FINDING A GOOD experience on a Web site isn’t easy these days, especially if you belong to many of the popular frequent flyer/hotel programs. Using a tape measure, you know how long something is. And thanks to your speedometer, you can tell how fast you are driving. But what do you use to tell how good something is – especially when that thing is intangible yet very important? Like the ability to actually find a newsletter about your favorite loyalty program? As it happens, even the things you didn’t think were testable can be assessed to see if they are up to par. Good news, no?
The Y2K wrinkle did cause the industry to divert valuable resources several years ago, but there’s ample proof that these airlines consider technical assistance secondary. The number one cause of this electronic malaise seems to be that Web sites offer ways to reduce the cost of member communication – at any cost. Granted, it’s everything sponsors of these programs can do to keep up with the online competition for bookings, but after you read through the following rating and reviews of their Web sites, we think you’ll agree with us that even with the resources they have devoted to an online presence, there’s plenty left undone. From dated material to navigation that only a jigsaw puzzle master could appreciate, here’s a report card that hopefully will serve to help all members in the months and years to come.
Our research focuses on three essential questions. Why visit? Why stay? Why return? This reflects the increased sophistication of the Internet as well as the members who use this communication tool daily.
Our evaluation for all program Web sites:
Content: How extensive are the program materials? Does the Web site contain only the most current version of the newsletter, or are past issues included? Does it have a simple table showing recent or historical changes in the terms of membership? Are the terms of membership included? Does the Web site contain spelling and/or grammatical errors? Is self-select information such as newsletters flexible for text and HTML purposes? If content is in a PDF format, does it provide links to third-party software necessary for viewing? Does the Web site explain the importance of certain types of information, such as promotion ending dates, pre-registration and the expiration of miles/points? What is the timeliness of its information?
Organization: How is the Web site organized? Does the Web site provide several ways for members to locate specific information, such as award charts, blackout dates and how to file for missing credit? How flexible and powerful is the search engine? Does the search engine allow keyword searching for members seeking out bonus promotional information on a particular partner? Does the Web site include a description of how to search the Web site with examples? Does it have a site map?
Navigation and Usability: Assesses the Web site’s use of effective and clear navigation tools, and accessibility of information. Is important information (like award charts) one-click hyperlinked and able to be bookmarked? Is there an easy-to-understand table of contents? Is there a Help/FAQ link? Is the navigation consistent and intuitive? Is the Web site viewable and functional with as many browsers as feasible? Does the Web site provide an email link to the program itself? Does the Web site contain meaningful subject titles?
The following Web sites are given an overall score based on a 15-point scale that is the sum of content, organization and usability scores (five points in each category).
Rating: 11.4 out of 15 (Average)
Sections reviewed: Program details, request mileage credit, partners, newsletter, FAQs, redeem miles.
Commentary: We have to admit – this is a disappointing Web site for the world’s largest frequent flyer program. True, there’s a lot of information, but navigation leaves a lot to be desired (no “back” navigation once inside many windows, no navigation trail once deep inside pages like the redeemAAmiles program).
Elsewhere, there’s dated information and technical challenges. For instance, the FAQ still lists all the enrollment information for the AT&T residential phone program with AAdvantage – that ended last year. Also, the American AAdvantage Mileage Funds program changed its name to “American Beacon Funds,” and none of that is mentioned in the online information.
And the FAQ is not as much help as one might hope. For instance, when asking how many miles are earned from hotel stays, the answer is that it varies for each hotel company. We’d like to think that AA would list each hotel partner and the earn rate for each rather than provide such a vague answer.
The good news is that the advanced search engine does have AAdvantage-specific search ability. As for newsletters, bring you reading material.
AAdvantage does post the latest newsletter, as well as the past three editions for the U.S., but the international newsletter only shows the most current; no back issues are archived. AAdvantage has opted for a PDF format, which means a long download time and fairly boring scrolling. It looks nice for printing out, but not reading online.
Contacting AAdvantage can be a real trial. It takes four clicks to get to AAdvantage customer service, and then you are greeted with a log-on window (so much for fast service).
The Web site is not especially fast, and lacks many tools that could complement this world-class frequent flyer program.
Best feature: In the “Redeem Miles” area, the “Dates Flexible” function allows you to search for award seats four days around your target date.
ATA Travel Awards
Rating: 13.1 out of 15 (Better than Most)
Sections reviewed: Front page, credit card, elite area, questions and help.
Commentary: While this Web site has some coding problems (errant gremlins of selected browsers) it does have, without a doubt, the best Q/A support area of any program. Its Q/A has 97 built-in pre-answered questions, as well as a unique “question history.”
The “contact” button does not work properly unless you are in the help area. Also, the search engine on the front page searches the entire Web site, and only once you are in the program Q/A does search become specific to Travel Awards.
The front page is clean, with easy-to-understand instructions on how to earn and redeem (including an award chart).
There does not seem to be a newsletter or any historical information on the program.
Best feature: Support has a “Top 5” listing for FAQs, as well as a “Top 5” listing for award travel FAQs. Support also has a feature that allows you to be emailed if the answer to a particular question is updated.
Worst feature: Search has paid “sponsored links,” and we were surprised that “lovefreegames.com” was the sponsor for our search. Not a good idea to have paid search on a business Web site like this.
Rating: 13.8 out of 15 (Better than Most)
Sections reviewed: Help, search, award charts, missing credit.
Commentary: With an open mind, this Web site can quickly become a favorite. It doesn’t have a lot of “WOW,” but what is there works, from easy navigation with “trails,” to unexpected surprises.
Contacting OnePass is easy, requiring only a two-click process. And here’s the first surprise: OnePass allows members to included attachments with the contact emails, in case you want to send along a lengthy letter or scanned transaction.
The missing credit function works and is well-documented.
The award chart documentation is only average, and lacks such features as a link to online redemption directly from the award charts.
OnePass would be well served to add additional explanations. For instance, on various award charts, the site notes “Open jaw: one allowed,” but does explain what an open jaw actually is.
Newsletter information is up-to-date and in an online format. The bonus listing does have a unique feature in that it shows a “Time Remaining” for each bonus. What is missing is an easy way to sign up for an online email newsletter – there’s no intuitive way to do this.
In the online award redemption area, a plus feature is the bold notice “Elite members may receive better search results by signing in at this time” – a nice hint that they put aside extra award seats for these members.
Search is standard and a little disappointing, in that it has no advanced feature allowing members to search OnePass alone.
Best feature: the online award redemption calendar and the mileage calculator with elite member selection, though the mileage calculator lacks the option to enter multiple city connections.
Rating: 11.7 out of 15 (Average)
Sections reviewed: WorldPerks FAQ, redeem miles, manage my account, mileage calculator, members guide, elite program, transfer miles.
Commentary: This is a program that has a strong history of adapting technology to its frequent flyer program, but unfortunately, the Web site is lacking a number of things that would complement an otherwise world-class program.
The front page is clean, and displays current bonus promotions and easy links to other parts of the Web site, though mysteriously, the WorldPerks FAQ is alone at the bottom of the page as a “related link” with WorldClubs rather than being included in the actual WorldPerks-dedicated navigation. And while the most current news and information is up front on the Web page, there is no intuitive link to any newsletters.
The search engine is easy to find and use, but it’s not advanced. Your search queries will include information from other parts of the nwa.com Web site.
As for the FAQ, there’s much to be desired. It contains information on missing credit, but when you follow the clicks for missing credit for a car rental, for example, you won’t find any real customer service information – just a link to the car rental Web site itself.
The online booking engine is up to snuff for most needs, though it lacks an advanced search function that would limit your search to just WorldPerks information.
The online award redemption feature requires members to log in first, and allows the option to search schedules for partners as well as WorldPerks.
The account manager feature is as complicated as it comes. The parts seem to make up the whole, but it is a trying system. For instance, when looking for account activity, you will not find easy drop down menus for selected periods of time; you have to type in search dates. And while it is convenient that three years of activity is available, it definitely is not one-click service. Also, because the parts of the account manager seem to function independently, you might find yourself logged out and constantly re-logging as you move from feature to feature.
Lifetime miles and summaries are a plus, as is the “My Promotions Status,” which, when used correctly, can actually help you manage your miles. Bottom line: there are much simpler approaches.
Southwest Rapid Rewards
Rating: 13.2 out of 15 (Better than Most)
Sections reviewed: Promotions, rules, Rapid Report, FAQ, awards, partners.
Commentary: Three words: fast, simple and easy. No “gee-whiz” stuff here, and frankly, it’s not needed. All links and navigation are on a single, commanding page.
One of the first things that stands out is the ease in signing up for a Rapid Rewards newsletter. The most recent news is clear and available on the front page. The Web site does not list past issues of the member newsletter, however, and the missing credit feature is actually just simple instructions as to how to send in documentation – not an online application.
Unfortunately, the site does not have advanced search, but it does get the results you are looking for, including the occasional press release or corporate link. Best feature: Besides being exactly what the airline is (uncomplicated), there are small reminders of perks throughout (when they send you your awards, they include a free drink coupon, for example). Thank goodness for small pleasures.
The only negative function of the site is that when you sign up online for your Rapid Rewards account, there is no instant gratification – they mail you your password in 7-10 days.
United Mileage Plus
Rating: 13.9 out of 15 (Better than Most)
Sections reviewed: United awards, featured offer, FAQs, newsletters, member’s guide, elite members, rules.
Commentary: Considering the size of this program, we were prepared for a complicated experience, but were pleasantly surprised. The site has as good an overall navigation structure as any in the world, and we actually liked the small teaser benefit ads on the right-hand columns.
We were disappointed that there was no advanced search. Because of that, you’ll get much more than just Mileage Plus results.
The newsletter is in a PDF format with no back issues, and while pleasant to look at, required constant use of the magnifying glass to read the smaller print. International editions were included.
One of the best features is the branded “MyMileagePlus,” which is head and shoulders above anything else out there. It works, is good-looking and easy to update.
The award charts can get confusing when compared to the destination guides, but then again, this is one of the world’s largest airlines.
As with others, there is no direct link to the online award redemption tool once you are inside an award chart.
The FAQ was as standard as anything we’ve seen. Nothing spectacular in the questions or the answers, but well-designed and generic.
Among the small number of negatives for this Web site is the overuse of “sm” and “(TM)” and “(R)”. It did take us a few minutes to find the missing credit feature which United refers to as “Requesting Mileage Credit.” Promotions were updated and easy to navigate through.
US Airways Dividend Miles
Rating: 14 out of 15 (Among the Best)
Sections reviewed: Earning miles, redeeming miles, news & offers, program information, Preferred membership.
Commentary: Easily one of the more pleasant experiences for Web sites. It’s quite well designed and has a positive look and feel of its own, with news, information and a not overly-complicated front page. The site has the only “right-hand” navigation in the industry, but it is clean and prominent throughout.
The FAQ is the same as what ATA uses and members will find a complete list of questions and answers, all well-researched. It also includes a “Top 5” for Q/A. The only strange thing we noticed is when looking at the Q/A for the “Buy 3, Fly Free” promotion, it mentioned that others viewing this question also viewed “Career Opportunities at US Airways,” something we would not normally have connected with members using FAQs. Another unique feature for the FAQ is that it allows you to print or email the Q/A to yourself. We think that is great backup for things you are trying to learn.
Best features: the overall design and function and the tutorials that are hidden in the Contact Us area. Yes, you can actually watch a small tutorial on such topics as “redepositing awards” or “upgrading a ticket using Dividend Miles.” Contact itself is not specific to Dividend Miles unless you are logged in, and then it is at hand the entire time, and will populate information about you in the email. One plus is the information included in “missing credits.” Whether for US Airways flights or partners, all the info you would ever need to know is here.
The only confusing item is the multiple PINs/passwords for your account vs. the online rewards component and shopping mall. One allows you 4 digits and the other requires 6 digits. The member account area is very well-organized and even offers members the ability to redeposit awards from the interface. The connection to Online Rewards is nifty, though the shopping bonus bar is Windows only. The Special Offers puts you in control of more opportunities.
Rating categories and accompanying scores are described below:
“Among the Best” (14-15 points)
“Better Than Most” (12-13 points)
“Average” (10-11 points)
“Not Recommended” (fewer than 10 points)