Rating Mileage Web Sites – Part 4

Rating Mileage Web Sites – Part 4

PART 4: In three previous issues we evaluated a number of frequent traveler program Web sites for:

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 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 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?

Continuing the series this month, 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).

Starwood Preferred Guest
Rating: 12.1 out of 15 (Better Than Most)
Sections reviewed: My Account, Customer Support, Need Help?, Starpoint Awards, My Favorites, Request Missing Points.
Commentary: A visit to the SPG.com Web site will be pleasant relaxation for your eyes. Shades of blue greet you with just enough pictures of resorts and perfect city skylines to remind you that you are at the right place. Unusual for most programs is a well-placed graphic form “Redeem Starpoints.” This front-page screen allows you to enter a city and region for a listing of all hotel properties for redemption. Seems easy enough, and it was. Each hotel listing also includes the hotel category and number of points required for a free night’s stay. One small feature that we thought rather clever is that the screen allows you to enter an address at your travel destination, and the listing will then show you the distance from that destination and the hotels you are browsing. This can be a real help when trying to determine where your hotel is located. Did you know that the St. Regis in Washington, D.C., was only .46 miles from the White House and costs 12-16,000 Starpoints per night to redeem and stay there? Neither did we until we started playing with the buttons. Before moving on, we noticed that SPG tastefully uses the splash screen for promoting their support of Hurricane Katrina and offering members the ability to donate points to the appropriate SPG charities. We never did get that link to work.

The page offers anyone an easy way to enroll simply by entering your email address. The form was easy to complete and includes your choices of bed type, pillow type, newspaper and smoking or non-smoking. Something we’ve never seen on any other Web site is the statement: “Please use Roman characters in the form below.”

So far, everything was looking and working well. However, nowhere on the front page could we find a search function, and nowhere on the front page could we find a member FAQ. So presto: We enter our member number and password and enter SPG.com

Once inside, there is still no search function or FAQ for members. We understand that the Web site is clean and easy, but having a search feature is a given standard for almost any Web site. We’re sorry for being so picky, but I want to know how many rooms I can add to my folio and if they will still count toward my point total. Where is that answer? We’ll get back to you?

The terms and conditions are found under the heading of “Member Benefits,” which also explains their various elite levels, and provides a well-researched comparison of Starwood Preferred Guest to other hotel guest programs. They look pretty good in this comparison. (Someone should tell them that in their program comparison, they should not be listing “Ramada” under the Marriott Rewards program.)

As we move through the Web site, we notice some very strange navigation choices. First of all, by clicking around, we discovered some new redemption partners we were not aware of. Did you know that you could redeem your Starpoints for gift cards at The GAP or Banana Republic and even redeem points for the Bliss Spa in New York City? You can, but we had difficulty figuring out how. We couldn’t use the “Redeem Starpoints” button on the front page, because that is reserved for redemption of hotel properties. When we finally found the right place, it turned out that we could redeem 2,000 Starpoints for a $25 gift card at The GAP. Once we found the correct links, it was a snap, and we’re glad that there is a default since we almost bought enough gift cards for new jeans for everyone reading this review.

“My Account” is an easy link to your hotel stay or credit card activity. What we liked was that the hotel stay information features a link back to previous hotels, as well as allowing you to list former hotel under “My Favorites,” which is tremendously helpful when your travel is often to the same hotel.

One of the handiest things we found was a partners page that featured both earn and redeem point partners, all with easy drop-down menus. In the drop-down menu for airline partners, the menu features the current redemption rates for each partner, which saves a lot of time searching elsewhere — especially since the Web site does not have a search feature that we could find.

We did, however, finally find the FAQ section, which is listed under the “Customer Support” link. Browsing around, we found something strange. Nowhere did we find the physical mailing address for the program. We found plenty of phone numbers, but the mailing address was missing in action. We suppose we could have used the “Need Help? Click to talk to a customer service agent” link. We like this feature, and are glad to see Starwood be so proactive for their members — sort of like OnStar for customer service.

In the “Account Links” menu we found everything working, including My Profile, Missing Credit, Replace Cards, Combine Accounts (strange that a separate menu item would be built for this), and an Easy Account Toolbar that allows you to customize your IE browser, but alas, is not Mac compatible.

And finally … no newsletters? No dynamic news features of any sort? The designers should talk to members, because the site has so much potential, but instead seems to be happy just to look good.

Continental OnePass
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.

Northwest WorldPerks
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.

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.

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