Why the best loyalty program may be none at all

best loyalty program

If you’re looking for the best loyalty program to join, maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Because the best loyalty program might be none at all – at least when it comes to air travel.

Even though frequent flyer programs have a cultlike following, they’re a false religion. Program members must pledge their business to an airline or make all of their purchases on a branded credit card. But the points lose value over time or expire. And these schemes have deepened the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots”: people without status who receive the worst service and pay outrageous fees.

This is the time of year when devoted program members begin planning their end-of-year mileage runs – extra flights designed to win their coveted frequent flyer elite status. So it’s the perfect moment to consider the best frequent flyer program for you.

Loyalty isn’t for everyone

Loyalty disciples can’t stop talking about their program perks, which can be pretty amazing. Tariq Nasir, an independent film producer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is an American Airlines Platinum Concierge Key member (the most elite status the airline offers) and adores the loyalty lifestyle.

Nasir says frequent fliers benefit from giving their loyalty to an airline with free travel, upgrades and private gate transfers in a Cadillac Escalade.

“These perks are very helpful when you travel frequently,” he says. “They make the whole process a lot easier and minimize any travel-related stress.”

Airlines want you to believe they treat all of their loyalty program members like Nasir. But only a fraction of passengers are real VIPs. A vast majority of us mindlessly give all of our business to an airline, but when it comes to getting something back, we face high hurdles: blackout dates, high fees, and severely limited award travel availability, to name a few.

Want to find the best loyalty program? Beware of ‘gotchas’

For extremely frequent business travelers like Nasir, collecting frequent flyer points may make sense. If you’re going to fly anyway, you might as well receive credit. But for the rest of us sitting in the back of the plane, the clear beneficiary is the airline. The company collects our travel dollars and data and gives little of value in return for our loyalty.

We’ll never find the best loyalty program because for us, it doesn’t exist.

At least that’s the assessment of David Pring-Mill, a consultant from Vancouver, Canada. He abandoned his frequent flyer program a few years ago after his miles expired. Between the promise of “free flights” misleading benefits, he considers it a poor investment of his time and money and believes his years of loyalty were all for nothing.

“I value my time too much to mess with these schemes now,” he says.

Expired miles and studying the program rules aren’t the only pains. Loyalty programs are filled with “gotchas” like extra fees to redeem your “free” award tickets, blackout dates and the almost constant devaluation of miles.

Even when you think you’ve found the best frequent flyer program, you can still feel like a hamster on a wheel.

Are loyalty programs turning air travel into a joke?

Is it a coincidence that the rise of loyalty programs has coincided with the fall of the airline industry’s reputation? Airlines used to be the gold standard for customer service – at least in the United States.

No more: Today, non-elite passengers are outcasts. Hit with nuisance fees, squeezed into tiny seats, served by disgruntled flight attendants, they are treated worse than cargo. No wonder airline customer satisfaction scores are circling the drain.

Perhaps the reason for our collective suffering is in the front of the plane. There, you’ll see the elites in lie-flat seats enjoying the royal treatment. You’ll also find the wannabes in their “premium” economy seats, hoping for an upgrade. They think they’ve found the best frequent flyer program.

Look back and there we are, the rest of the passengers! The generous legroom we once had in economy class has been removed and redistributed to those with elite status and the one or two passengers who paid for the premium seats. We used to be able to check a bag without paying extra. Now, only frequent flyers with enough status can do that.

Yes, airlines still offer over-the-top perks for their platinum-card customers. But most of us sit in tiny seats and cling to a false hope we can someday earn an upgrade or a “free” ticket. The gap between elites and non-elites has never been wider, or more shameful. We’d be better off without this ridiculous caste system.

Why can’t anyone figure out the best frequent flyer program? Maybe it’s because there is no such thing.

Tricks for winning the loyalty game

Barring federal regulation, it’s unlikely airlines will dismantle their loyalty programs anytime soon. If you can’t quit, how do you at least not become a sucker?

Find a program that plays fewer games with you.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines get consistently good marks for their programs (although they also have their fair share of critics). Bear in mind that they operate in the same way, enticing you to spend money on “free” perks and ultimately widening a class divide.

Sign up for a better card

Although some travel reward programs deliver on their promises, you might get more bang for your buck with a rewards credit card or a card that offers cash back, says Greg Mahnken, a credit industry analyst with Credit Card Insider. “A cash-back card gives you more flexibility than frequent flyer miles,” he says.

Use your loyalty as leverage

“Demand they take care of you,” says frequent flyer Travis Chambers, who owns a video production company in Los Angeles. “Play hardball.” When customer service gets bad (and it often does), use your loyalty and status to negotiate better treatment. If necessary, he adds, “threaten to leave.”

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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