The Critical Points: What Hotel Chains and Airlines Are Getting Right
Each week in his column "The Critical Points," TPG Senior Points and Miles Contributor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn't agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
It's easy to sit in a home office and be critical of airline and hotel loyalty programs. Marriott's continued merger struggles and the Bonvoy brand rollout had me in such a negative place this week that I needed to press the pause button. It's incredibly easy to get down on what's going wrong, but I forced myself to take stock of what's going right, not only with Marriott but with all the loyalty programs and products of interest to US travelers.
Looking at the big picture, the loyalty programs we value and travel products we purchase are robust operations that, as a whole, function properly and accomplish their mission. There are many times when a minute detail gone awry with a hotel chain or airline can completely sour our love for a given program. While details are indeed important, our judgement should not be unjustly harsh when the programs and products are accomplishing 95%+ of their job descriptions.
With that in mind, let's take a turn to the positive end of the spectrum this week and go through one aspect that each major airline and hotel is getting right.
American Airlines: You can easily get exceptional value with American miles when redeeming them for partner award tickets. Etihad Apartments and business class, Qatar Qsuites, Air Tahiti Nui's newest Dreamliners, Qantas, Japan Airlines — all available for booking and all with no fuel surcharges. While many may rightfully complain about the silly married segment logic apparently in place for domestic award seats, dynamic domestic award pricing or the fuel surcharges on British Airways, American has the Oneworld and other partner chart primed for value. I cannot collect enough American miles.
Delta: Flying Delta domestically is a pleasure compared to the other legacy carriers or US low-cost carriers. The fleet is modernized, there's always Wi-Fi, there are no 737-MAX planes with 29" seat pitches, the employees are pleasant and happy to be at work, and my luggage beats me to the carousel in Atlanta (ATL) every time I come home. Delta had the foresight to make its onboard experience a leap above competition for domestic flying and has trained its cabin and flight crew well. I enjoy getting on a Delta domestic flight, even when sitting in the back (which is the majority of the time).
Frontier: If you are a regular Frontier flyer, get the new cobranded card and achieve status through a combination of flying and spend. Barclays and Frontier figured out how to deliver value with a credit card at an ultra-low-cost carrier and regular flyers can greatly benefit from the status. They have this new card relationship nailed.
JetBlue: 32" seat pitch, free Wi-Fi from gate to gate and live TV. Put me in that product and I am a happy flyer.
Southwest: I love flying Southwest because they do a tremendous job setting expectations. You know exactly what you are going to get every time, and then the flight experience is delivered exactly as described. Check-in exactly at 24 hours from departure or pay for EarlyBird Check-In and you'll sit in the kind of seat you want. You get two free checked bags. Each plane you board is going to be essentially the same as the one you just flew. The crew love to come to work. There is no first class, and there are no meals. This is what we offer: you pay a reasonable price and get this standardized experience. I love it.
Spirit: The low cost carrier was number one in on-time arrivals for US airlines in October 2018. 89% of its flights that month arrived on time, earning it the top spot for the first time (ahead of usual winners Hawaiian or Delta). I just bought a round-trip flight from Atlanta to Tampa (TPA) for $64 that has an 89% chance of arriving on time. That's solid.
United: If I have MileagePlus miles, I can get to where I need to go. The last-minute availability I am routinely able to find is fantastic, especially when compared to AA or Delta's sky-high last-minute SkyMiles ticket costs. The vast array of Star Alliance options bookable online make MileagePlus my go-to program for last-minute flights to anywhere in the world. As a Chase cobranded cardholder, XN fare availability really makes a difference for domestic availability.
IHG: With the incorporation of Kimpton hotels into the IHG Rewards Club and the long-held InterContinental brand, IHG gives you worldwide coverage at every level of luxury. In most major cities, you can usually book a dated but inexpensive Holiday Inn for a minimal outlay of points, or you can book a luxury Kimpton/InterContinental property. If you just want a bed to sleep in and could care less about the surrounding, IHG has it covered. If you want over-the-top luxury in French Polynesia, they have it as well. IHG continues to give you a vast array of options to suit your individual needs in return for your loyalty.
Hilton: It is easy to get a lot of Hilton points with a bit of concerted effort. I also think that Hilton has been making a competitive (albeit indirect) effort to lure Marriott customers its way. Giving dedicated customers the ability to earn a lot of points is a strategic and (I think) purposeful move. Refreshed card products offering 12X+ spend and massive welcome bonuses, constant double/triple point promotions and elite bonuses make it possible to earn over 30 points per dollar on Hilton stays.
Hyatt: Hyatt has its award chart and point valuation in an excellent place. There isn't rampant inflation like Hilton or IHG, and the Category 1-8 pricing is fair and affordable. The currency has held its value and offers fantastic value for low-category hotels and appropriate pricing for aspirational properties.
Marriott: All hurdles aside, the interim award chart pricing since the August 18 integration represents tremendous opportunity for value. With top-tier hotels capped at 60,000 points through March, thousands of members have scored great award bookings for 2019. When you factor in the fifth night free Marriott offers on all award reservations, award pricing seems almost too good to be true. It may currently be a struggle to get a property booked or have the right number of points in your account or right status or any other number of things; however, I continue to get fantastic value from Marriott when I can make a booking. This interim chart is generous and undervalued, so take advantage while you can.
There are plenty of popular idioms to describe what can happen to those of us intently focused on the loyalty space who perhaps, from time to time, lose sight of the big picture and focus only on the negative details:
- Cannot see the forest for the trees
- Parkinson's law of triviality, or bikeshedding (if you haven't heard of this, it's a good read)
- Majoring in the minors
- Chasing rabbits
- Penny wise but pound foolish
- Side issue specialism
- Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
This doesn't mean the details don't count; they can indeed impact a program when they aren't taken into account. However, when assessing a program's latest enhancements, I think we do need to take a step back and look from a bigger picture to see if there are foundational problems in a program or if the details just need fine tuning.
Here's my pledge: going forward, I'll try to look more holistically at how a program is functioning, giving equal weight to the positive and negative. I strongly encourage you to do the same. These programs allow us to accomplish things that would otherwise be financially unfeasible, so let's give them more credit — even if one of their new names sounds like a cheap ladies' clothing company.