December 1 2004
One of the side "benefits" of
my 18-hour journey to Des Moines was crossing two frequent traveller program
thresholds: requalifying for United Airlines' Premier Executive status,
and my first stay in a Hilton-owned hotel since qualifying for their Gold
Elite status in airline and hotel programs is one of those small mercies of frequent travel. These programatic rewards do in fact make a difference -- thousands of bonus miles/points, upgrades, and better access. I've always viewed them as "well, as long as I am spending so much time in the air/hotels, might as well make the best of it."
For airline programs, I've qualified for the middle-tier elite status on the three airlines I care about -- American, United, and Delta. Actually, I don't really care about Delta -- I'll have flown them a total of twice this year -- but they are members of Skyteam, which means that I'll get decent benes on their alliance partners. Same with American and oneworld, and definitely United with Star Alliance. Honestly, for me, it's not about the miles, it's about those other intangibles: upgrades, preferred standby status (which definitely helped me get home early today), being able to always check in at business class, and lounge access while travelling internationally (well, at least for oneworld and Star Alliance). These are the things that make frequent travel bearable, so I'm not ashamed to take advantage of them....and where economically feasible, do exactly as the airlines want, and steer my business their way to keep that status.
For hotels, it is about the points. The hotel programs require big numbers of points for free nights. Getting free hotel nights is a major bene, though... enabling me to get a couple of free nights at a five-star Arizona resort later this month. The perks of the hotel programs are somewhat less generous, compared to their airline counterparts. You have to be top tier in the hotel programs to get the best comps; at the middle tier, you'll get some bonus points and an occasional upgrade. Starwood is the most generous program, IMHO; at their gold status, I can get a 4 PM checkout anytime just by asking. They also don't have any blackout dates for redeeming points, and they say that even gold preferred members get room upgrades (though I haven't often seen this in practice). Since I've just qualified for Hilton's gold status, it remains to be seen what the perks are there -- last night, it was two bottles of water and a package of cookies. I also will eek out Marriott's silver status this year; I last had this in 2001, and the Renaissance in Hong Kong rewarded me with a Marriott Rewards cake in my room one night (yes, for real -- the cake was decorated like the Silver Rewards card. That's carrying the meme too far, I think). Sadly, Hyatt is likely to bounce me out of their elite program; pre-9/11, their program was really something, with room upgrades, free breakfasts, and more. In recent years, they scaled back, and I adjusted accordingly.
I know y'all sometimes think that this business travel stuff is so glamorous. And there are days I'm thankful for the good fortune I've had to be able to explore the world as part of my career. But that's obviously not what I was thinking at 1 AM today, while eating my two cookies and drinking bottled water, knowing that I'd be awake again in six hours.