Wednesday, January 15, 2020

How to leave your travel loyalty program (and you really should)

Guest post by Christopher Elliott, author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

Maybe there's no 12-step program for it, but there are plenty of ways to leave your travel loyalty program. And plenty of people want to get out. 
Do you belong to a lot of "reward" programs?
 Steve Danishek, a travel agent from Seattle and million-miler, is one of them. He says airlines have added new fees, made it harder to get an award seat and continue to dilute their programs. "The programs are in decline," he adds.

But how to leave? There's no better time to ask than right now when many loyal frequent fliers are taking end-of-year mileage runs designed to help them reach elite status. But before answering, let's take a quick inventory of the recent program declines – and there are many. It turns out leaving your loyalty program may be the easy part of the equation.

Why you should leave your loyalty program

More rewards are based on dollars spent.
The latest trick: "dynamic" award pricing that changes based on demand, which makes many award seats out of reach for the average traveler. Also, instead of rewarding loyalty, travel companies are giving their best perks to the big spenders. That makes the loyalty game almost unwinnable for many travelers.

If you have lifetime status on one of the airlines or are a business traveler on an expense account, it might be worth sticking around. Otherwise, there may be better ways to spend your time and money than chasing the next elite level, says Steven Ryals, owner of Notiflyr, a travel deal site. 
Families are less likely to reap rewards
from airline loyalty programs.

Remember, points and miles almost always lose value. In other words, a "free" award ticket that cost 25,000 points last year may require another 10,000 points next year. You might also have to pay a fee to redeem the miles.

And one other thing: Check the terms of your program, which are absurd. For example, did you know that your miles don't really belong to you? Your travel company can change the rules at any time, for any reason. It's all buried in the fine print.

Here are your options if you want to quit

If there's a nicotine patch for frequent fliers, it's shifting to a points-based credit card. You might receive rewards that are as good as or better than your airline or hotel loyalty perks. If you move your spending to a points-based credit card you might realize more perks.

It's hard to be a true "winner" in many of
today'sloyalty programs.
Cash-back cards are also great for kicking the habit. That's what Bud Nykaza, a retired marketing researcher from Maui, recently did. He stopped participating in his airline loyalty program and moved to a Costco Visa card for travel. "They give you a 3% rebate on all of your travel purchases," he says. "That is worth more than the value of a mile earned with a credit card."

Credit card programs are just a temporary fix. The real problem is that you're collecting points that lose value, that don't belong to you, and that may be unusable. Worse, you may be spending more money than you otherwise would. Only the travel company or credit card is really benefiting from that kind of purchasing behavior.

You might be better off finding a credit card with a lower interest rate and no annual fee. Then buy a ticket or book a hotel room at the lowest price, without regard for the points or miles you might earn. Over time, that strategy will save lots of money.

Ready to leave? Here's how to leave your loyalty program

Take the rest of your miles and book a flight to a warm-weather destination. Burn your hotel points on a suite overlooking the ocean. Go enjoy your vacation. Then take a pair of scissors to your loyalty card – and never look back.

"It makes no sense to participate in loyalty programs anymore," says Mike Gnitecki, a recent loyalty program quitter who works for a hospital in Tyler, Texas. "Most of the major airlines and hotel chains have gutted their loyalty programs. I now shop almost exclusively based on price."

Three annoying reasons to leave your loyalty program now

1. Dynamic award pricing

Airlines and hotels favor dynamic
award pricing model.
Many travel companies have stopped using fixed award charts to determine what you get for your points and miles. Instead, they use a dynamic model. Less desirable flights cost less, but award seats on the most popular flights cost more.

Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and, most recently, American Airlines, InterContinental Hotels and Marriott now do this.

2. Revenue-based programs

Revenue-based programs award miles and points based on how much you spend, as opposed to how many miles you fly or nights you stay. Customers who spend a lot benefit from a revenue-based program. But travelers who simply travel often will see less return from their loyalty program. American, Delta and United have this type of program in place.

3. Redemption fees

A travel company may charge a fee to redeem your points or miles. For example, American has a $75 fee for award tickets or mileage upgrades requested less than 21 days before departure. So much for a "free" ticket. Every major airline and any other travel company that can get away with it is now doing this.

Photos from free sources.

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