Letters – November, 17 2014

Letters – November, 17 2014

My husband and I have been flying British Airways to the U.K. ever since their nonstop Denver to Heathrow service started in 1998. He always purchases a business class ticket and I try to fly with him “on miles”.

My husband has been a Gold Executive Club member from the start. In addition to flights to or via the U.K., we have frequently used partner airlines to fly to the Far East.

Some comments:
Over the last 15 years, the availability of award flights has decreased dramatically. Whether trying to book one year or one month in advance, getting a business class award flight is equally difficult, even if booking separate outbound and return flights. Similar requests through United’s MileagePlus program usually produce several options.

Except for straight Denver to Heathrow mileage requests, booking through the website rarely offers flight alternatives on partner airlines–usually get the message that BA does not service this route–when I know that JAL, Cathay etc. frequently have award availability.

We used to get very frequent offers of the “buy one get one free” variety with the purchase of a full-fare business class ticket. Those days appear to have disappeared, and instead we are offered “Redemption Vouchers” whereby we can redeem points for one ticket and get a second one included. Since it’s difficult enough to get one award ticket, imagine how tough it is to get two on the same flight. They are a useless promotion.

We now have to pay a penalty for changing or cancelling an award travel reservation. That was one of the most attractive features of Gold membership, especially as award booking became more difficult–I could book a not-so-good flight and then change to what I wanted if it became available later.

I’m not even going to mention BA’s egregious fuel surcharges. A business class roundtrip, Denver to Heathrow, using points, ends up costing upwards of $1,000. Yes, cheap for a business class fare, but an excessive amount for a “free” trip. I used to think that the fuel surcharge was a U.K. government tax, like the other asterisk charges, but now know it goes straight into BA’s coffers.

The Executive Club website is poorly designed and has two different areas for booking award travel. One is continually taken backwards and forwards between the two and making changes to the original search usually requires re-entry of the same information. As mentioned above, the website does not offer even revenue flights on partner airlines (except for American)–why should we have to go to Tokyo via Heathrow? There’s far less brain damage in talking with our friendly local travel agent and getting several trans-Pacific alternatives within the oneworld alliance.

Trying to get some semblance of personal service from the Executive Club, particularly through the website, is just the same as dealing with any large bureaucracy or corporation these days, whether it be AT&T, Amazon, the IRS, Comcast, Barclays Bank and so on. A very frustrating and time-wasting process, but at least the IRS does not keep sending me surveys asking me if they make me feel “special” and “important”.

Enough. The unfortunate thing is that we have painted ourselves into a corner with BA and we have only ourselves to blame. We are hoping to use our three million plus Avios points to ease our retirement (if that ever arrives), but if BA tinkers any more with the Executive Club program we may just have to rely on Greyhound.

Keep up the good work.
Sheila Conroy and Peder Lund
Boulder, CO

Editor’s Note: Thanks for the note, Sheila. Your letter describes what many frequent flyers are facing–you could replace “British Airways” with any number of other airline names. But we must admit, BA has a certain flare for fuel surcharges unmatched by any other airline.

Cautiously Optimistic
For many, many years I was loyal to Star Alliance, but they left me a few years back and since then I’ve gone oneworld. It remains to be seen how the American Airlines/US Airways merger will work out, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until the next economic downturn empties planes and the carriers decide to woo frequent flyers back rather than driving them away as “over-entitled”.
Counsellor [Milepoint]

Rating SPG
Starwood Preferred Guest is a good program for me as a Platinum member getting bonus points as an elite. Green Choice at some hotels is nice as most times my room is barely lived in. SPG AMEX is one of the cards I use. Bonuses have been few and far between in the past two years, and with many hotels opting out, this brings down my enthusiasm.

There are so many award choices! Free nights are almost always available, there’s a nice bonus for transfer to some airlines (though some have very poor redemption). I used to love cash plus points, but there are very few hotels participating in that (of the ones I like). SPG Moments look good but have been less attractive of late (never know why they do not tie in an SPG hotel with many of their attractions)!

SPG’s partnerships rate middle of the road for me, mostly because I use Delta and Hyatt’s partnership with M life, which is much better than SPG’s with Caesars.

I have been elite for much of the time SPG has existed but of late, SPG has been less attractive. The hotels are not very good with honoring things like best room at check-in (have been told a few times in the past year that there is nothing, only to find out later, that there is).

The rules and conditions are pretty clear on consumer side, but can you tell if some hotels honor the rules on their side? The terms and conditions for promotions can be confusing sometimes, and downright disappointing with the opt-out list.

I like the live chat option on SPG. Given that SPG was (one of) the first to provide an official presence on FlyerTalk and Milepoint, it’s good to know they care about their guests.

Social media is great, with the exception of one very rude experience I had following a review I posted online. SPG reviews are quite handy (and slightly better than TripAdvisor as a source of reviews), but hotels should be obliged to respond to compliments and complaints. I found out that for some hotels in New York City, they outsourced it to a social media person who knew nothing about the hotel specifics–in fact, the assistant general manager in the hotel did not even know who was actually making the response–seems poor that a response would be so hollow. And in the case I refer to, quite rude.

The website is easy to use, love the grid system for multiple rate codes. Wish they would standardize their hotel information, as well as (when possible) provide public transportation options and hotel shuttle times (some do, some don’t).

Overall, I would give SPG a B. It used to be an A in my book, but this last year has been disappointing with bonuses and failure to deliver on promises–other programs have stepped up their game–SPG has not. My view is also based on the fact that some (half?) of my stays have been marred by rude staff and disconnected management.
canucklehead [Milepoint]

Rating HawaiianMiles
I haven’t used Hawaiian Airlines much yet, although my upcoming frequent travel to Hawaii is making me look at suitors for my business.

I’ve found the following:
– Staff is generally pleasant.
– Better economy product than competitors.
– Fairly easy accrual.
– Good ground accrual opportunities on the islands.
– A fair percentage of their fare sales blow the competition out of the water.

– Awful redemptions, especially in first and business class.
– No first and business class product that approaches average.
– Lounges are, well, bad.
– No way to earn elite qualifying miles with a partner.
– Upgrade certificates are worth as much in the bin as in your hand.

I feel an air of “we are the only horse in town” in their operations–a kind of aloha-style of KLM’s “it’s not possible.”

I will give Hawaiian every opportunity to win my business on this, but AS, KE, UA and AA/US are certainly viable for me.
Always Be Flying [Milepoint]