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Spoiler alert — most award travelers use their points and miles for travel. However, a new report by the Ideaworks Company highlights some of the other “wild, weird, and wonderful” rewards offered by frequent flyer programs across the globe, including flight simulator experiences, in-flight marriage proposal kits, and an actual pair of 747 business class seats.
Ideaworks is a business consultancy, and this report ostensibly targets Airline CFOs (or by extension anyone who manages a loyalty program), recommending that such programs should be crafted not only to provide a rebate in the form of travel rewards, but also to “engage individual members in a relationship that is unusual between a warm-bodied human and a cold corporate entity.” While the report is ironically rife with steely corporate speak, it does raise a few questions worth answering: namely, are award flights and hotel rooms really the best use of points, and what should loyalty programs do to actually engender loyalty?
As a general rule, I don’t advocate redeeming points and miles for alternative rewards like gift cards, retail items, or experiences. That’s mostly because those redemptions offer poor value, at least from a purely monetary point of view. Burning 25,000 airline miles on gift cards or an iPod when you’re (hopefully) getting one cent apiece is inefficient, considering you could use those same miles for award flights and get 2 cents or more out of each mile without too much difficulty.
That said, value is relative, and the true measure of an award redemption is how much it’s worth to you. Using 50,000 miles on a last-minute flight home at the highest award tier isn’t a good value from a purely economical standpoint, but if it means getting to spend the holidays with your family, then it’s worthwhile.
Also, there are some alternative redemptions that I think are worthwhile. I had an awesome time last fall redeeming Starpoints through SPG moments for two VIP tickets to see the Knicks with my dad. Not only was it a unique, memorable, and fun experience, but also the redemption value was incredible. I think it’s great that loyalty programs offer diverse awards, but as the Ideaworks report suggests, I believe there’s plenty of room for innovation and individualization.
As for the other question, I think loyalty goes way beyond rewards, but loyalty programs are definitely an important component. Brands win my affection (and my repeat business) by providing a quality product and good value, and a solid loyalty programs helps on both fronts. Delta offers a quality product (with good in-flight service and an extensive route network), but the plummeting SkyMiles program detracts from the value and keeps me from being a devout customer. My favorite players in the travel industry do a good job weaving their loyalty programs into the overall experience (like Starwood’s SPG Ambassador).
Having more award options is nice, but I’d rather have a program that does a single thing exceptionally well than one with an array of mediocre offerings. American Airlines could start selling ponies and sleigh rides for AAdvantage miles, but I’d prefer updated lounges and more off-peak awards.
How much do you value alternative redemption options? There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.