I Pledge Allegiance To the #Brand
In past travel tips, I’ve talked about credit card points programs and frequent flyer accounts. However, there’s a whole world of loyalty programs out there, just waiting to turn your frequent patronage into minimally useful rewards and data for algorithms. Which of them are worth the effort? There are a couple possible benefits to consider when evaluating a program.
Programs Which Offer Convenience
One category of loyalty programs primarily focuses on reducing hassle. In exchange for keeping your data on file, the provider removes some of the friction involved in consuming their service. Essentially they build a service that is annoying to use, and then offer a pathway to make it slightly less annoying.
The biggest example of this is the rental car market. Generally, you can join a free loyalty program with the big rental agencies. Once you’ve joined, you’ll be able to pick up your car without waiting in line and spending 15 minutes politely declining all of the additional insurance coverage or ludicrously expensive tanks of gas. It took me a few years to bother joining these programs, because we rarely rent cars when we travel and rental car companies are the lowest scum of the travel industry. However, once I realized that they let me skip all of the upselling, I became an instant convert. Being able to walk right to a car, get in, and drive off is a serious perk in my book.
While these programs do generally accrue some other benefits if you’re a frequent customer, they tend to be minuscule, and chances are you’re not renting cars frequently enough to care. Join these programs for the convenience, and don’t go out of your way to try to build a points balance.
Programs Which Offer Actual Rewards (for very loyal customers)
Hotel loyalty programs sometimes offer baseline perks, like better room selection. However, these programs generally don’t start offering benefits until you’ve accumulated a few nights of bookings. Eventually you can start to earn free nights, free meals, or upgraded rooms. If you’re a frequent domestic traveler who generally stays in hotels, these programs can return benefits pretty quickly if you stick with one brand or family of brands.
Many travel booking websites also offer rewards. Often there’s no specific opt-in — just having an account is enough to start earning credits. Hopper is making some effort to gamify their rewards system, especially if you leverage their collaborative flight booking. As an old, married person, that’s not especially compelling for me. However, Booking.com has occasionally “surprised and delighted” me by knocking a few bucks off a hotel reservation as a reward for reaching a certain number of nights booked.
Avoid the Rabbit Hole
Honestly, unless you’re a very frequent business traveler, your relationship with these types of loyalty programs should only go as far as signing up, then keeping a notes document to track your membership information. All of these programs offer features to let you earn points through partner businesses or transfer between plans. However, as a leisure traveler you’re probably going to prioritize a hotel with a great location or a low nightly rate, rather than staying with your preferred brand (which might be out by the airport). If you thought the airline frequent flyer forums were full of obsessives, you should see the hotel forums – if you’ve ever wanted to see grown men (it’s always men) whine about the unacceptable number of welcome chocolates waiting in the room at their Starwood Suite, you’re in luck.
Oh, and what about all your private data? That ship has sailed dear friends. If you’re using the internet to plan, book, and then Instagram your trip, all of the companies know everything there is to know about you. Unless you’re going to show up at the airport and book a ticket with cash (which uhh, will create a different sort of data record with some three letter agencies), travel is one of the most highly data-centric ecosystems you’re likely to operate in, and whether or not you punch in your Hertz member number matters very little.