the service is only able to help a traveler keep track of some of his/her program accounts, then that’s not much of a service at all.
Surprisingly, the two services that support the greatest number of programs are both free services — Yodlee (74 supported programs) and MileTracker (66). These are followed relatively closely by MileageManager (45) and MaxMiles (41).
Basically, when looking at the top four programs in this category, all offer a level of support that will satisfy the vast majority of users. Each covers all of the major programs, including credit card and hotel programs, and several not-so-major programs.
In fact, the only knock on any of these services would have to be aimed at Yodlee. Though it offers more supported programs than any other service, Yodlee’s categorization and updating of these programs leaves a lot to be desired. For example, Amtrak Guest Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Diners Club Club Rewards are all listed under the “E-Commerce” category, several car rental programs are listed under the “Airline” category, and in some instances programs that no longer exist at all are still “supported” by Yodlee. Not exactly user-friendly, but these oversights are not reason enough to discredit Yodlee’s overall high standing in this category.
Once you get past the top four, however, the level of supported programs declines dramatically. Any frequent traveler who maintains balances in more than a handful of accounts (and that would probably describe about 90 percent of you), should look closely before choosing MilePro, MyAirMiles or TotalMiles, especially if one or more of your accounts are non-airline.
Ease of Use
It’s no coincidence that the top two ranked sites in this category are the same two that were the lowest-ranked in terms of programs supported. Fewer options lead to a simpler, more efficient design, which in turn results in a site that is easy to navigate.
As mileage-management Web sites go, they don’t get much easier to use than MyAirMiles.com. Just sign up for the MyAirMiles Mileage Tracker service (not to be confused with MileTracker), enter your name, select the programs you’d like to track and enter your account numbers, and you’re all set. In fact, MyAirMiles is so easy to use, you won’t even need instructions, which is good because the site developers didn’t bother to write any.
Yodlee falls on the other end of the spectrum. With its abundance of programs from which to choose, and because it proposes to be much more than a mileage-consolidation service, Yodlee tends toward complexity and could be a bit overwhelming for those who aren’t completely comfortable in the online environment.
Between these two extremes, the remaining programs all have their relative merits and detriments. MileTracker is quite simple to use, but the need to download the program to your own computer desktop causes it to slip slightly in the usability rankings (though, if you are comfortable downloading Internet applications, this becomes a non-factor).
MileageManager offers a wide range of features in addition to standard mileage consolidation (specifics forthcoming in the next section). While this added level of service necessarily make for an increased array of options and a more robust navigational structure, the site has developed a “Help” section that provides detailed guidance to users who might have lost their way.
All of these services will show you what your frequent travel account balances are; but what else can they do?
The answer, in most cases, is not much — or nothing at all, if you’re talking about TotalMiles.
When it comes right down to it, MaxMiles, MilePro and MyAirMiles were designed to track frequent travel account balances, nothing more and nothing less. The only added feature you will receive with MilePro and MyAirMiles is the ability to update account balances on demand. And with MaxMiles, the only additional feature is a reconciliation tool, which you can use to stay up to date with regard to missing credits.
There is nothing at all wrong with this straightforward approach. For the traveler who simply wants help keeping tabs on his/her various balances, this might be all that is needed.
Just prior to publication, the MileTracker service had been updated with some interesting new features that move it into the number three spot in terms of added functionality. MileTracker has always included on-demand updates, but it now also features unique charting tools that display historical activity changes in selected accounts and a pie chart overview of your mileage holdings among your various programs. Though these charts offer more sparkle than substance, they nonetheless add a level of service to those users who are more graphically inclined.
With Yodlee, however, there is a significant step up in the amount and type of services offered. In addition to on-demand account updates, Yodlee offers an email alert feature, allowing members to request notifications via email when an account reaches a predetermined balance. For example, if you’ve been trying to save 70,000 miles for two tickets to Hawaii on Delta, you can tell Yodlee to send you an email as soon as you reach the milestone. Besides giving you a reason to look forward to opening your inbox (and, if you’re like us, and are getting deluged by spam each day, you’ll take any reason you can get), this feature actually helps you get better use from your miles in that it encourages you to be more goal-oriented when it comes to your award usage.
But the granddaddy of them all when it comes to added functionality is none other than MileageManager.
In truth, MileageManager is much more than a mileage consolidation service. It might more appropriately be labeled a frequent travel program advisory service. Besides being able to view account balances on one page, MileageManager members can read complete and updated program information on all the supported programs, search and compare award schedules for each program and reconcile accounts to keep track of missing credits. And members benefit from email alerts similar to those offered by Yodlee, only super-sized. If a MileageManager member so chooses, the service will notify him when his miles/points are near expiration, when the miles/points in an individual program have either reached or fallen below a pre-set threshold, and when an account has been updated.
So Which Service is Right For You?
Clearly, there is no one mileage consolidation service that is right for everyone. Your choice will depend on your unique requirements and perspective. Is cost your overriding factor, or are you willing to pay more for a more robust offering? Are you highly security-conscious, or are you the type of person who enters her credit card number first and asks questions later?
The categorical rankings provided in this article should, however, provide you with a point of reference to begin narrowing your search. Once you have identified two or three services that interest you, take them for a test spin — all of the pay sites offer free limited-time trial memberships. Even if you’re not convinced you need a mileage consolidation service, the trial period gives you a risk-free chance to see exactly how they each work, and what they offer in terms of convenience and usefulness. Who knows, after a month of seeing all your balances on one Web page, you might not be able to stomach the thought of going back to the days of surfing from site to site.
Ultimately, the service that is right for you is the one that best helps you track and manage your miles and points, and allows you to get the best value from your programs. In the most basic sense, mileage consolidation services are tools that can be used to maximize the efficient use of your frequent travel programs, giving you more control than if you simply left the management and accumulation of your miles and points to random chance.
According to our good friend Mr. Einstein, “God does not play dice.”
Maybe Al knew a thing or two about miles and points after all.