MILES & POINTS & CREDIT CARDS, OH MY!
By Joe Brancatelli
September 25, 2014 --The never-ending battle between business travelers and the travel industry over frequency programs currently favors airlines and hotels. Flush with profits and confident travel demand will continue indefinitely, the industry feels it can be persnickety and stingy.
What are beleaguered business travelers nationwide to do? A few are walking away, convinced that programs are now too complicated for the meager payout. Others are convinced that airlines and hotels aren't interested in our loyalty, only our cash, so they act accordingly, zigzagging from promotion to promotion. Then there's most of the rest of us, trying to balance our loyalty and our spending without wasting too much time wading through the rules and the more obscure gimmicks.
Regardless of which kind of business traveler you are, we all need more and better information and constantly updated strategies and tactics to maximize returns. Here are five things to know now to better manage your frequency programs
1. Ignore the revenue-reduction meme
Unfortunately, the complaints conflated two unrelated factors. Delta and United consciously used the switch to revenue-based accrual to mask devaluations of their programs' total value. Revenue plans, by nature, should be much better for business travelers because they recognize that we spend more than leisure travelers. That's the reason why lodging chains have long based their plans on our total revenue contribution.
"I understand the nostalgia and romance associated with miles flown as the basis for loyalty recognition," says
Does that mean we should make peace with the Delta and United devaluations, which kick in next year? Of course not. But we shouldn't buy into the revenue-reduction meme, either. In the longer term, the smartest airlines and hotels will reward our superior revenue contribution with superior rewards. We should be ready to move our business to those companies.
2. Understand the partner paradigm
By far the biggest non-travel generator of miles and points is credit cards. The three big players—Chase, American Express and Citibank—buy billions of dollars worth of program credits each year and award them to cardholders for acquiring and using their various cards.
"It sounds basic, but it's vital to remember that the cards also give you a better travel experience," says David Gold, who manages Chase's United Airlines credit card portfolio. "Besides what you earn, the cards are what gets you the small perks like checked-bag fee waivers and club access that make travel a bit easier."
More importantly, however, it's crucial to understand that credit-card issuers and travel companies are entwined marketing partners. If you fly a particular airline or stay with a particular hotel chain, it's ridiculous not to also carry one or more of the cards issued by the affiliated bank.
Chase pretty much controls your destiny if you fly United, Southwest or British Airways frequently or stay with Marriott, Hyatt or InterContinental hotels. Amex is the exclusive card issuer for Delta and JetBlue Airways as well as Starwood hotels. Its relationships aren't nearly as exclusive or extensive, but Citi largely dominates the card issuing for American Airlines and also has cards for Hilton guests.
3. Play your cards right
The Amex Platinum card doesn't yield much in the way of points, but it is the richest in travel perks. Its $450 annual fee is more than offset by the $200 annual credit on travel charges, its rebate for the TSA PreCheck ($85) or the Customs Global Entry ($100) plan, unlimited access to Boingo WiFi and extensive airport-club access that includes a growing network of swanky, Amex-operated Centurion Lounges. Another useful perks card: Citi's $95-a-year Hilton HHonors Reserve. It is bundled with HHonors Gold Elite status (good for free breakfast and WiFi) that otherwise requires 20 Hilton stays a year.
To rack up the miles and points, look to Chase's $395-a-year United Mileage Plus Club card. It awards 1.5 United miles for every dollar spent.Chase's Sapphire Preferred card has a lower fee ($95 annually after a free first year) and offers double points for travel and restaurant dining charges.
The third category, cards you take because of a too-good-to-ignore acquisition offer, is harder to quantify down because bonuses change frequently. One example: Citi currently offers 50,000 AAdvantage points for taking the $450-a-year Citi Executive/AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard. Earlier this year, however, Citi was offering a staggering 100,000 miles. There's no way of knowing when airlines, hotels or banks unleash an eye-popping promotion. But when you see a good deal, jump on it because it's not likely to last long.
4. Network the networks
The benefit of this strategy? You're earning points that can be transferred, usually on a 1:1 ratio, to airlines and hotels as you need them. Amex Membership Rewards lashes together 17 airline frequent flier programs and four hotel plans. That includes its own travel partners as well as outliers such as Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America, El Al, Air France and KLM. Chase's Ultimate Rewards isn't nearly as large, but its roster of familiar transfer partners such as United, Southwest, Hyatt and Marriott make it extremely appealing.
Citi is the newcomer. Its Thank You points program only added travel transfers this summer. There are 11 options, including some intriguing international carriers, but just one hotel chain (Hilton) and a glaring omission, Citi's American Airlines partner. "It's American's choice not to participate," explains Ralph Andretta, head of product management for Citi cards. "But I'll continue to ask them because I'd obviously like to have them."
5. The cash-out option
I don't agree with that strategy for one simple reason: The cost of participating in airline frequent flier programs and hotel frequent guest plans is already factored into your ticket price and room rate. If you don't accumulate miles and points then you are leaving money on the table.
If, however, you insist on the cash-out option, Citi last month debuted the best (and simplest) cash-back card on the market. Double Cash awards 1 percent back on your purchase and kicks back 1 percent more when you pay your balances. That 2 percent pay out comes without an annual fee, earning cap and category exceptions.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.