David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
Counting Your Chips As The Game Restarts
As every new February begins, our travel partners bestow upon us whatever status we earned in the prior year. For many years now I would look to this milestone with many goals to strive for. However, as a great many of my travel partners – especially the airlines – continued to play a frustrating game of bait-and-switch, I’ve begun to care much less about it. So, taking stock of what I deem important and unimportant, here’s what elite levels 2020 brings me – and why.
· Airline – United Premier Gold: Yes, that’s right, I’m now just a ‘lowly Gold’ on my local airline. As the greedy and customer unfriendly management at United continues to make horrible changes to a program once designed to create loyalty, I (along with many others) have decided not to play. I do have the luxury of keeping my Gold status as a Million-Mile flyer regardless of how much United traveling I do, so I realize this takes the edge off things. As a “Newark Hub Captive” – living a fifteen minute drive from that airport – United is usually my only choice for non-stop flights. Despite that, I still flew other airlines whenever I absolutely could. United’s devaluations actually serve to create reverse loyalty amongst many customers. In the past – when I was a 1K on the current version of this airline – I was treated far worse than before Continental and United merged. Then, when I let it drop to Platinum as a result, I was always one or two people away from getting that last upgrade on my flights. After that, when Gold was merged into ‘group one’ boarding, there was no longer a justification to even work to obtain Platinum status. I’m just as insulted not getting an upgrade as number seven on the upgrade list as I was not getting an upgrade and being number one on the list. If my business travel took me to as many international destinations as it did in the past I might change my mind and strive for higher status. But as a domestic business traveler, the US airlines – and especially United – don’t care about my business. Gold is all I need. Every flight dollar I don’t spend with United brings me joy.
· Credit Card – Capital One Venture: Yes, as I blogged about before, I’m completely off the airline mileage bandwagon. We cancelled our Chase Mileage Plus card last year and switched to using the Venture card. Why collect ‘money’ in a ‘bank’ when that bank can – at any whim – devalue the money and/or raise the prices on goods? With the Venture card I collect their ‘miles’ as a post travel cash eraser, and then purchase travel on any airline (or train, taxi, ship, etc.), using the miles to pay for whatever travel purchases I wish to direct them toward. I’m no longer subject to the whims of United nor any of the other airlines that now no longer even print fixed award charts. I’m very happy with my decision. I already know the airlines don’t care about losing the business, but I believe it’s only a matter of time until the banks start to care that more and more people feel their airline affinity cards are worthless. The airlines will sure be in trouble when the banks stop paying them cash for their worthless miles.
· Hotel – Hilton Honors Diamond: The hotel loyalty programs have been devalued just as the airline programs have been, but the fall has not been nearly as steep there. I find that the Hilton team still takes care of me with both published benefits (free breakfast, access to most sold-out properties when needed, upgrades, late check-outs, etc.) and unpublished benefits that support me before, during and after my stays to make sure everything went right. I usually make Diamond on stays, but I can also earn it with spend on an additional Hilton branded credit card. For the time being, even with the point devaluations and the loss of the extra “H” from Hhonors, I still recommend the Hilton program as very supportive of the frequent traveler.
· Car Rental – National Executive: I’ve been a fan of the National Emerald Club for a long time, and even after being forced to change a few times by employers and/or clients I always come back for their great service. I’ve probably said this a hundred times before, but when I land exhausted at some airport I’ve never been to at 3am, the last thing I want to do is figure out where all the buttons are on a car I’ve never driven before. Being able to select the car I’m going to drive off the lot is a HUGE benefit to even the basic level of Emerald Club membership. At the Executive level I get my choice of a larger selection of slightly more premium vehicles. In addition, if I don’t see a vehicle I want on the lot, 99% of the time when I ask for one they’ll bring it out. The few times I’ve had customer experience issues their team has always made it right after the fact – but honestly I didn’t have a bad experience all of last year. They offer free days after a number of rentals, and have an expedited “one-two-free” promotion every once in a while that gets you free days even faster. About my only complaint is that the one-two-free days and regular free days can’t be combined on a rental, but that’s really nit-picking. I tried another service a couple of years ago (Avis) that selected the car for you in advance but then let you switch it to a different one of your choice in their app. In my six months of trying at a dozen airports, that ‘switch to another car’ feature NEVER worked. I have too much angst from airlines pulling bait-and-switch to tolerate it on the ground with cars.
· Las Vegas Hotels – MLife Platinum: I attend a significant number of business conferences in Las Vegas, and with the closing of the Las Vegas Hilton many years ago the remaining Hilton aligned properties there were just not providing the same experience. (Recently I’ve heard good things about how the Tropicana is treating Hilton Honors folks, but I haven’t been there myself.) When I stay in Vegas I now give my business to MGM / MLife properties. It’s easy to charge anything at any MGM property to my room at any one of them, it’s super easy to achieve the lower level elite tiers by opening a no annual fee credit card, and the benefits that come with those elite tiers are significant. Free parking at any MGM strip property is a great benefit (especially when one has to travel around to evening dinners and events as part of a conference.) Another significant benefit is the ability to earn points / tier levels with on-property spending not just gambling. A couple of business dinners tagged to your MLife card gets one to the higher tiers pretty quickly. Finally, if you’ve never learned this before, being on a casino hotel’s ‘player’s club list’ – even at the lowest levels – gets you access to a completely different bucket of room availability. I can usually reserve rooms at a property even when people who are not club members see a sold-out notice.
I’m very comfortable with the choices I’ve made and the levels I’ve achieved for this year. If you disagree or have other reasoning, feel free to let me know and I’ll be happy to publish the comments in a subsequent blog.
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
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