The ultimate guide to travel loyalty programs

Photo of author

By Christopher Elliott

Loyalty programs offer a powerful incentive to travel, and to travel more. Since the first frequent flier programs appeared in the early 1980s, frequent flier and frequent stayer incentives have mushroomed to proportions no one could have predicted. Today, it’s possible to collect miles without darkening the door of an aircraft, or points without checking into a hotel. You can earn them from buying groceries or subscribing to Netflix.

But should you?

Who should collect miles and points

  • If you’re a frequent leisure traveler, and tend to regularly use the same airline, hotel, or car rental company.
  • If you travel for business regularly.
  • If you enjoy collecting miles and points and consider yourself a travel “hacker.” (Please see my disclosure about loyalty programs.)

Who should not collect miles and points

  • If you’re a leisure traveler and only fly or stay in a hotel occasionally.
  • If you’re a corporate traveler who plans your own trips (an “unmanaged” business traveler) and are always looking for the best deal on a travel product.
  • If you live near a city with a competitive airport or airports, where you really do have a choice of airlines. Also, if you stay in cities with a competitive hotel market.

How have loyalty programs changed during the pandemic?

Frequent flier, frequent stayer and frequent renter programs have been desperate to keep their customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve extended their deadlines and offered new ways to earn points and miles.

While these offers made earning points and miles a little more exciting in the short term, they didn’t take away from a simple truth. Few people were traveling during the pandemic, and many were rethinking their allegiances. And after careful consideration, they were coming to an obvious conclusion: The loyalty only went one way.

Further complicating the issue is proposed legislation that could effectively end some rewards programs. The Credit Card Competition Act of 2022, a bill quietly introduced in the summer of 2022 by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), would direct the Federal Reserve to ensure that giant credit card-issuing banks offer a choice of at least two networks over which an electronic credit transaction may be processed. Critics say it would demolish the credit-card rewards ecosystem.

Even if it doesn’t, it seems the handwriting is on the wall for some loyalty programs. Regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under White House orders to scrutinize monopolies, seem poised to take action. Bottom line: Spend your points while you still can. The party won’t last forever.

The truth about loyalty programs

For many travelers, loyalty programs are the best part of the travel experience. You can collect points by taking a flight, booking a hotel or renting a car, and, if you accumulate enough of them, the airline or hotel rewards you with a “free” stay and elite status that offers you special perks like upgrades and access to members-only airport lounges. Talk about a win-win! Scratch under the surface, however, and you’ll see there’s much more happening. Travel companies use loyalty programs for several purposes that you may find troubling. (Full disclosure: as a consumer advocate, I find them problematic.) Also, mediating loyalty program cases is exceptionally difficult, since programs seem to make up the rules as they go along.

They want your data

By giving the company your personal information such as your name, address, and other guest preferences, you’re allowing them to better understand you, which in turn lets them market their products to you. If you care about your privacy, and are worried about a company sharing your personal information with marketing “partners,” this may be problematic.

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

They want you to spend more

Research shows that a loyalty program can increase your spending with a company by as much as 50 percent. That can easily offset the “free” ticket or 10,000 bonus miles you get for signing up. Companies know that once you’re hooked on their loyalty program, you’ll give them your business — even when there’s a cheaper price to be found elsewhere.

They want to segment you

When a company understands how much you spend — which it will if every purchase is linked to a loyalty program — then it can segment the good customers from the best ones. Unless you’re a very good customer, that probably means you’ll be getting less for your travel dollar, as companies lavish more perks on their most valuable customers.

Put differently, loyalty programs can be great for you, but they can be even better for the company offering them. If you’re going to start collecting miles or points, you need to go into the relationship with your eyes wide open. There’s no such thing as a free flight or hotel room. Someone will pay for it.

study by the Boston Fed suggests the poor are at least partially subsidizing rewards for the rich. On average, and after accounting for rewards paid to households by banks, the lowest-income household ($20,000 or less annually) pays $21, and the highest-income household ($150,000 or more annually) receives $750 every year.

Disclosure: Why I avoid loyalty programs

I’ve watched loyalty programs evolve from the scrappy clubs they were a few decades ago to the billion-dollar businesses they’ve become today. Credit card rewards are absurdly profitable. The industry earns $257 billion in revenue every year. That’s about $780 for every man, woman and child in America. Several airlines value their programs in the billions now. In fact, without their programs, they would be unprofitable, and maybe even bankrupt.

Here are my main issues with loyalty programs, and why I refuse to participate in them:

Loyalty programs short-circuit your common sense

I’ve seen travelers make purchases because they were getting miles. I’ve seen them choose more expensive flights that took longer, just so that they could reach elite status. Making purchases that harm you, even if it’s just in the short term, is objectionable to me. If you’re using a credit card and not paying off your balance every month, you’re engaging in truly self-destructive behavior.

Loyalty programs are a bubble

With trillions of unredeemed miles out there, it’s impossible for the travel industry to make good on its promises of freebies. At some point, they will have to devalue this unregulated currency, or the bubble will burst. (I have details in my section on the value of miles later in this story.)

Loyalty programs raise the price of travel

There’s a complex ecosystem of rewards credit cards linked to travel loyalty programs. A bird’s-eye view of these systems suggests that there’s no such thing as “free,” even when it comes to loyalty programs. Someone is paying for the points, with businesses raising their prices to cover the credit card transaction fees that in turn fund the points. And, might I add, it’s easy to get pulled in with false information.

Loyalty programs create an entitled class of consumer

My final, and perhaps most controversial, objection is that loyalty programs have created an entitled class of consumers. These passengers refer to people sitting in economy class as “Ma and Pa Kettle” and act as if they own the plane. (They don’t.) I’ve encountered them online and in the comments on my website, where they angrily shout down anyone who dares to question the Cult of Loyalty. I believe companies created this class of spoiled consumers. The world is a worse place because of them.

Don’t believe everything you read about loyalty programs

If you spend a little time online looking for information about loyalty programs, you’ll stumble across several blogs and websites that claim to offer “expert” advice on loyalty programs. While some of them really do have a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of loyalty programs, others can be a dangerous place for you — and your wallet. Here’s why I avoid reading those sites:

They assume that everyone should participate in a loyalty program

In fact, some travelers will never benefit from a loyalty program in a meaningful way. Once you factor in all of the extra trips you had to take and the additional dollars you had to spend on an affinity card (a credit card branded to a travel company that helps you earn miles or points — more on that in a moment), you probably would have been better off cutting up your frequent flier card.

They take a narrow view of travel, assuming that everyone travels by plane

Truth is, most Americans travel by car. (For every 10 miles traveled, roughly 9 are by car.) This makes the sites extremely airline-centric, to the point where you shouldn’t expect any reliable information about anything except an airline loyalty program. And they also waste an inordinate amount of time trying to get upgrades and help you qualify for elite status, instead of the nuts and bolts of having a smooth trip.

They have an unhealthy and often dysfunctional relationship with their programs

Some loyalty fan blogs think of frequent flier and stayer programs as a game, and they would do anything for a mile or point, even if it sometimes means breaking a rule. In fact, some are literally in the business of shilling for the card companies, and in most cases the reader is never fully aware of the writer’s financial incentives. Credit card companies often dictate what these publishers can and can’t say online — which means the news you are getting is censored by an image-conscious credit card company.

But most publishers don’t have to be reminded of who is funding them. They willingly refrain from criticizing these programs and leap to the industry’s defense when the government tries to pass laws to help consumers.

The sites can be unfriendly to people with basic questions about loyalty programs

The net result? There are almost no reliable sources of information about loyalty programs. Most of the biggest sites have been compromised by affiliate agreements that pay the publisher for each referral. The rest are “experts-only” terrain where you’re not welcome.

Bottom line: You’ll have to do your own research and make up your own mind if you want to benefit from any loyalty program.

My favorite loyalty program resources

How do I score a capacity-controlled award seat?

Airline award seats come in two flavors: those that the airline sets aside as a “free” seat, which are called a capacity-controlled seat, and a guaranteed seat, which can cost you up to twice as many miles. The capacity-controlled ones are the most coveted, and therefore, the most difficult to secure. Early birds get these choice seats. Most airlines load new award seat inventory 330 days before the flight date, and some even earlier. Other airlines hold back free seats until just a few weeks before travel. Generally, you’ll want to look for these seats far in advance, when possible.

Track your award portfolio online

Miles expire and elite levels run out if you don’t travel enough. One way to prevent it is to track your points online using a service like Award Wallet. It’s free to use at the entry level, and can help you manage and maximize your awards.

What’s the best loyalty program for me?

If you’re thinking of participating in a loyalty program, you’ll have to answer the question: Which loyalty program will be loyal back to you? Here are few variables to consider:

Your own travel needs

Are you planning to travel to cities where the hotel operates a lot of properties? Will you fly with the airline frequently enough? If you have to go out of your way to be loyal, or if the convenience isn’t worth the extra cost, this is the time to say “no.”

The rules

Have a look at the program contract. If you see clauses that you don’t understand or that veer from the norm, then maybe you’re considering the wrong program.

The program’s reputation

Some loyalty programs have reputations for being generous and fair, while others are known to be exceptionally stingy. Pay attention to what participants say. Even the most die-hard mileage collectors regularly dis their airline or hotel when they don’t get what they want.

Redemption rates

Review the actual redemption rates reported by the companies, which is usually available with a quick online search or by sifting through a company’s annual report. Rates in the single digits are a sign that you may not be able to do much with your points once you have earned them.

Customer service

Last, but definitely not least, consider how well the business would treat you. If the airline, car rental company or hotel is known for its snarky employees and substandard service, then why on earth would you offer it your loyalty?

What you need to know (and what they won’t advertise)

Some loyalty offers are outright scams. Others only reveal themselves as scams after careful study. When you sign up for your loyalty program, the terms are briefly waved in front of you. A majority of travelers either skim them (mistake), or ignore them (even bigger mistake). If you reviewed them, you’d realize how problematic award programs can be.

Here’s what you’ll find:

You don’t own the miles

They belong to the airline or hotel. What’s more, the company has the right to terminate the program, or to change the rules at any time, with or without notice.

You may not be able to use your points or miles

Redemption levels can change, and award inventory may be in limited supply, or might disappear.

If you break a rule, you may be out

Any failure to follow the program’s convoluted rules can result in your expulsion, and confiscation of all your miles.

You could be audited

If the company thinks you’ve been trying to game the system, it could audit your account. Your personal information, including your travel records, would be shared with a third party auditor. Do you want to be that public about your private information?

You’re responsible for following the changes in your program

The program doesn’t have to notify you when a redemption level changes, or your miles expire. If they do, the company is under no obligation to reinstate them.

You can’t sell your points or miles

Why? Because they said so, that’s why. Remember that they own your miles. It’s in the contract!

If you stop traveling, you could lose everything

Extended periods of inactivity will lead to the termination of your loyalty account and cancellation of your miles or points.

Not all flights or hotel stays qualify for mileage

Oh, did we forget to tell you? Too bad. We don’t have to.

And perhaps the biggest zinger of all: Your “award” tickets and stays are not “free”

You may have to pay taxes, airport fees, fuel surcharges, and other fees. You may have to pay a fee to redeem the points, too. That can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the cost of traveling.

What’s a mileage run — and should I consider one?

In the past, airlines have awarded elite status based on the number of miles you’ve flown in a year. Passengers who are a few miles shy of reaching one level may take what’s called a “mileage run” — or a flight that serves no other purpose than to rack up enough miles for elite status. That may seem to make sense on paper, and could directly benefit you in the near term. But in the long run, it is — pardon the pun — pointless.

You’re gaming the system to get better treatment from the airline (can’t blame you). But after a while, the airline will probably just move the goalposts again, requiring more points to get that coveted platinum card, because lots of other frequent fliers are playing the same card upgrade trick. And the only winners are — you guessed it — the airlines that collected the money for your mileage run ticket. Mileage runs used to be more popular, but as airlines began tying elite status and points-earning to the amount of money you spend, it’s fallen out of favor.

How much is a mile really worth?

You might be left with the impression that a mile or point is worth $1. After all, you spend a dollar, you get a dollar’s worth of miles or points, right? Not really. When companies sell each other miles, they value them at around one cent. Internally, a travel company values miles at far less — just a fraction of one cent, by some estimates.

That’s not the worst of it. Airlines and hotels are constantly changing their programs by making award seats and stays more difficult to get, which is to say they’re either reducing their available award inventory, or they’re requiring more points or miles to get a “free” room or ticket.

In other words, the value of a mile is in constant decline. If you don’t spend the points you earn right now, you will get less for them in a year or two. If you wait any longer, you may not have any miles at all. They might expire. Even more confusing: With some companies, the expirations vary, based on your travel date, so some of your awards will expire while others won’t. It’s like sand slipping through your fingers.

When are miles worth more?

First-class seats and hotel suites can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. But if you have a few points or miles, you may be able to use them to upgrade at a fraction of a cost. Although I’m dubious of the frequent flier community’s upgrade obsession, here we are in agreement: If you can pay for a premium seat with points that have little or no actual value, you win. I would add, however, that when upgrades become a hobby, the real losers are sitting in the back of the plane, where the seats seem to get moved closer together every year. Remember that the next time you’re stuck in economy class: It probably got this way because of a game.

Should I get an affinity card to collect miles?

So-called affinity cards are co-branded credit cards that allow you to collect miles for every purchase made. They can also allow you to avoid certain luggage fees, offer you a “free” companion ticket with the purchase of an economy class seat, and give you certain entry-level elite benefits reserved for an airline’s frequent fliers. If you’re a big spender, you can collect tens of thousands of miles without leaving your home.

Sounds like a no-lose proposition, doesn’t it? It can be an amazing deal for you if you’re trying to generate a lot of miles or points. But before you start using an “affinity” card, here are a few things to consider.

That free ticket may cost more than you think

Often, those attractive “bonuses” are difficult or impossible to redeem. For example, you may have to buy a full-fare economy class ticket, which costs double or triple a discounted advance-purchase fare, in order to get that “free” companion ticket. You might also have to pay taxes and fuel surcharges. That’s not such a good deal.

You’ll pay an annual fee

While most credit cards don’t have any annual fees, affinity cards generally do. The reason? There’s a perception that the extra miles being generated (normally at a rate of a mile for every dollar spent) have added value. That may or may not be true. But there’s a real cost to your credit card, too; it’s buying the miles from the airline with which it has an affinity relationship. Not at a rate of $1 a mile, but it isn’t getting them for free, either.

You can get the “benefits” elsewhere for free

Look closely at the card benefits and compare them with the elite levels of your preferred airline or hotel. They may be virtually identical to the company’s entry-level elite level.

The miles probably don’t count toward elite status

There are miles, and then there are miles. The miles you collect from an affinity card can be redeemed for a flight or a magazine subscription, but they may not count toward “elite” status (more on elite status in a moment). Put differently, you can collect all the affinity miles in the world, and never be properly recognized for it.

Are you smarter than your travel company?

If you’re a frequent flier, and you have friends who are frequent fliers, don’t let the color of your elite card go to your head. You may think you’re smarter than your airline or hotel, when it comes to playing the mileage game. You may think you can “hack” the system and find loopholes in the often silly rules that travel companies set. Well, maybe you are smarter. But as someone who has mediated several painful mileage audits, where frequent travelers lost hundreds of thousands of points for engaging in ethically problematic behavior, I’m here to tell you this will not end well. Travel companies have sophisticated software that will track you down, and they’ll confiscate all your miles. Take it from me. I know how this one ends.

What is “elite” status, and how do I get it?

Travel companies offer their best customers at least three levels of “elite” status based on the number of miles they fly, or nights they stay in their hotels. As I mentioned before, these levels are in a state of flux, so check with your travel company on how to qualify. Elite levels are usually based on precious metals — silver, gold, platinum. There’s often also an unpublished “super elite” status that separates you as the “best” of the best. Elite levels have the same effect as pyramid schemes, in that they are constantly prodding you to attain the next status level. So, you’ll hear a lot of frequent travelers griping about “almost” having made platinum status, because platinums get treated better than the golds and silvers.

Here’s a rundown of a typical elite status breakdown. Please note that these can change at any time, so I’m deliberately keeping the descriptions vague.


How to get there: Fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments/stay 10 nights/rent 5 cars in a year

What you get

  • Airlines: The opportunity to pay for a “space available” upgrade to business class or first class, access to companion upgrades, mileage bonuses, a special reservation service, priority boarding, and the ability to check a bag without paying extra.
  • Hotels: Access to an “elite” reservations line, late checkouts, and points bonuses for future stays.
  • Rental cars: Access to special parking stalls when you rent a vehicle. Ability to earn bonus miles with partner companies.


How to get there: Fly 50,000 miles or 60 segments/stay 50 nights/rent 10 cars a year

What you get

  • Airlines: Upgrades are a little easier to get, the mileage bonuses are richer, you get priority baggage delivery and access to partner airline lounges when you fly overseas.
  • Hotels: “Free” room upgrades and Internet access, breakfast, local phone calls and faxes, and discounted long-distance phone calls, plus a richer point bonus for stays.
  • Rental cars: Access to “free” car upgrades, bonus mileage on future rentals, and special offers.


How to get there: Fly 75,000 to 100,000 miles or 100 segments, stay 75 nights, 25 or more rentals in a year

What you get

  • Airlines: Somewhat easier access to upgrades, fewer fees, more aggressive mileage bonuses, and expanded award seat availability.
  • Hotels: Guaranteed availability, a dedicated reservation line, an arrival “gift,” and more aggressive points bonuses on future stays.
  • Rental cars: Guaranteed upgrades, special parking spot for elite members, richer points bonuses.


  • How to get there: Little is known about these “beyond” platinum levels, and travel companies like to keep it that way (adds to the mystique). Basically, super-elites don’t earn their status by flying, staying, or driving — they’re invited to join. The criteria aren’t miles, segments, or room nights; more often, it’s money spent. If you drop more than six figures for travel with one company, chances are you’ll be invited into the inner sanctum of the super-elite.
  • What you get: Don’t get too excited. Admission to programs like United’s Global Service or American’s Concierge Key means the company will go — pardon the pun — the extra mile for you. There are stories about planes being held for these VIP customers, and about employees running errands for them in a pinch. One airline runs its super-elites across the tarmac in private cars and offers a dedicated check-in desk at certain airports, complete with their own private TSA screening area. Certainly, they have priority for upgrades over everyone else, including the platinums who think they’re at the top of the food chain.

It helps to put these perks into some perspective. If you’re spending six figures on a hotel, you could probably buy your own hotel or a private jet. Of course you’re being treated like a flying pharaoh. You’re good for the shareholders — really good.

How do I keep my miles from expiring?

One of the biggest loyalty-program complaints — maybe the biggest — is points that expire. If your account goes inactive for a certain amount of time, usually 36 months, your miles will expire. Some programs expire in less time. Travelers often contact me, hoping they can get them reinstated. The best way to avoid that is to make sure they never expire in the first place.

Know your program rules

Even though it’s a dense document filled with legalese, you should acquaint yourself with the restrictions. Knowing that all miles are perishable is a good start, but it helps to know how perishable.

Make sure the airline, hotel or car rental company has your address and email

As a courtesy, most programs will send you a notice when your miles are about to expire. If you’ve moved or if your email address has changed, that can’t happen.

Stay active

In order to prevent your miles from expiring, you don’t have to fly or stay. Something as small as using your miles to order a magazine subscription or flowers can be enough to keep your account active.

Note: Remember, miles and points depreciate over time. Loyalty programs are meant to “reward” current customers, so if you haven’t flown with an airline or stayed at a hotel within the last three years, an expiration isn’t just inevitable — it’s something you probably deserve. Think about it. You’re not really a loyal customer anymore, are you?

How do you recover your expired miles or points?

The discovery that your miles are gone is never a pleasant one. It’s often followed immediately by a conversation with an airline or hotel representative, who tells you that you have no options, and who may prematurely disconnect the phone call, but you do have options.

Pay to recover

Some companies will let you “reactivate” your miles for a fee. If you’ve lost hundreds of thousands of miles, that might be an option worth considering. For only a few thousand miles, the fee will almost certainly be too high. Let the miles go.

Appeal your case

Although companies can be rigid in their denials, here are a few things that might persuade them: You’re employed by a large company that does a lot of business with the airline or hotel; you’ve been between jobs but were otherwise an excellent customer; you didn’t have an address at which you could be contacted. What doesn’t work? Drama. Telling the company you’re a single mom on a fixed income with a special needs kid, while it may be true, does little to persuade even the most soft-hearted manager. Which is too bad.

When should you stop participating in a loyalty program?

In the same way you balance your checkbook, or do your finances, you should also constantly assess your participation in a loyalty program. You may be giving your business to the wrong company. The sooner you know, the sooner you can make a change in your spending habits.

When you stop traveling. If you fly less than three times a year, rent fewer than three cars a year or stay a week or less in a hotel, participating in a program might cost more than not participating (scroll down a few paragraphs to read the section on negative value of miles – that’s right, negative value).

When you move. If you relocate away from a place where a company you used to patronize does business – say, away from an airline hub – then being a loyal traveler will have less value. It may still benefit the company you’re being loyal to, because they’ll still get your money, even if they don’t deserve it.

Do miles or points have a “negative” value?

I’ve already discussed the perceived value of a mile versus the real value, but as I’ve hinted, the truth is a little more complicated. Yes, a mile is almost certainly not worth $1, and probably not worth 1 cent. But did you know that many miles and points are worth less than zero?

This is one reason loyalty programs are sometimes called the crack cocaine of the travel industry. You don’t always make rational decisions when you’re under the influence of a frequent flier program. You see platinum cards and upgrades, and are willing to do what’s necessary to earn a mile.

Would you buy it now?

Next time you’re at the store, gripping that platinum credit card, ask yourself: Would I buy this if I wasn’t earning points?

This ability to short-circuit your common sense is why loyalty programs are ridiculously profitable to most travel companies. They know you’ll ignore the better deal, the airline or hotel chain with superior customer service, the flight with a more convenient routing, in exchange for a chance to get treated a little better on your next flight.

For those customers, loyalty programs have a negative value because you’re paying more and getting less. The program is enticing you to book the wrong product. It is leading you astray.

Sometimes, your points are worth less than nothing

Loyalty programs have a negative value for most leisure travelers and for some business travelers. If you’re wondering which group you’re in, then you’re probably among them; your miles are actually worth less than nothing.

And it’s not just harming you. Over the long term, when enough travelers participate in these programs, it creates a deeply divided travel experience that has no place in the 21st century. It’s a caste system in which a privileged few elites sit in the front of the plane and are treated like gods, while the mere mortals sit in the squalor of economy class, with hardly enough room to move and where everything costs extra. Thanks to the game, the rich get richer and the rest of us suffer.

How do I get credit retroactively for a flight, rental, or stay?

Sometimes, it happens. You’re on final approach to Sydney Airport after spending the better part of the day on a plane, and you say to yourself, “I should get credit for this flight!” Guess what? You can. Most airlines will allow you to retroactively receive credit for a flight if you join a loyalty program after your trip.

A few things to remember:

Keep your original boarding pass or the receipt for your hotel stay

That’s proof you were there. Travel companies are notoriously lax when it comes to maintaining records of your previous business.

Don’t wait too long

Travel companies have a cutoff for getting credit for your flight, rental, or stay. You’ll want to apply to join a program within a month, and preferably within a week. Policies vary.

Don’t assume you’ll get credit

Some kinds of discount airline tickets aren’t eligible for mileage credit, and some hotel rooms booked through certain online travel agencies can’t get points. Ask the travel company if you’re eligible.

What do I need to know about partner miles and points?

Just as airlines have code-share partners so, too, do loyalty programs. They can be confusing, to say the least. Companies will let you earn miles through a marketing partner, which allows you to accelerate your mileage or points earnings. Thanks to these partnerships, you can also redeem miles through a variety of partners – so you can earn miles through an airline, but redeem them on a hotel stay.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The partnerships can change at any time, for any reason

They don’t have to tell you about them – and they often don’t bother. This can lead to an award stay being canceled because a partnership was terminated, and because you signed the program agreement, you have few if any options.

The partnerships are there primarily to benefit the companies, not you

Partnerships are presented as a “win” for you, and as a service being performed by your travel company. Basically, it appears as if the company is selflessly trying to “help” its customers make the most of their miles and points. In fact, it is shrewdly trying to maximize the value of its own program to shareholders. Don’t be fooled. They’re not doing this for you as much as they’re doing it to you.

If something goes wrong, prepare for a game of finger-pointing

Just as airline codesharing agreements offer an opportunity for a carrier to play “pass the buck” with a partner, so also mileage partnerships allow a company to bounce between you and a partner when you run into trouble. This can be maddening. You’re almost always better off paying one company for your flight or stay, and dealing directly with them.

Note: Many programs allow you to move miles from one partner to another, but the conversion rate is terrible. Again, in 99 out of 100 cases, simply buying the product outright is smarter than trying to redeem points for miles or vice versa.

What to do when you quit?

Leaving a program is easier said than done. If you’re a valuable customer, the company might try to incentivize you to come back, and there are all those miles to think about!

Donate your unused miles

Many charities will accept your miles and points. Give them to a good cause.

Status match, if you must

If you’re leaving a program, but intend to continue traveling, consider asking a rival airline to match your status. If you’re lucky, you’ll be granted the same status on that airline, so you don’t have to start from scratch when you give up your old program.

Don’t look back

Remember, nothing lasts forever. Even “lifetime” status doesn’t last a lifetime. One hotel program famously ended a generous lifetime program for some of its customers several years ago. Although many guests complained, the program was well within its rights to do so. One airline even took away several benefits that were guaranteed in writing for life to million-mile fliers. How’d they rationalize it? As the airline re-incorporated, claiming it was the life of the corporation, not of the customer. And the corporation no longer existed. Pretty clever, huh?

The end is near

It’s only a matter of time before loyalty programs are widely recognized as the habit-forming hobby that they are, capable of blinding legions of otherwise intelligent travelers. For most people, participating in a program can be costly and unrewarding. Don’t be a sucker.

Loyalty programs reward a travel company’s best customers, but for the rest of us, collecting miles and points can be a futile and dangerous game. Because travel companies are allowed to make the rules and then change them as they go along, the house is guaranteed to always win. Unless you’re constantly re-evaluating your loyalties, you’re probably giving your business to the wrong travel company. Pay close attention to how you’re spending your money, know that the deck is probably stacked against you, and you’ll win.

Photo of author

Christopher Elliott

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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

Related Posts