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.”

Posted in On Travel Tagged , , ,

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.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Global Rescue

Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

%d bloggers like this: