Travel Loyalty Program Trends to Take Advantage of in 2018
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During a conversation with a few points and miles junkies recently, someone brought up the fact that 2018 has been a bit quiet in the loyalty program arena. I quickly countered that their pre-departure beverage must have been a double if they thought 2018 was an off year for loyalty program changes. Let's take a look at the shifting loyalty landscape so you can position yourself to take advantage of program trends in 2018.
I'll go through the biggest developments in credit card, hotel and airline programs. For each, I'll tell you a few sure bets you should be taking advantage of this year and then cover a few strategies which could either work in your favor or against you based on the information we have today. Undertake each at your own risk!
Overall, the premium card market continues to dominate the headlines and heat up with unexpected contenders like the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express. With the economy and Dow Jones continuing to grow, I don't think there's any reason to believe consumer borrowing will slow down or interchange fees will be altered. That means credit card incentives should continue to grow in 2018.
Re-evaluate Your Premium Credit Cards — Are there other premium products like the US Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card, Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ Visa®️ card (up to 2.625% cash back on all purchases, uncapped) or Citi Prestige that could earn a spot in your wallet? If you aren't looking at what the lesser-known competition could give you for the same or lower annual fee than heavyweights like the Platinum Card® from American Express, 2018 is the time to do so.
Diversify The Banks You Patronize — Look beyond Amex, Barclays, Chase and Citi for your next card. In my opinion, the biggest reminder to not get bank tunnel vision in 2018 is the new PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card. All points are worth 1 cent and the card comes with a 25,000-point bonus after $2,500 in spend in the first three months. You get 4x or 3x points on travel purchases depending on the assets you hold in PenFed, 1.5x points on all other spend, a $100 annual airline credit and a $100 Global Entry/TSA fee reimbursement — all for no annual fee.
You should consider Bank of America, Comenity Bank, Discover, First National Bank of Omaha, Synchrony Bank, US Bank and even credit unions like Alliant Credit Union, with its 3% cash-back card, when you're trying to meet your next financial and travel goals.
Build Your Transferable Points — If you're using an airline or hotel co-branded card for everyday spend, it's time to switch up what you swipe daily. Airline and hotel programs are making those points worth less and less each year and can devalue on you without notice. Opt to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points or Amex Membership Rewards points with every purchase, diversifying your ability to use points and protecting yourself from devaluations.
Roll The Dice
Choosing When to Apply — Welcome bonuses in 2018 remain as variable as in past years, with cards both increasing and decreasing their offers. This can make it difficult to know when to sign up for a card. Citi just brought back a 60,000-point bonus on the Citi Premier® Card (after spending $4,000 in the first three months); and Chase just brought back 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points for the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
I hope we see an increased bonus on the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express one more time before Marriott and SPG combine programs — but at least we're currently seeing one on the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express. If a card's current welcome bonus is going to help you achieve your next award travel goal, apply and be confident that you made the best decision possible. If a limited-time offer happens to appear right after you applied, send a secure message to the bank and ask for a match.
Not Following the Issuers' Rules — Card-issuing banks continue to crack down on who they perceive as non-profitable cardholders and ratchet up the heat on suspected award abusers. There's no end in sight for Chase's 5/24 rule, and American Express has made its presence particularly known so far this year by denying sign-up bonuses and limited-time spend offer bonuses if they feel your purchases are an attempt to game the system.
In 2018, it's more imperative than ever to realize this hobby is a marathon, not a sprint. You don't need to open all the credit cards this quarter, nor do you need to risk being told your business is no longer welcome by a bank whose instruments you want to utilize for the next few decades. Slow down, and take it one trip at a time.
Hotel programs are perhaps the most dynamic right now in the loyalty arena, and I expect things to look different by the end of 2018 on a few fronts.
Wyndham Rewards — If it isn't already, Wyndham should be routinely in your thoughts in 2018. 15,000 points for any hotel in the world can offer a significant amount of value. The brand's hotels and specialty properties like cottages and vacation rentals are everywhere. Wyndham started the year with a terrific promo where you stay two nights at any property and receive 15,000 points (a free night). Depending on which version you sign up for, the Wyndham Rewards Visa Card has a sign-up bonus of 15,000 or up to 30,000 points, and you can get top-tier Wyndham Diamond status by having Total Rewards Diamond, which is received as part of FoundersCard membership. It's easy to get tangible value out of this program in 2018.
Roll The Dice
Marriott/SPG Merger — I stopped booking hotel stays with Marriott and SPG last year due to the merger. I do continue to put spend on my Starwood Preferred Guest Amex to keep my SPG balance healthy and enjoy 1:3 Marriott transfers. We don't know what details we'll see about a combined program this year, but I do believe Marriott understands the importance of keeping Starwood Preferred Guest loyalists happy. I'm just personally risk-averse in this arena and saw the opportunity to enjoy Hyatt Globalist status, which combines nicely with my Ultimate Rewards earnings, so I avoided the merger situation completely. You should be cognizant of potential implications to your Marriott and SPG accounts as the two brands move toward a combined program.
World of Hyatt — With new leadership, Hyatt has begun 2018 with only positives. The program announced award nights would count toward the required 60 annual nights for Globalist status. It also very kindly retroactively counted award nights in 2017 to qualify for additional incentives (10,000 points or a Globalist Suite Upgrade) at 70, 80 and 90 nights.
I've greatly enjoyed my Globalist status, but 60 nights a year when the hotel brand has a relatively small footprint still requires some extra effort. There's a very large difference between Globalist status and Explorist status, which is one step down. If you strive for 60 nights and fall short this year, you'll miss out on complimentary and confirmed suite upgrades, breakfast, no resort fees, free parking on award nights and executive lounge access.
United has Everday Awards; American has sky-high AAnytime awards; and we never have any idea what Delta is going to say an award ticket costs. If you're entrusting your future award travel to the legacy carriers, 2018 is the year to re-evaluate.
Alaska Airlines — You still earn redeemable miles based on flight distance with the Mileage Plan program. You can still status-match to Alaska MVP status. The partner network for redeeming miles continues to expand. You can complete a stopover on a one-way award. Customer service is excellent. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card allows you to boost your miles and earn a companion certificate. If you aren't doing everything possible to boost your Alaska Mileage Plan balance, it should become part of your strategy for 2018.
Save Miles for Premium Cabins — Economy airfares are currently so low and competitive that it's hard to justify redeeming miles for main cabin flights, both internationally and domestically. I'll use Chase Ultimate Rewards points for Southwest domestic flights and utilize my Companion Pass to double the value I get out of the points, but otherwise this year I'm redeeming 90% of my points and miles (see SkyMiles below) for premium cabin redemptions I could never afford with cash.
Roll The Dice
Status Chasing — If you're a traveling professional and clients or your company pay for your airfare, it could make sense for you to go after airline status. But if you travel infrequently, chasing status will induce irrational behavior and cost you more money and time than necessary. Especially with the legacy carriers, benefits can change without warning and the programs have little loyalty to members. Be a free agent and chose the lowest, most convenient airfare for every trip. You'll feel liberated and save money and time.
Collect SkyMiles — Until recently, I only referred to SkyMiles as Skypesos and typically never looked at Delta's program as a serious tool to find award flights. The first couple of months in 2018 have changed my mind, and I've found significant value from SkyMiles award tickets. Now, this is a roll of the dice because SkyMiles certainly still represent a bad option for award redemptions much of the time. So far in 2018, I've redeemed SkyMiles for the following tickets:
- 12,500 miles for a $300 last-minute flight from Charleston to Atlanta
- 6,500 miles for a $145 flight from Atlanta to Dallas
- 65,000 miles for a $3,200 flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong on Virgin Australia
Whereas in previous years I would have put no effort into collecting the currency, in 2018 my SkyMiles account will see significant activity.
The most important trend to get on in 2018 is increasing your own award travel knowledge. With rewards programs showing no sign of becoming less complex (except Wyndham), the best thing we can all do is be smart about earning maximum points and miles, and be savvy when it comes time to redeem them — don't forget that second half of the equation.