Today’s frequent traveler programs are so engaging and rewarding that there’s only one thing they can’t seem to do-stop bugging us!
Whether it’s a missing credit that never seems to post, that simple upgrade on a seemingly empty plane, or what defines “best available room,” there’s always something that gets in the way of what you really want. Heads up — there’s another annoyance coming your way. And right behind it, an endless barrage of mileage-induced irritations, aggravations, and stress-causing hassles. Stay calm — and prepare yourself to be a little less annoyed. Frankly, most of these irritations are simply that — irritating. They bother some of us, but not most of us. And the career frequent flyer has become numb to the experience.
That’s why we’ve taken the time to devote a few words to the tips and tools you’ll need to eliminate these and many other hassles during the second half of 2005. Read on, and bid annoyances adieu. But we warn you up front — you’re likely to have to be pacified simply knowing there’s nothing you can do for most of the annoyances.
The Annoyance: You made your reward reservation but you now need to change the date of award travel, and the program wants you to pay $50.
The Reality: Pay the $50. While we might argue about the amount of the fee, there’s a good reason why this makes sense. Nearly 27 percent of awards that are booked see some sort of change to the itinerary before the award is used. Since these programs are constantly under pressure to make award seats available, your change of dates might have meant that another member was told that there were no free seats available on the dates you had already booked. These fees are likely simple deterrents to keep award availabilty from being too undersubscribed.
Paying to Earn Miles
The Annoyance: For a number of years, most telecom and car rental partners of loyalty programs have assessed an additional tax onto your bill if you have chosen to earn miles from the loyalty program relationship. Some cite it as a government tax (nice try, but it’s not a government tax on the members’ activity) while others have simply had it in place to pay for their participation as a program partner.
The Reality: Change partners if it’s a matter of principle. Not all programs allow their partners to charge a fee to participate. Also, make sure that the program knows your feelings on this matter. Frankly, it’s less likely to be the amount of the fee; rather, it’s the feeling that “paying to play” has nothing to do with loyalty programs when you are bringing in the business.
The Annoyance: That loyalty programs are allowed to make instantaneous changes to their rules (partner changes are another matter) without regard for the grandfathered value of past business. What is even more appalling is that the legal system under the guidance of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has never enforced this as a “bait and switch” provision. Granted, some programs are more responsible than others and allow a six-month notice of change, except in the case of partnerships, to the program.
The Reality: Sorry, there isn’t a fix. Programs are now 24 years old and despite the constant attention they get from the media, seem to have an ability to escape even the most sensible rules of consumerism. Want to do something? You’ll find a full contact list for the Attorneys General on the naag.org Web site.
The Annoyance: Some programs have the idea that information about their loyalty program should be kept under lock and key. They require members to log-in before anything is available to use, such as award charts and other fairly generic information. Most require members to log-in before allowing them to search for the availability of award seats, even though on the general reservations Web site, the very same airline allows the general public to search for air fares and seat availability. Granted, the concept of logging in allows the program to better provide the correct information and availability for that particular member, but those we’ve surveyed did not have policies to allow extra award availability to their elite members, so the concept of pre-registration wasn’t all that important.
The Reality: Allow your browser to accept “cookies,” and search the log-in area for a check box that allows the Web site to remember you. A small sacrifice to pay for seamless use of the program Web site, despite the inconvenience of having the log-in each time you want to access the information.
The Annoyance: Ever try to use partner coupons only to be told they can’t be used in conjunction with others? Try and use a free rental day with most car rental companies and combine it with a similar coupon from another of your loyalty programs. Somehow the idea that you have to return the car in between using the coupons doesn’t sound like a fun experience.
The Reality: Coupons of this type are usually “bearer-only,” which means it will likely pay for you to network among your fellow frequent flyers for a single coupon that will cover the entire length of your rental period. Frankly, most have days that go to waste and it’s highly likely you’ll have no problem trading favors.
The Annoyance: This one always irritates us. Ever check-in at a hotel where among the benefits you enjoy as a preferred member is a daily newspaper? Makes you feel good, huh? Well, it does until you realize that at or near the front desk in the morning is a whole stack of newspapers available for any hotel guest. Sure makes you feel special.
The Reality: On the annoyance radar, this is pretty low, until you figure out that it’s one of the top benefits of the program according to the benefits guide. There is no fix.
Simplify the Annoyance
When something annoys you, you might choose to get mad or to get even. There’s actually another way to look at the world of frequent flyer clutter and stop aggravations before they begin. Eliminate unnecessary programs and you’ll rid yourself of many of the sources of your angst. Close out accounts that have no lingering value to you anymore.
Empty Seat Upgrades
The Annoyance: You — the king of elites, the member who logged more seat miles than income last year — board last because your connection was tight, or gaze toward the front of the cabin from your assigned seating in coach, only to see empty seats in first class. Hello? Why doesn’t the airline understand that a simple use of that rare commodity will give them unparalleled loyalty?
The Reality: “It’s the system stupid” (a quote, not you). There’s more reasons for this than for any other annoyance in the world of travel loyalty programs. There’s a few things that come in to play with this. First of all, it’s the reservation system that so many “players” of the game have come to fine tune. Yes, you’ve heard the one about the selfish elite member who ghosts several first class seats so that at boarding time they become available from the “no shows.” There are still those members that think this works, but ever since the programs went to tiered upgrades, it’s really just clogging the system to everyone’s dismay. The reality is that if a flight is delayed or the boarding gate is undermanned, gate employees simply don’t have the time to carefully check out the no-show list and make those last minute upgrade decisions. Combine that with full flights and other needy passengers on board and you’ve got less attention to this from the on-board staff, whose responsibility is mainly for passenger safety and service rather than the empty seats in first class. Yes, the list is long as to why this problem still exists and frankly, it is the system itself.
The Annoyance: You can recite your frequent flyer program forwards, backwards and in your dreams, and know for a fact that you did not err when presenting your credentials for check-in with the program, their partner or anyone else ever wanting to give you a mile for your time. So, why is it that no matter the extent of your efforts, you of all people have to audit your account and become a paper shuffler for a measly 50 bonus miles?
The Reality: We know of no one that has ever escaped the problem of a missing credit or two among those who travel the most. At the risk of sounding like your mother, we will remind you to be nosy. Does the boarding pass you are flying with correctly identify your frequent flyer number for the correct program? Many of the problems here are related to the growing number of airline alliances. When you fly Alaska Airlines, do you claim Alaska miles, American miles or Delta miles? Sometimes the flight credit will not appear simply because the choice was incorrect at the time of booking if you didn’t update your program preference. This is especially prevalent when partners change. When using other partners, it’s always good never to accept anything unless it clearly shows your proper account in a legible format.
Most troubling is online Web site shopping. It’s fairly common to get popped out of a Web site and end up with a transaction whereby the frequent flyer “cookie” was not captured. For these and most other transactions, a simple “other” tickler file or email confirmation will suffice for use later on.
Paying for the Privilege
The Annoyance: You read earlier about the partners who charge you to earn miles, such as some telecoms and car rental companies. But what about those not mentioned — American Express Membership Rewards and Diners Club Club Rewards?
The Reality: No break for them in addressing the reality; they do indeed charge for the privilege of making miles from points. Annoyed? Yep, even us. However, in their defense, the fee is not that great a hurdle considering the advantages that comes from these two particular programs. Don’t like the fee? Simple: get a direct deposit credit card closely associated with a single frequent flyer or hotel guest program. You’ll most likely still pay an annual fee just as these programs require, but you certainly won’t have the flexibility to make the points you’ve earned into any type of miles or other points among your programs. Advice: be annoyed, but also be forgiving.
Tasks Made Easy
It’s not hard to see that managing your frequent flyer programs requires good habits and time you may not have. This is annoying for those that try to maximize their mileage and point income. Here’s our shortcut for making the rewards life hassle-free. Ever heard the phrase “time is money?” Take back your time and part with a little of your money and consider award redemption made easy by letting others do all the dirty work for you. Hours on the phone with partners and searching out rare dates of award availability can be made easy with awardplanner.com; mileage expiration dates and knowing all your miles and points balances can be made easy with mileagemanager.com. Seriously, how much time would it take you to pore through all your statements to know what amounts you can transfer into awards or even upgrades? One click does it all.
The Annoyance: You’ve earned the miles but can’t use them. Ever heard that story? We have too, but we’ve also heard stories of free vacations in Europe, attending class reunions in long-forgotten towns and sending the relatives away for the holidays. While this annoyance gets the most headlines, it actually doesn’t rank as the most annoying, since a majority of members are able to use their awards — to the tune of nearly 30 million free tickets worldwide last year.
The Reality: If you have the miles and points, there really is no reason to think you can’t go anywhere you please. Combine that with the fact that we rarely pick a program to participate in based on its award redemption history. Frankly, award redemption has gotten easier since the advent of airline (and other) alliances. Most readers of this magazine have at least one or two award redemptions a year on airlines other than the sponsor of their favorite frequent flyer program. In years past, without these alliances, the answer would have sadly been “No.” But of the next hundred members who will claim they can never use their miles, less than one percent of them will change programs.
Will it get easier? Perhaps. We know of some programs that at least have thought to move to no capacity controls, ala Southwest Rapid Rewards. But frankly, we think that it would be a mistake for most of you to wish for that. The reason is simple: Rapid Rewards expires its credits after one year. If major carriers were to adopt the same program, it’s likely that most members would never see Europe or Hong Kong from anything other than coach class, and for many of the others, their first miles would expire before their most recent ones, making the revolving door of award redemption only a dream. Adapt. Learn when the best times to redeem are and understand that there are hundreds of thousands of members of these programs who really never have redemption problems. Try to identify their best practices and become a happy person.
The Annoyance: What happened to your miles in the British Airways program that you were planning to use but just haven’t got around to? Or the miles with Delta from when you formerly lived in Atlanta, but forgot about now that the job moved you to Dallas?
The Reality: A heartless clue is that these are still called “frequent” flyer programs, and if you are anything close to that description as a traveler, you’ll never worry. But the world of employment and other changes in lifestyles often means you’ll have miles and points in programs that can slip under your radar. Learn to stay active in these often minor programs by utilizing tools to track expiration and partners.