Are loyalty programs worth belonging to?

Aleksandar/Shutterstock
Aleksandar/Shutterstock
It’s time to question one of the most basic tenets of travel: Everyone should participate in an airline loyalty program.

A tectonic shift in the world of travel rewards is forcing passengers to reconsider their allegiances — or whether it’s worth being loyal at all. Given the already hopelessly convoluted nature of these programs, I’m surprised it took so long.

Frequent fliers have been hardest hit. In recent months, both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines revised their programs so that only the biggest spenders get the best perks. Soon, flying often won’t be enough to reach an airline’s coveted elite status. Expect more companies to follow.

Experienced travelers are taking a hard look at their loyalty portfolios. They don’t always like what they see.
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Why loyalty programs are dead — and why that’s good news for almost everyone

Gui Jun Pen/Shutterstock
Gui Jun Pen/Shutterstock

Loyalty programs as we know them are dead.

After years of playing the game, frequent customers like John Peppin are saying, “enough is enough.”

Peppin, the director of a medical center in Lexington, Ky., said he wondered about the endless bait and switch airlines pull — demanding absolute loyalty in order to be treated with a little dignity.

He often flies to China on American Airlines, to which he has given his business in exchange for the possibility of an upgrade to business class.
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Help, my frequent flier miles are gone!

jetblue snowQuestion: My 16-year-old son and I have had our US Airways miles taken away from us. He had 27,893 miles and I had 829 miles. They expired a few days ago.

I’m a single mom and recently lost my job. I’ve been overwhelmed and did not notice the e-mail that warned me about the expiration of the miles.

I called US Airways, but a representative said I was too late. I’ve been a loyal US Airways customer for years, but didn’t sign up for US Airways’ loyalty program until recently.
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After loyalty program changes, airlines brace for Million Miler march

vapor trailIf you don’t like some of the recent changes to your airline loyalty program, talk to Mike Croswell. He’s a United Airlines “Million Miler” who assumed that his three decades of devotion to the airline would be reciprocated after he stopped being a frequent flier.

He assumed wrong.

“The money I spent chasing Million Mile status is without a doubt the poorest investment of my career,” says Croswell, who lives in Aspen, Colo., and joined United’s frequent-flier program, MileagePlus, in 1983. “I have zero benefits that were promised to me.”
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Warning! Soon, airline loyalty will cost you

delta7Like many frequent travelers, Glenn Haussman recently received an e-mail from Delta Air Lines about an “update” to its SkyMiles loyalty program. It was so understated that some passengers didn’t bother to read it. But Haussman did.

“I was not thrilled,” says Haussman, who works for a hotel industry Web site in New York. “It made me feel less valuable to Delta.”

How can a loyalty program make passengers feel unappreciated? Delta is the first legacy airline to tie the value of its frequent-flier program to the amount of money you spend, as opposed to the number of miles you fly. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the airline’s frequent fliers will earn “elite” status, which gives them access to upgrades and other perks, through a combination of miles or segments flown and annual spending on Delta flights.
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