We’re taking a look back at 2011 with miles and points in mind. Was it a good year or bad year for frequent flyers? Well, both. So, the following is our road warrior version of Siskel and Ebert’s “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” rating system. Along with our own look back at the year, we solicited opinions from two experts in the loyalty sphere: BoardingArea bloggers Gary Leff of View from the Wing, co-founder of the frequent flyer community milepoint.com, who has a keen eye for getting the most out of loyalty programs, and Ric Garrido of Loyalty Traveler, a leisure traveler who has turned his critical eye to hotel loyalty programs.
As we list the best and worst from frequent travel programs throughout the year, it will paint a picture of the year as it was, like they say, “warts and all”. We are only listing items here that occurred in 2011, we are not looking at what the programs offer in general. Enjoy this frequent flyer ride through 2011 as we end the year and look forward to 2012.
AirTran Airways’ Goodbye Bonus
As a farewell to Atlanta, Southwest Airlines merger partner, AirTran Airways, offered A+ Rewards members one bonus credit for every roundtrip flight from Atlanta booked by Jan. 31. To make it an even more special offer, the credit counted toward elite status; and if you brought along companions under the same reservation, you could get additional credits, up to four bonus credits for a roundtrip flight.
Starwood Reinstates Peak Season
In 2009 and 2010, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) suspended the practice of charging a surcharge of points for peak season stays at category 5-7 hotels, but for 2011, the peak season surcharges were brought back. The surcharges range from 17 to 33 percent more points needed per award stay.
Effective Jan. 1, Marriott Rewards Gold and Platinum members received free Internet access worldwide. This benefit was previously restricted to the Americas. (And since April, all members receive free Internet access at hotels in Asia Pacific and Australia.) Marriott also extended rollover nights for 2011 stays.
Choice Privileges made changes in 2011, making mid-tier Platinum elite easier to attain (from 25 to 20 nights), increased elite bonus points for top-tier elites (from 40 percent to 50 percent) and gave elite members a longer advance booking window for award nights.
Hilton’s first-quarter promotion had 350 non-participating hotels, almost all in the United States. Similarly, Starwood Preferred Guest promotions in 2011 showed individual member hotels opting out of global promotions. And to make matters even worse for SPG members, excluded hotel names were only listed by brand, without any geographic descriptors such as city, state or country–making it even more difficult for members to quickly discern which hotels were not participating.
75,000 AAdvantage Bonus Miles Credit Card Promo
First-time cardmembers of a Citi / AAdvantage credit card could earn 75,000 bonus miles after making $4,000 in purchases within six months of becoming a cardmember and members could earn the same bonus for the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Visa. The annual fee for both cards was waived for the first year. The offer officially ended on Feb. 28, but members were able to sign up and get the 75,000-mile sign up bonus until Oct. 10.
650,000 Best Western Points
From Feb. 6 through April 11, Best Western Rewards members received a free night after three hotel stays and 6,500 bonus points for staying in two different newly-minted hotel types: Best Western, Best Western Plus and Best Western Premier. Also, 10 members earned 650,000 points for being the first guest to stay in all three Best Western hotel types. This was a good way for the brand to draw attention to the new levels of Best Western hotels.
Down is Up with SPG
Starwood Preferred Guest moves more hotels down in category than up. This was a welcome change after no award category changes the year before and a full year of rate declines.
AMEX Drops Foreign Exchange Fees
American Express drops the foreign exchange fee for Platinum and Centurion cardholders in March. This starts a trend for other credit cards to also drop the fee, saving cardmembers around three percent when using their credit cards overseas.
Milepoint.com, a new frequent flyer community, launches March 1 and gives away an iPad a day for the entire month.
Rapid Rewards 2.0 Launches
For many loyal Southwest Rapid Reward members, March 1 will be remembered as the sad day that the old, reliable and
simple Rapid Rewards ended and the new revenue-based program was born.
Match My 100,000 Miles
Capital One offers a “Match My Miles” bonus in late March of up to 100,000 miles for new Venture Rewards Card applicants. The total bonus miles given out were capped at one billion miles and that amount was reached less than a month from the launch of the promotion.
Carlson Ditches goldpoints plus
On March 31, Carlson Hotels launched Club Carlson to replace goldpoints plus, offering the fastest points earning toward free nights of all the major hotel chains. For example, top-tier category 6 hotels are 50,000 points per night representing $2,500 in hotel spend earning 10 base points per dollar. Online booking bonuses, promotions and elite status reduce the spend threshold further. In comparison, Hilton HHonors requires $3,333 hotel spend to earn 50,000 points for a category 7 hotel award night for a base member earning Points & Points. Marriott Rewards requires $4,000 for a base member to earn 40,000 points for a category 8 hotel night award. Hyatt and Starwood require even higher spending.
Marriott Rewards announces that 350 hotels will increase in award category and about 100 hotels would decrease on March 8, but a list of only 50 hotels in category 5 to 8 were released on Feb. 24. In response to social media outcry for the full list, the Marriott Concierge posted online, “The entire list is considered proprietary.” With further social media pressure, the full list was released, but only five days before the changes went into effect. The final tally showed four hotels moved up in category (351) for every hotel that moved down (89). The list also was missing geographic information.
BA at it Again for 100,000 Miles
British Airways brought back a very generous credit card offer in April–100,000 miles when obtaining the British Airways Visa from Chase. Executive Club members who signed up for the card by May 5 got 50,000 miles after their first purchase with the card and an additional 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 on the card within three months. The card comes with an annual fee of $95. British Airways was the first airline to offer 100,000 miles for obtaining a co-branded credit card.
BankDirect Caps Earnings
As of April 1, BankDirect capped the number of miles American AAdvantage members can earn each month per account –20,000 miles.
Frontier Fee Changes
In an era when airlines are adding new fees and raising existing fees, Frontier Airlines lowered some fees and made some other customer-friendly policy changes in April. Summit-level EarlyReturns members and ClassicPlus ticket holders can make name changes to their ticket for free and name changes for all other travelers is $50. Travelers on Classic tickets can make changes to their flight at no charge and the change fee on economy fares was reduced to $50 from $100. The fee for same-day confirmed flight changes on Classic tickets was reduced to $25 from $50.
No More Free Checked Bags
On April 1, Continental Airlines and United Airlines ended the checked bag fee waiver for co-branded Chase debit cardholders signalling the beginning of the end for getting extra perks with debit cards.
One Bag Only
United Mileage Plus members who are also Star Alliance Silver members lost one free checked bag both domestically and internationally. In the past, these members could check two bags free of charge. As of March 9, they can check only one for free.
Status Match is Now Status Challenge
As of April 1, Starwood Preferred Guest members no longer can get a status match upon showing another program’s status card. Now, members must take a hotel stay challenge to fast-track to elite. And in November, the rules for the Platinum challenge were changed as well. Now, members need 18 paid nights instead of 15 and the time frame for earning the status has changed from any 90 days to having to qualify within 90 days beginning on the first day of the month you enroll in the challenge.
30 Years of FFPs
American AAdvantage celebrated 30 years of the first frequent flyer program in May with 30 days of prizes including earning triple miles (30 miles per $1) donated to support Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Virgin’s New Strategy
In May, Richard Branson announced a new name for Virgin Blue–Virgin Australia. Virgin Blue was the shorthaul airline, and Virgin Australia, the longhaul. Now, the airlines are combined and Velocity is the frequent flyer program. Virgin also introduced reciprocal benefits between all the Virgin airline brands–something Virgin customers have been looking forward to for a long time.
Points to Miles Bonus
In the spring, Delta SkyMiles teamed up with American Express Membership Rewards to offer 50 percent more miles when transferring Membership Rewards points to Delta miles for the first time. And if you really wanted SkyMiles elite status and were flush with AMEX points, you could transfer 50,000 to 100,000 Membership Rewards points in a single transfer (depending on promotion) to get a one-time award of 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles–enough for Silver status offering waived baggage fees, 25 percent bonus Medallion qualifying miles on flights, flight upgrades and more.
No More Double Miles for ShopOnePass
Continental OnePass ended the ShopOnePass Twice the Miles program in June wherein cardmembers earned twice as many miles as other members when shopping at the Continental online mall and paying with their co-branded credit card.
Sing for a Room Upgrade
Joie de Vivre hotels launched a promotion in June where members could sing for an upgrade at four California Joie de Vivre hotels. One free upgrade was offered per hotel per day and videos of the singers were posted on YouTube and Facebook. There, people could vote for their favorites to receive a complimentary two-night stay. Singing in tune was not required.
Not So Easy Miles
US Airways Dividend Miles and Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles members expected some easy miles through an online shopping offer from EasyCGI in June. The offer on the online shopping malls of these two programs stated that members could earn 4,757 Dividend Miles or 7,269 HawaiianMiles for making a purchase with web hosting company EasyCGI. The terms and conditions explicitly stated that there were no restrictions on the type of purchase made or the number of purchases eligible for the bonus. Instead of easy miles, however, members were dismayed to find their orders cancelled without notice and were left with a few or no miles at all for their efforts and no explanation of why the offer was rescinded.
100 Percent More Miles
In June, US Airways brought back its 100 percent bonus on purchased miles for the month. The maximum bonus was 50,000 miles when purchasing 50,000 miles. So, for $1,479.50 (50,000 miles at $0.0275 per mile plus 7.5 percent tax) members could get 100,000 miles.
Upgrade Awards Go Up
United increased prices of most mileage upgrade awards in June. The upgrade co-pay for domestic flight awards went from $50 to $75, the mileage required went from 15,000 to 20,000 miles and similar increases took effect for international flight upgrade awards. UA also introduced a close-in award fee for most Mileage Plus members. General members who book an award flight less than 21 days out are charged $75; Premier and Silver, $50; Premier Executive and Gold, $25. Only 1K, Global Services, Platinum and Presidential Platinum members receive a fee waiver.
50 Percent More Miles
In June and July, British Airways Executive Club members could get 50 percent more points when transferring American Express Membership Rewards points to their Executive Club account.
Stay and Stay Free
In June, the top 10 hotel loyalty programs worldwide ran free night promotions, giving summer leisure travelers significant rebates for repeat stays. Standouts included Club Carlson’s one free night after two stays (April 15-June 15); SPG’s one free resort night after two stays (May 1-July 31); Choice Privileges’ one free night after two stays (May 19-Aug. 11); Marriott Rewards’ one free night after two stays (June 1-Aug. 31) and Best Western Rewards’ one free night after three stays (June 19-Aug. 14). Several hotel programs also offered big miles bonuses: Marriott Rewards offered quaruple miles with 15 airline partners (June 1-Aug. 31); Best Western offered five times the miles per stay (1,250 miles) with American AAdvantage and Aeroplan (April 17-June 5). SPG and Hyatt even matched Hilton’s longstanding benefit by allowing members to earn both miles and points for the same stays: Hyatt Gold Passport offered 2,500 Aeroplan miles per stay (June 1- Sept. 30) and SPG members could earn 1,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points per stay (Aug. 1-Dec. 15) in addition to Starpoints.
BA Drops Anytime Access
As of June 17, Gold tier members of British Airways Executive Club are no longer able to access British Airways lounges when traveling with non-codeshare or non-oneworld partner airlines.
Up in the Air
Businessman Tom Stuker flies his 10 millionth mile on United Airlines.
No More Miles for Debit
Chase Continental OnePass and United Mileage Plus debit cards discontinued awarding miles for using the cards. Chase blamed new regulatory legislation that requires a cap on interchange fees and reduces the bank’s revenue.
Go Ahead, Sleep In
Hyatt Gold Passport introduces a new late checkout benefit for elite members in July: Platinum members get a 2pm checkout and Diamond members get a 4pm checkout (at non-resort properties). Hyatt also announces hotel category changes, but publishes all the changes and gives members a one-month notice to book award stays before they take effect.
Aeroplan Award Increases
Aeroplan revises its award chart and increases the prices of most of their awards, effective July 15. And most award increases were more than 30 percent.
Coin Deal Dead
Effective July 22, the U.S. Mint discontinued accepting credit cards for payment. This stopped the very mileage lucrative program where members used miles-earning credit cards to buy U.S. Mint dollar coins (at face value with free shipping) and then deposited the coins into their bank account. Business traveler “Mr. Pickles”, the king of the dollar coins opportunity, gained legendary (and lifetime Platinum AAdvantage) status and earned over two million miles through the promotion.
Effective July 1, American AAdvantage and Marriott Rewards are no longer partners. This looks to be the start of a trend. On Jan. 1, 2012, the partnership between Hilton HHonors and Southwest Rapid Rewards will end and there are rumors that Hilton will also be ending its relationship with American.
Credit Card Free Night
Hyatt Gold Passport Visa adds an anniversary free night at a category 1-4 hotel as a card benefit in August, joining Priority Club Rewards (annual free night worldwide) and Marriott Rewards (annual free night category 1-5 hotel) offering an annual free night as a card benefit that more than covers the annual card fee.
Dwindling Minimum Miles
Effective Aug. 1, Aeroplan members earn a 250-mile minimum on Air Canada and Star Alliance flights instead of 500 miles for all general members. Super Elite, Elite and Prestige members continue to earn 500 minimum miles.
Cash or Miles?
A new website launches called PointHub, that gives visitors a recommendation whether to spend cash or miles/points when booking flights or hotel stays.
Delta’s August Surprise
Delta awards can no longer be changed or cancelled within 72 hours of travel as of Aug. 15. The program gave members five days’ notice of the change. Now, whenever a member has booked an award flight, they have up until 72 hours to make a change to the flight. Within 72 hours, no changes can be made and members will forfeit all of their miles if they don’t fly on the award ticket as booked.
Good or Bad?
We’re placing the “down” symbol by this development from American AAdvantage. Not because of the current offer–Dynamic Air Awards–but for what this offer might mean for frequent flyers in the future. Dynamic Awards are offered to elite members only as another option when spending miles for award flights. These elite-only domestic coach awards are based on the cost of the flight and the miles needed to claim one of these flights can vary. Is this American’s way of seeing how popular these types of awards are in case they want to do away with their current static award chart? American Airlines is the first legacy airline to introduce awards that fluctuate according to fares. Southwest Airlines, Virgin America and JetBlue all have award charts based on dynamic pricing. Is this the beginning of the end of the 25,000-mile domestic award ticket?
Star Alliance Do Again
The StarMegaDo3 was held in early September and included stops in New York, Munich, Chicago, Montreal and Denver.
AMEX and CO Part Ways
American Express Membership Rewards and Continental OnePass ended their partnership Sept. 30 and OnePass members can no longer convert American Express Membership Rewards points into OnePass miles. That’s the bad news. The good news was that members had plenty of advance notice about the change.
Grand Slam Again
US Airways Grand Slam is a recurring, popular promotion from Dividend Miles. This year, members could earn up to 110,000 bonus miles by getting “hits” for mileage-earning activities. The 16th, 24th and 40th hits came with Preferred-qualifying miles. (Only members with Preferred status are eligible to earn the top bonus of 40 hits for a total of 110,000 bonus miles.)
Sorting Your Hotels
In September, Kayak.com discontinued the functionality that allowed travelers to sort hotels by hotel chain, making it easy for travelers to quickly compare rates across different programs like all Hilton brands or all Marriott brands. Travelocity still offers a limited function for sorting by brand, but you have to make numerous sorts to see all of the brands in a chain like Wyndham Rewards or Marriott Rewards. Note to Kayak: Please bring back hotel chain sorting!
AMEX and Delta Play Nice
As Continental was winding down its relationship with American Express Membership Rewards in September, Delta SkyMiles members could get a 40 percent rebate on transfers of AMEX Membership Rewards points to Delta SkyMiles. For every 50,000 Membership Rewards points members transferred, 20,000 were deposited back into their account.
Bye-Bye Minimum Miles
Effective Sept. 1, Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles members earn actual distance flown on all Hawaiian Airlines flights instead of 500 minimum miles unless you are a Pualani Platinum, or Pualani Gold elite-level member, a member of Premier Club or an Hawaiian Airlines Visa cardmember.
Chicago Flyer Seminars
The second Chicago Seminar Do was held featuring seminars for frequent flyers with topics like Rookie Bootcamp, Award Booking, Credit Cards and Mileage Runs among others. More then 500 attended the weekend event in October.
Advance Notice, Please
In October, Marriott Rewards discontinued All Inclusive Rewards with no advance notice. The loss of this award option likely did not affect many members, but the real issue is whether hotel loyalty programs have any obligation to inform members of changes to the loyalty program before unilaterally making changes that devalue points and eliminate award options.
Tokyo on Sale
This fall, American AAdvantage members could score roundtrip non-stop flights in business class between San Francisco or Vancouver and Tokyo for only 50,000 miles and in coach for only 30,000 miles.
Aeroplan Award Wallop
Aeroplan stops including domestic (and U.S.-Canada transborder) first class flights in international business class awards. If members include a domestic first class flight, the entire award ticket will price out at the first class level. Most airlines include domestic first class on a business class award.
Free for Four
Hilton brings back free nights. HHonors members get a free night after every four stays in the fourth quarter of the year. Members can choose to earn double points on all stays or a free night certificate after four stays or 10 nights paid accommodation until Dec. 31.
SPG Awards Count for Elite
Good news as of Oct. 1 for Starwood Preferred Guest members trying to reach elite–your award stays will count toward elite status, including award stays when using all points and Cash & Points stays. SPG joins Hilton HHonors and Choice Privileges in counting award stays for elite qualification.
SPG Awards Count for Elite
Bad news for Starwood Preferred Guest elite members–now that award stays count toward elite, there will be more elite members competing for elite benefits.
American AAdvantage members can not only earn miles when flying Etihad Airways, but now can also redeem miles for flights on Etihad as of November.
The Third Time’s a Charm: Avios
As of November, British Airways Executive Club members no longer earn miles in the frequent flyer program. They now earn Avios points. British Airways customers used to earn Air Miles, then Executive Club miles and now, Avios. Why so many name changes? (By the way, before it was th currency for a loyalty program, AVIOS was, and still is the Applied Voice Input/Output Society.)
Club Carlson’s 50,000 Points for One Night
On Nov. 10, the first 50,000 members of Club Carlson who registered and then will stay just one night at a Radisson hotel by Dec. 30, will earn 50,000 Club Carlson points. That’s enough for a category 6 hotel night such as the Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees, Paris, or you could get three nights at a category 2 hotel at 15,000 points per night or you might choose to convert those points into 8,000 airline miles. And even if you weren’t one of the first 50,000 to register, you could still get 15,000 points, enough for a free night stay.
Tarnished UA Silver
United Airlines announced the new MileagePlus program for 2012, which had some rather bad news for Silver elite members. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, Silver members will no longer be able to book Economy Plus seats when making reservations–they will have access to Economy Plus seating only 24 hours prior to the flight.
AA Lifetime Changes
changes lifetime elite qualification starting Dec. 1. Miles from
all sources no longer count toward lifetime elite status. The new program only counts actual flight miles (plus, for a limited time, miles from the new high-priced credit card for those who owned the card prior to Dec. 1).
Another Debit Card Bites the Dust
Citibank AAdvantage debit cardholders no longer earn miles for purchases after Dec. 9. The last mileage earning debit cards are issued by Alaska, Delta and US Airways but are not expected to stick around unless the Durbin Amendment to cap interchange fees on debit cards is repealed.
SWA and AA Say No
Southwest Airlines and American Airlines do not like websites that help frequent flyers keep track of their miles. The two carriers have requested to opt out of several websites that track travelers’ loyalty programs. Southwest says that they do not want to be tracked by third-party websites like mileage manager sites because it threatens the security of the passenger information and American has said that it doesn’t want outsiders swiping data off their website. Other airlines have stated that they are not happy with sites like these, although they haven’t actively opted out. Some industry watchdogs say that the airlines are probably more interested in possible revenue loss than loss of data.