Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Making a Case Against Travel Loyalty Programs

We enjoy the challenge of traveling well at the lowest possible cost, and when things go well we genuinely enjoy the travel experience itself, rather than viewing it merely as a necessary means of getting from Point A to Point B.

To that end, we are members of airline, hotel, and car rental loyalty programs. We earn miles and points in these programs by buying their services, and by ancillary methods such as credit card spending on a variety of credit cards. Brian has been an active member of FlyerTalk  since 2002, and we follow a number of travel bloggers regularly.

We continue to think that the benefits we’ve gained from these efforts greatly exceed the money we've spent; however, it’s always good to look at anything involving expenditures clearly and objectively.

We couldn’t imagine a more appropriate person to make the case against loyalty programs than Christopher Elliott, the well known travel guru. He writes columns for the Washington Post, Forbes, and USA Today, and is the founder and head of Elliott Advocacy, a non-profit organization that "empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those that can't." He is also well known - notorious? - in the miles earning-and-burning subculture for his outspoken opposition to loyalty programs.

Elliott has just published his updated "ultimate guide to travel loyalty programs."

It’s well worth reading. Parts of it we largely agree with, including most of his opening discussion of who should – and who should not – collect miles and points. We disagree with other parts, sometimes strenuously. For just one somewhat trivial example, he objects that “loyalty programs have created an entitled class of consumers” who “refer to people who sit in economy class as ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ and act as if they own the plane.”

Where to begin with that one? For one thing, it’s true that the FlyerTalk glossary defines “Kettle” as “used on FT to describe inexperienced traveler [sic].” We're old enough to have watched TV reruns of some of the many successful 1940s-50s  Ma and Pa Kettle movie comedies. Ma and Pa Kettle travel far afield from their Washington State farm in several of the movies, for example, Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki. When they travel, they carry mounds of baggage with them, just as some inexperienced travelers tend to do, behavior that is conspicuous and admittedly annoying when standing behind them in TSA lines, in boarding queues, or in the aisle of the plane itself. It has nothing to do with who is sitting in which class.

Like many other "frequent flyers," we've helped other travelers whenever we can, whether lifting bags into or out of the overhead compartments or giving them directions. When we're sitting in Business or First, we feel fortunate to be there and can't imagine sneering at those sitting in Economy.

Elliott has deeper and more rational reservations. He believes that credit cards increase costs for everyone and that it's often poorer consumers who get victimized. Well, yes. Again, we're old enough to remember when credit cards were only issued for use in gas stations and were to be paid in full when the bill arrived in the mail. Brian recalls the day in the mid-1950s when his father first used his new Diner's Club credit card in a restaurant, confusing and even annoying the hostess ("Sir, please wait while I deal with the cash customers"). How times have changed, and perhaps not completely for the better, compared to the bad old pay-as-you-go days.

Ultimately, it seems to us that Elliott is overlooking - or at least discounting - the concept that travel is an activity that can actually be enjoyed along the way, rather than simply endured, and that it's a goal worthy of investing some time, effort, and expense, within reason of course.

Some travel bloggers are more outspoken in their disagreement with Elliott. See, for example, Gary Leff's 2015 column: "Could This Be the Dumbest Christopher Elliott Column Yet? Why Does Anyone Publish This Dreck?" Why not tell us how you really feel, Gary?

As for us, we continue to appreciate the words of author and traveler Robert Louis Stevenson that we feature on our front page: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

If our research and planning enable us sometimes to move in first or business class, and to have access to an upgraded hotel room with lounge access when we arrive at our destination, so much the better. We'll continue to strive for that, to pay our credit cards automatically when they come due every month, and to continue to be understanding of the Kettles.

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