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What Does 2018 Hold for Travel Rewards and Air Miles?

By Ramsey Qubein

Dec 13, 2017

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Courtesy of Pixabay

As elite status becomes more elusive and once-plentiful perks evaporate, airline and hotel loyalty programs are testing the patience of their members.

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It’s that time of year to review your travel patterns and reexamine your loyalties. We have seen the dismantling of the best reward-program perks (fewer upgrades and mileage inflation among them), and hotel company mergers have left loyal guests in limbo. Frequent fliers and reliable hotel guests know that elite status can be critical for comfort, but as a familiar game gets harder to play, is counting points and miles really worth the trouble anymore? Let’s take a look at the challenges (and opportunties) coming in 2018.

Jumping elite status hurdles will be tougher

Achieving the holy grail of elite status seems more convoluted with both mileage distance and higher revenue requirements needed to achieve airline status. Hungry-to-make-a-buck airlines have forged partnerships with credit card companies to hawk cards inflight (often while you’re attempting much-needed shut-eye). With these tie-ups, airlines sometimes waive requirements for elite status, but even that’s getting tougher.

United waives the spend requirement for up to Premier Platinum if you spend $25,000 in a calendar year on cobranded cards. Delta does the same, but its jaw-dropping announcement in September that cardholders must spend $250,000 to waive the $15,000 spend requirement for Diamond Medallion status shocked many. Credit card crutches to elite status are becoming less valuable.

Even if you make it to elite status, Delta and United upgrades are becoming harder to score because airlines sell elite upgrade perks to some non-elite travelers for a discount before the flight.

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The chance to earn Delta miles flying with Alaska Airlines ended in mid-2017, which will make achieving Delta status harder for some fliers, and American Airlines fliers won’t earn elite miles on Alaska unless they book it directly through American in 2018, wrenching away status shortcuts.

To be fair, it’s not all bad news. Delta will begin offering elite members free upgrades to Delta One business class on transcontinental and long Hawaii flights (no other airline does). Air Canada is announcing a new perk option for top elites: free Gogo wireless Internet passes. Alaska and Virgin America will merge programs in 2018. (December 31, 2017, is the last day to earn and redeem Virgin America miles.)

Those looking to maximize Marriott and Starwood status are still straddling two programs as 2018 inches toward us with no final program merger date in sight. Next year, Marriott will launch an elite status partnership with Hertz, although it will discontinue its rollover elite night promotion, meaning excess elite nights cannot be applied to the 2019 qualification year. This will be a tough loss as it has helped many people with variable travel patterns keep status longer.

Beware of basic economy

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for fliers is navigating new “basic economy” fares that American, Delta, and United have launched to compete with Frontier and Spirit among others. These limited-service fares come with restrictions on mileage earning, complimentary elite upgrades, and seat assignments. These restrictions can be unclear when booking these fares when using third-party sites, so double-check before you buy.

Airlines didn’t lower fares (despite their claims); they simply raised fares for ticket-buyers who want extra perks and put a damper on those requalifying for elite, especially fliers—business travelers, for example—who are required to book the lowest fare.

Recent data from the expense-management services company Concur suggests that as departure dates approach, there is less of a price difference between economy and premium cabins. Check if perks like free checked bags, drinks, or lounge access might compensate the difference for buying up from economy (and don’t forget to factor in bonus elite-earning miles).

Better alternatives to traditional elite perks

While U.S. carriers have been beefing up lounge offerings, they also plumped up prices and access restrictions. Delta announced a soon-to-be-implemented requirement that Sky Club “members” must be flying Delta to use their membership.

Crowded lounges may not be worth the trouble unless you can gain access through credit cards, but card issuers are restricting access to lounges, too (like American Express Centurion lounges). Many airports are upgrading dining to lofty standards, so why bother with a lounge? Newark’s newest sushi restaurant using fish flown in daily from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the latest win from OTG Management. This is just one of many trends coming to airports in Houston, New York, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Philadelphia, among others, and it lessens the blow for those without lounge access.

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Hotel status perks can be open to all, for a small price. Take Hilton Barbados, which is the first Hilton hotel to introduce à la carte butler service. Why bother with club floor upgrades when butlers wait in your hallway to handle any request, such as reserving pool chairs, building sandcastles with your kids, packing bags, scheduling housekeeping visits to the minute, and whisking you through expedited airport security and immigration queues?

The great mileage recession

Miles and points are a ticket to aspirational travel, but devaluations abound. United updated its award chart (again) making popular premium cabin awards to Asia, deep South America, and the South Pacific more expensive.

Delta keeps raising its award prices, but that’s no surprise. Delta even deleted award charts, leaving unassuming fliers without a clue how many miles are needed for an award. While Delta puts some awards on sale temporarily for as few as 5,000 miles, it is increasing partner redemptions on some Virgin Atlantic and China Eastern flights next year.

Singapore Airlines is devaluing its Star Alliance chart, which was a nice alternative to United MileagePlus. Flying Blue (Air France/KLM) will switch to a revenue-based earning model midyear, greatly reducing mileage earning for many. Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss are following suit; expect more programs to follow.

If you don’t use the perks of status, why not fly the most convenient flights and pay the occasional extra instead of chasing status? Consider what best fits your travel patterns, but maybe the new year is time to cut the cord. There are always alternative ways to score elite perks.

>>Next: Why You Should Join an Airport Loyalty Program


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