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Lifestyles of the Superloyal

Published: 01/05/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » May 2014 » Special Reports »

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In the 1980s when American Airlines launched the first frequent flier program, no one could have imagined the success and loyalty they would eventually drive to airlines’ bottom lines. Today, frequent flier programs are among the airlines’ top revenue generators – not only from the loyalty they spur through shaping customer habits, but also by selling miles to credit card companies and related business. This lines the coffers of the airlines while also delivering significant value to travelers.

While travel pundits love to hate the airlines for the purported difficulties in using miles, the fact is that there has never been more opportunity to redeem for aspirational awards and unique travel experiences that would otherwise be out of reach for many travelers.

Reaping the Rewards

If you’ve ever wondered what those pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor first class prices (ranging between $10,000-20,000) provide, then get ready for an eye-opening journey. That is, if you can afford it. But, miles put these elite experiences within immediate reach of loyal travelers.

Flat beds, noise-canceling headsets and expensive amenity kits laden with beauty products are almost the norm up front these days. But, mileage experts (yes, tens of thousands of passengers hone their mileage-earning skills on websites such as FlyerTalk.com or MilePoint.com to maximize their mileage balance) put the effort in for another reason: the high-flying perks just keep getting better.

These super elite travelers know the ins and outs of airline and hotel loyalty programs and maximize them to the hilt to travel in style. And the airlines are OK with it; after all, these are programs they designed and developed to encourage loyalty for their business.

At the touch of a button aboard my recent British Airways’ Airbus A380 first class flight, I could control the venetian blinds covering the windows and privacy screen that pulls up to cocoon me in my bed. Wine lists as thick as a book are not uncommon, and cotton pajamas and bottomless champagne swoon BA’s first class travelers further. An a la carte menu offered at any time provides even more convenience and decadence.

London-bound business travelers can also fly from JFK to London City Airport downtown aboard the specially fitted British Airways Airbus A318 aircraft with only 32 flat-bed seats. This elite offering comes with almost nonexistent queues at either end of a flight due to the small passenger count, and the crew has come to recognize regulars. It’s not often that you fly back and forth across the Atlantic with the same cabin crew that brings your favorite cocktail once in the air and knows your breakfast coffee preferences. It does not get any closer to a private plane than that.

Turndown service brings duvets, cushioned seat covers, and even night caps on Swiss International and Lufthansa, among others.  Delta recently partnered with Westin Hotels to bring the brand’s famed Heavenly Duvets to each business class seat.

Aboard many Lufthansa Boeing 747-400s, a first class ticket entitles travelers to, not just one, but two seats of their own: a cushioned reclining seat and an adjacent, duvet-lined bed by the window.  Other unique first class features found on Lufthansa aircraft include, in-seat flower vases for fresh roses, personal closets with take-home garment bags and men’s urinals in the lavatory.  Porsche or Mercedes sweep crème de la crème travelers directly from Frankfurt’s private terminal to the plane.

Oh, and in that private terminal, there are bubble baths (yes, you can take your champagne with you), a full restaurant and cigar lounges stocked with expensive stogies to help pass the time until your personal assistant directs you to a private immigration line. 

Ahh, the sweet life of luxury.  But of course imminently accessible simply by trading in a stash of frequent flier miles.

In 2008, Emirates made headlines for its inflight shower experience providing five minutes of drenching water pressure plus a spa-like bathroom with thick towels and lavish toiletries aboard its Airbus A380s. Inflight bars and lounges aboard Virgin Atlantic, Nigeria’s Arik Air, and Emirates have brought back the glamour that was once attributed to air travel. There is nothing like sipping a martini on a divan staring out at the stars as you hurtle across the Atlantic.

Thai Airways picks up first class fliers in a golf cart from the plane, never once allowing them to set foot on the terminal floor as they are whisked away to a spa for a one-hour treatment in between flights. I once flew as the sole first class passenger aboard a Thai 747 with three crew members at my disposal. Endless champagne and caviar was laid out, and the doting service never ceased. And I had my United miles to thank for getting me up there.

Turkish Airlines has decked out its multi-level lounge in Istanbul with everything from golf simulators to roaming masseurs. All Nippon Airlines offers sake tastings to its first class passengers, and like Emirates and Etihad, they have walled suites providing the ultimate in privacy.

Fancy a cappuccino? Austrian Airlines has a typical Viennese style coffee menu boasting more than a dozen types of coffee drinks made-to-order on board. American Airlines has created an elegant wine tasting in the sky for international first class passengers with an elaborate wine flight presentation. 

Singapore Airlines offers one of the widest first class seats in the air. Its latest design clocks in at a whopping 35 inches with an ergonomic cushion that more closely resembles a small sofa. 

Airlines know competition is high for premium products, and whether customers use cash or miles to get up there, they want the experience to be memorable. The attention to detail on airline premium products has enhanced the experience to the heights of luxury, and mileage hoarders know they have hit the jackpot when redeeming points for them.

Upfront Style, Budget Price

So how can travelers take advantage of these perks without spending a fortune? A common complaint is that it seems difficult to search for award seats. But, remember that most airlines do not list all of their partners’ award seats online. Your best bet is to call the program’s 1-800 number (do your homework first by learning what airline partners are an option for your itinerary).

While airlines are raising the price of their first class award redemptions (United announced a recent hike from 160,000 to a whopping 280,000 miles for first class from the US to the Middle East on its partners, and Delta will not even allow fliers to cash in miles for international first class seats), there are still some good deals out there.

According to Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com and an expert on the loyalty industry, “I flew one-way on Emirates first class for 90,000 Alaska Airlines miles and $90 in taxes. Airlines tend to release most of their award seats at the last minute in an effort to sell as many seats as possible before they let people redeem miles for them.”

An inflight shower, bottomless Dom Perignon, personal minibar, and made-to-order ice cream sundaes make the effort to collect miles seem quite worth it.

Since searching for these mileage gems can be time-consuming, it may be advisable to consult a mileage award booking service, such as the ones offered by travel experts like Gary Leff (BookYourAward.com) or Ben Schlappig (PointsPros.com). Both take into account your desired class of service, mileage amount to be spent and destination, and churn out program-boosting results that  you may not have even known about for  a flat fee of $100-$200. 

Rooms for Improvement 

While mileage collectors are proud of their first class award redemptions, hotel loyalty programs provide arguably more value. These days, redeeming miles for travel goes beyond an airplane seat to include hotels, gifts and even actual experiences. 

Starwood Hotels and Resorts offers members the chance to redeem points for unique concert experiences (including the occasional backstage pass) and premium seats at Broadway shows. Members can also exchange points for spa treatments or dining packages at many hotels.

Starwood even allows its Platinum members (who stay 75 nights per year) to check in and out of a Starwood property for any period of 24 hours. For instance, guests flying to from North America to Europe land early, but Platinum members can check in at 8:00 AM and stay until 8:00 AM the following morning (or on occasion, even benefit from a late checkout resulting in nearly 30 hours in a room). Or they could arrive in a city at 9:00 PM, but keep the room until 9:00 PM the following day.

If you have time and are daring enough, Starwood’s Moments program allows you to bid loyalty points on a host of experiences. Want to be the first to ride the Las Vegas High Roller Ferris Wheel? Your points can get you a night at Caesar’s Palace and two tickets to the Guinness Book of World Record’s ceremony to ride the world’s highest observation wheel. Oh yeah, and that comes with dinner for two at Nobu in Caesar’s Palace.

Fancy a backstage tour of Koozy by Cirque du Soleil in Amsterdam? Your Starwood points can get you two VIP tickets behind the scenes plus a meal in the cast and crew kitchen. Or if Broadway is more your style, how about a chance to meet the cast of The Cripple of Inishmaan starring Daniel Radcliffe? Two upfront tickets to the show are included plus a Radcliffe-signed Playbill.

Upgrades to overwater bungalows in Tahiti, Opera House-view rooms in Sydney, and first dibs on rooms or suites during major events like the Super Bowl or New Year’s Eve are all benefits of holding elite status in a hotel loyalty program like Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards.

Once at Four Seasons Park Lane in London, a manager overheard me say that I would be holed up in my room for hours one evening working on a story, and they sent up a cheese tray and bottle of wine with a note wishing me plenty of creativity. Four Seasons’ Hotel des Bergues in Geneva has personnel that monitor individual guest arrivals at the airport to guarantee that someone from the hotel staff awaits them at the door once they reach the hotel. The personalized greeting is a pleasant surprise, and no guest needs to visit the reception desk as in-room registration is the norm. Luxury hotels especially seem to have mastered the art of caring for loyal, frequent guests.

The options are endless, and with your loyalty program doing the legwork to create these memorable experiences, why not let your imagination go wild and try something you would not otherwise consider?

Loyalty Evolves

The good old days of collecting miles and points is changing though. Southwest, jetBlue, and – beginning in 2015 – Delta offer loyalty programs that reward customers based on the amount of money they spend versus the number of miles they fly. While this certainly directs the benefits to the airlines’ highest spenders (and rightfully so), it also upsets the calculus of loyalty for everyone else. 

For years, hotel programs have operated this way by giving points based upon room rate, but the airline industry has held out and, as a result, trained customers to play the mileage game. Now customers might not remain loyal to a particular airline if they are not rewarded in the same way. 

The change is meant to encourage high-profit business travel fares, but it locks out small business owners and leisure travelers that must remain price-conscious. Previously, they may have been willing to spend just a bit more to travel with their airline of choice to rack up miles, but this new type of program no longer rewards that behavior. This change actually encourages people to book the lowest fare on any airline (rather than remaining loyal) since there is little motivation to stay with one brand. Exchanging hotel program points for a free night is much easier than redeeming miles for premium seats, which is probably why travelers are more accepting of the points-per-dollar platform with hotel programs.

Many experts argue that it is only a matter of time for other airlines like American and United to follow suit. True, the small percentage of business travelers on expense accounts will reap big rewards from this type of loyalty program shift, but it is yet to be seen how this will affect airline customer loyalty going forward. That is, unless airlines plan to release more award seats to ease the increased burden for earning miles.

Is It Still Worth It?

So for travelers who make the concerted effort to consolidate their mileage with one airline program, the question becomes, is it still worth it. And the answer clearly is yes. There are luxurious travel experiences out there that would otherwise be out of reach to the average traveler.

Hoarding miles, however, is never recommended as this type of mile-based currency only devalues over time as airlines raise award ticket prices, tighten availability and adjust their programs to discourage loyalty among lower-spending travelers. Collect, redeem, and enjoy is the mantra of many experienced travelers who find that the best value comes from premium cabin redemptions.

Sure, the concept of loyalty and reward has evolved a great deal since the 1980s, but at the same time, industry competition has intensified. For now, the most memorable, unique and over-the-top travel experiences are still within reach of those who distribute their travel dollars loyally and carefully with the right programs. 

By Ramsey Qubein


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