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The Death of Travel Loyalty
January 12, 2017 -- I'm a sucker for low-budget films with a message, preferably a message delivered via creepy, self-aware computer.

Consider Colossus: The Forbin Project, a 1970 flick that's a favorite among geeky film buffs. When the eponymous super-computer spits out a red, dot-matrix warning that THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM, you know you're in for a wild pre-PC lesson about the fallibility of humanity.

Then we have WarGames, the 1983 dawn-of-the-PC-era flick with a deep cast of not-yet-stars and fabulous supporting players. When the Joshua military mega-computer cycles through a frightening series of global nuclear confrontations and concludes, THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY, you know you've been schooled.

Yet it doesn't take a creepy computer to know that travel loyalty is dead. Airlines and hotels have so bastardized and diluted their frequency plans that Joshua is right. The only winning move is not to play. Colossus is also correct. There is another system, a better way for frequent travelers.

I won't bore you with a rehash of how airlines have turned their loyalty plans into cash registers, selling banks billions of miles that are then ported to us as barely useful scrip for upgrades and award seats. Notice I didn't say free seats because the airlines have added a fusillade of surcharges atop the awards and long ago decided that we paid the taxes, too. Upgrades? Heh. The "complimentary" ones that were once the bedrock of elite status are mostly gone and only a fool would pay the usurious mileage charges and co-pays for an "award" upgrade.

Hotels aren't far behind. Hyatt's devaluation isn't only a sign that Hyatt can't play with increasingly global lodging giants, it means less competitive pressure on the big guys. Who knows what's coming from Marriott-Starwood, but Marriott's distaste for tangible elite benefits--suite upgrades and complimentary breakfast--isn't a good sign. Hilton devalues even in downtimes, so it can't be trusted. Inter-Continental, Best Western, Accor and the others seem unwilling to step up their games. And this week's bizarre Club Carlson promotion, which discourages additional stays, is as revelatory as it is revolting.

You want anecdotal proof that Joshua's lesson--win by not playing--is seeping into our consciousness? How about this: I've gotten more inquiries from you about Norwegian Air's low-priced premium class in the last two months than I've gotten in the last two years. And the inevitable comment you make is brutally simple: I can't justify what the big guys charge for their marginally better business class cabins, especially when the high cost isn't mitigated by frequent flyer paybacks.

Or consider the sometimes aptly named Mister Meatball, our mileage-challenged recipe raconteur. He's a dedicated coach flyer--hey, we're all meatballs sometimes--but I've been schooling him on the value of credit card acquisition bonuses. He's piled up a lot of points and miles, too.

The problem? Mister Meatball can rightly point to his piles and lash me rhetorically for his inability to productively use most of them. On every recent trip save one, he's paid for his flights and lodging with cash either because fares were so low that it made no sense to burn miles or his preferred housing--Airbnb options in the heart of fabulous foreign cities--does not accept points. The one time he cashed Chase points--for a pricy New York City boutique hotel--he left unimpressed.

I've been hard-nosed and consistent in my frequent travel advice over 30 years: Never earn a mile or a point by doing something you wouldn't otherwise do. That way, I've opined, frequency credits are "free."

Even that advice is now a losing game.

Over the holidays, I audited a few of your accounts and my own. The inevitable conclusion? Our loyalty to specific airlines and hotels ends up costing us, in time and in dollars. Even the infusion of credit card points and acquisition bonuses doesn't offset the extra dollars we pay for a hotel room in our chosen plan or sticking with one airline on every possible route.

I won't saddle you with the many numbers-on-paper calculations I did, but I will offer a slap-upside-my-own-head moment. I reserved a room next week using the chain of my most recent preference. I was feeling good about it because it was at a just-about-to-open urban version of what started as a suburban brand. But construction is running late and I received an apologetic cancellation E-mail from the general manager. She kindly offered alternate accommodations at another hotel in her operation. But the location was wrong, so I rebooked myself at the next nearest hotel, which flies the flag of a chain that I rarely patronize.

The price difference? Nearly $40 a night in my favor. Same essential product and, since these were both limited service operations, my super-elite status with the original chain would have yielded no extra perks.

These kinds of price dings happen all the time. While we think we're being smart travelers, we're being charged for our loyalty to our chosen airlines and hotels. They now repay that loyalty with nothing. And sometimes less than nothing.

As Joshua said, THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY. As Colossus said, THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM.

The other system? As I explained nearly a year ago, screw the programs. Go your own way. Buy price and schedule and location and then purchase add-on perks as you need. In the long run, you'll probably save money.

I'll go even further now. Maybe we've put too much spend on those travel-affiliated credit cards. Get an Amex Platinum for its great perks, maybe the low-cost cards offered by your go-to airline and hotel chain, too. But be careful giving these cards too much of your spend. It may be time to put pencil to paper and decide whether a good 2 percent cashback card gives you a better overall payback going forward.

Listen to Joshua: Loyalty to the travel industry is a game you can't win. Don't play anymore. Loyalty is dead. Do what Colossus says. Look at another system.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.