Loyalty Traveler-Confessions of a Former 'Mile'ionaire

Loyalty Traveler-Confessions of a Former 'Mile'ionaire

The main advice I offer frequent travelers as we journey into 2011 is to earn hotel elite status. Accelerated points earning, exclusive offers and better customer service are additional benefits beyond free Internet, free breakfast and room upgrades. Like airlines, a bit of loyalty goes a long way in hotel travel satisfaction.

After nearly two decades of frequent flying I am voluntarily grounded. In the 1990s I traveled with a paid airline lounge membership and occasionally I held elite flyer and elite guest status by just letting elite happen through my flights and nights.

Prior to Web-based social media, I had insufficient knowledge about airline and hotel loyalty programs to take full advantage of travel loyalty benefits. FlyerTalk.com information helped me earn about 5,000,000 miles in five years generally spending less than $4,000 in airline tickets annually while traveling around Europe, Asia and South America completing lucrative frequent flyer promotions.

Elite Status Was My Afterthought

The sudden ability to travel anywhere worldwide for nearly free as a frequent flyer ‘mile’ionaire left the cost of hotels as my primary travel expense. A first class transatlantic flight followed by a week in budget hotel rooms or Priceline ‘not quite the location I wanted’ hotels left me with a kind of half-empty vacation feeling.

Actively pursuing elite status in frequent guest programs was a novel concept for me. Before long, four nights in $80 hotels I did not plan to sleep in looked favorable in a cost-benefit analysis when I regularly received $200 room category upgrades during extended stays in Europe and Asia based on my hotel elite status.

Hilton Hotels kept my loyalty for several years primarily due to the HHonors feature allowing conversion of airline miles into hotel points. I stayed scores of nights for free after converting nearly one million frequent flyer miles into HHonors points. HHonors Diamond elite status provided frequent room category upgrades, and even the occasional full suite on reward nights.

My second loyalty traveler tip is burn points and miles as quickly as you can. Points inflation inherent in all loyalty programs means your aging points will decrease in value over time. Many Hilton Hotels that were 100,000 points for six nights in 2001 cost 225,000 points in 2011. Hoarding points and miles without a specific redemption plan is hardly rewarding.

Hotel Loyalty Elite in 2011

This past year was a seductively easy year to earn hotel loyalty elite status. Most major hotel chains gave instant mid- or top-tier elite to new and even current members at some period in 2010. I have far more elite status from 2010 hotel offers than I can maintain with fewer than 100 hotel nights in 2011.

Easily attainable high elite: SPG Gold is earned after four stays by Jan. 31, 2011 at Aloft, Element and Four Points. The SPG American Express credit card now offers two stays and five nights elite credit as an annual benefit. Hyatt Gold Passport and Starwood Preferred Guest top-tier elite qualification at 25 stays or 50 nights is even lower most years due to recurring promotions counting hotel stays for double credit.

Priority Club Rewards 60,000 points for Platinum elite can be earned in real travel for under $1,000; far less than $6,000 in hotel spend suggested by base points earn rate. Except for 50 percent elite bonus points, Priority Club in-hotel benefits for Platinum elite do not match up to Hyatt, Starwood, Hilton and Marriott high-tier benefits.

Marriott Rewards offers instant Gold elite membership to Air China PhoenixMiles members registering by Feb. 28, 2011 with only 12 nights needed within 90 days to maintain status into February 2012.

Hilton HHonors at 28 stays per year for Diamond is feasible even for the leisure guest averaging two hotel stays per month. Elite credit for award stays makes annual requalification even easier.

Loyalty’s Value-Added Factor

Elite benefits and loyalty promotion rebates are the value-added factors of hotel loyalty membership. Elite benefits reward the guest during a hotel stay. Promotion bonuses are rebates rewarding the guest with future free stays.

Loyalty program hotel stays will likely cost more in 2011 for the same level of travel. Hotel industry recovery is accompanied by higher average room rates to accelerate profits. Free breakfast, Internet and potential room upgrades for the hotel stay, in addition to promotion bonuses and loyalty points for hotel spend need to be considered when comparing chain hotel rates to other lodging options like hotel and air travel packages and Priceline. Quantifying the value of benefits you receive is essential when determining whether to maintain loyalty with your hotel program.

Major hotel brands are rapidly growing with the travel industry recovery. Hopefully hotel competition will continue to benefit the frequent guest in 2011 with real loyalty program enhancements and high value promotions.