Life­styles of the Su­per­loyal

Loy­alty has its priv­i­leges – and a stel­lar ar­ray of perks

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ram­sey Qubein

In the 1980s when Amer­i­can Air­lines launched the first fre­quent flier pro­gram, no one could have imag­ined the suc­cess and loy­alty they would even­tu­ally drive to air­lines’ bot­tom lines. To­day, fre­quent flier pro­grams are among the air­lines ’top rev­enue gen­er­a­tors – not only from the loy­alty they spur through shap­ing cus­tomer habits, but also by sell­ing miles to credit card com­pa­nies and re­lated busi­ness. This lines the cof­fers of the air­lines while also de­liv­er­ing sig­nif­i­cant value to trav­el­ers.

While travel pun­dits love to hate the air­lines for the pur­ported dif­fi­cul­ties in us­ing miles, the fact is that there has never been more op­por­tu­nity to redeem for as­pi­ra­tional awards and unique travel ex­pe­ri­ences that would other­wise be out of reach for many trav­el­ers.

Reap­ing the Re­wards

If you’ve ever won­dered what those pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor first class prices (rang­ing be­tween $10,000-20,000) pro­vide, then get ready for an eye-open­ing jour­ney. That is, if you can af­ford it. But, miles put these elite ex­pe­ri­ences within im­me­di­ate reach of loyal trav­el­ers.

Flat beds, noise-can­cel­ing head­sets and ex­pen­sive amenity kits laden with beauty prod­ucts are al­most the norm up front these days. But, mileage ex­perts (yes, tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers hone their mileage-earn­ing skills on web­sites such as Fly­erTalk.com or MilePoint.com to max­i­mize their mileage bal­ance) put the ef­fort in for an­other rea­son: the high-fly­ing perks just keep get­ting bet­ter.

These su­per elite trav­el­ers know the ins and outs of air­line and ho­tel loy­alty pro­grams and max­i­mize them to the hilt to travel in style. And the air­lines are OK with it; af­ter all, these are pro­grams they de­signed and de­vel­oped to en­cour­age loy­alty for their busi­ness.

At the touch of a but­ton aboard my re­cent Bri­tish Air­ways’Air­bus A380 first class flight, I could con­trol the vene­tian blinds cov­er­ing the win­dows and pri­vacy screen that pulls up to co­coon me in my bed. Wine lists as thick as a book are not un­com­mon, and cot­ton pa­ja­mas and bot­tom­less cham­pagne swoon on BA’s first class trav­el­ers fur­ther. An a la a carte menu of­fered at any time pro­vides even more con­ve­nience and deca­dence.

Lon­don-bound busi­ness trav­el­ers can also fly from JFK to Lon­don City Air­port down­town aboard the spe­cially fit­ted Bri­tish Air­ways Air­bus A318 air­craft with only 32 flat-bed seats. This elite of­fer­ing comes with al­most nonex­is­tent queues at ei­ther end of a flight due to the small pas­sen­ger count, and the crew has come to rec­og­nize reg­u­lars. It’s not of­ten that you fly back and forth across the At­lantic with the same cabin crew that brings your fa­vorite cock­tail once in the air and knows your break­fast cof­fee pref­er­ences. It does not get any closer to a pri­vate plane than that.

Turn­down ser­vice brings du­vets, cush­ioned seat cov­ers, and even night caps on Swiss In­ter­na­tional and Lufthansa, among oth­ers. Delta

re­cently p part­nered with Westin Ho­tels to bring the brand’s famed Heav­enly Du­vets to each b busi­ness class seat.

Aboard many Lufthansa Boe­ing 747400s, a fir first class ticket en­ti­tles trav­el­ers to, not jus just one, but two seats of their own: a cu cush­ioned re­clin­ing seat and an ad­ja­cent, du­vet-lined bed by the win­dow. Other un unique first class fea­tures found on Luft Lufthansa air­craft in­clude, in-seat flower vases for fresh roses, per­sonal clos­ets with take-home gar­ment bags and men men’s uri­nals in the lava­tory. Porsche or Merced Mercedes sweep crème de la crème trav­el­ers di­rectly from Frankfurt’s pri­vate ter­mi­nal to the plane. Oh, and in that pri­vate ter­mi­nal, there are bub­ble baths (yes, you can tak take your cham­pagne with you), a fu full restau­rant and cigar lounges stocked with ex­pen­sive sto­gies to help pass the time un­til your

per­sonal as­sis­tant di­rects you to a pri­vate im­mi­gra­tion line. A Ahh, the sweet life of lux­ury. But of cours course im­mi­nently ac­ces­si­ble sim­ply by trad­ing in a stash of fre­quent flier miles.

In 2008 2008, Emi­rates made head­lines for its in­flight sh shower ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vid­ing five min­utes o of drench­ing wa­ter pres­sure plus a spa-like bath­room with thick tow­els and lav­ish toil toi­letries aboard its Air­bus A380s. In­flight b bars and lounges aboard Vir­gin At­lantic, N Nigeria’s Arik Air, and Emi­rates have brou brought back the glam­our that was once at­trib­uted to air travel. There is noth­ing l like sip­ping a mar­tini on a di­van star­ing ou out at the stars as you hur­tle across the At­lan At­lantic.

Thai Ai Air­ways picks up fi first class flier fliers in a golf cart f from the plane, ne never once al­low­ing them to set foo foot on the ter­mi­nal floor as they are whisked away to a spa for a one-hour treat­ment in be­tween flights. I o once flew as the sole first class pas­senge pas­sen­ger aboard a Thai 747 with three crew me mem­bers at my dis­posal. End­less champa cham­pagne and caviar was laid out, and the doti dot­ing ser­vice never ceased. And I had my United miles to thank for get­ting me up there.

Turk­ish Air­lines has decked out its mul­ti­level lounge in Is­tan­bul with ev­ery­thing from golf sim­u­la­tors to roam­ing masseurs. All Nip­pon Air­lines of­fers sake tast­ings to its first class pas­sen­gers, and like Emi­rates and Eti­had, they have walled suites pro­vid­ing the ul­ti­mate in pri­vacy.

Fancy a cap­puc­cino? Aus­trian Air­lines has a typ­i­cal Vi­en­nese style cof­fee menu boast­ing more than a dozen types of cof­fee drinks made-to-or­der on board. Amer­i­can Air­lines has cre­ated an el­e­gant wine tast­ing in the sky for in­ter­na­tional first class pas­sen­gers with an elab­o­rate wine flight pre­sen­ta­tion.

Sin­ga­pore Air­lines of­fers one of the widest first class seats in the air. Its lat­est de­sign clocks in at a whop­ping 35 inches with an er­gonomic cush­ion that more closely re­sem­bles a small sofa.

Air­lines know com­pe­ti­tion is high for pre­mium prod­ucts, and whether cus­tomers use cash or miles to get up there, they want the ex­pe­ri­ence to be mem­o­rable. The at­ten­tion to de­tail on air­line pre­mium prod­ucts has en­hanced the ex­pe­ri­ence to the heights of lux­ury, and mileage hoard­ers know they have hit the jack­pot when re­deem­ing points for them.

Up­front Style, Budget Price

So how can trav­el­ers take ad­van­tage of these perks with­out spend­ing a for­tune? A com­mon com­plaint is that it seems dif­fi­cult to search for award seats. But, re­mem­ber that most air­lines do not list all of their part­ners’ award seats on­line. Your best bet is to call the pro­gram’s 1-800 num­ber (do your home­work first by learn­ing what air­line part­ners are an op­tion for your itin­er­ary).

While air­lines are rais­ing the price of their first class award re­demp­tions (United an­nounced a re­cent hike from 160,000 to a whop­ping 280,000 miles for first class from the US to the Mid­dle East on its part­ners, and Delta will not even al­low fliers to cash in miles for in­ter­na­tional first class seats), there are still some good deals out there.

Ac­cord­ing to Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com and an ex­pert on the loy­alty in­dus­try, “I flew one-way on

Ahh, the sweet life of lux­ury. But of course im­mi­nently ac­ces­si­ble sim­ply by trad­ing in a stash

Emi­rates first class for 90,000 Alaska Air­lines miles and $90 in taxes. Air­lines tend to re­lease most of their award seats at the last minute in an ef­fort to sell as many seats as pos­si­ble be­fore they let people redeem miles for them.”

An in­flight shower, bot­tom­less Dom Perignon, per­sonal mini­bar, and made-to­order ice cream sun­daes make the ef­fort to col­lect miles seem quite worth it.

Since search­ing for these mileage gems can be time-con­sum­ing, it may be ad­vis­able to con­sult a mileage award book­ing ser­vice, such as the ones of­fered by travel ex­perts like Gary Leff (BookYourAward.com) or Ben Sch­lap­pig (PointsPros.com). Both take into ac­count your de­sired class of ser­vice, mileage amount to be spent and des­ti­na­tion, and churn out pro­gram-boost­ing re­sults that you may not have even known about for a flat fee of $100-$200.

The op­tions are end­less, and with your loy­alty pro­gram do­ing the leg­work, why not let your imag­i­na­tion go wild?

Rooms for Im­prove­ment

While mileage col­lec­tors are proud of their first class award re­demp­tions, ho­tel loy­alty pro­grams pro­vide ar­guably more value. These days, re­deem­ing miles for travel goes be­yond an air­plane seat to in­clude ho­tels, gifts and even ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ences.

Star­wood Ho­tels and Re­sorts of­fers mem­bers the chance to redeem points for unique con­cert ex­pe­ri­ences (in­clud­ing the oc­ca­sional back­stage pass) and pre­mium seats at Broad­way shows. Mem­bers can also ex­change points for spa treat­ments or din­ing pack­ages at many ho­tels.

Star­wood even al­lows its Plat­inum mem­bers (who stay 75 nights per year) to check in and out of a Star­wood property for any pe­riod of 24 hours. For in­stance, guests fly­ing to from North Amer­ica to Europe land early, but Plat­inum mem­bers can check in at 8:00 AM and stay un­til 8:00 AM the fol­low­ing morn­ing (or on oc­ca­sion, even ben­e­fit from a late check­out re­sult­ing in nearly 30 hours in a room). Or they could ar­rive in a city at 9:00 PM, but keep the room un­til 9:00 PM the fol­low­ing day.

If you have time and are dar­ing enough, Star­wood’s Mo­ments pro­gram al­lows you to bid loy­alty points on a host of ex­pe­ri­ences. Want to be the first to ride the Las Ve­gas High Roller Fer­ris Wheel? Your points can get you a night at Cae­sar’s Palace and two tick­ets to the Guin­ness Book of World Record’s cer­e­mony to ride the world’s high­est ob­ser­va­tion wheel. Oh yeah, and that comes with din­ner for two at Nobu in Cae­sar’s Palace.

Fancy a back­stage tour of Koozy by Cirque du Soleil in Am­s­ter­dam? Your Star­wood points can get you two VIP tick­ets be­hind the scenes plus a meal in the cast and crew kitchen. Or if Broad­way is more your style, how about a chance to meet the cast of The Crip­ple of Inish­maan star­ring Daniel Rad­cliffe? Two up­front tick­ets to the show are in­cluded plus a Rad­cliffe-signed Play­bill.

Up­grades to over­wa­ter bun­ga­lows in Tahiti, Opera House-view rooms in Syd­ney, and first dibs on rooms or suites dur­ing ma­jor events like the Su­per Bowl or New Year’s Eve are all ben­e­fits of hold­ing elite

sta­tus in a ho­tel loy­alty pro­gram like Hil­ton HHonors or Mar­riott Re­wards. Once at Four Sea­sons Park Lane in Lon­don, a man­ager over­heard me say that I would be holed up in my room for hours one evening work­ing i g on a story, and they sent up a cheese tray and bot­tle ttle of wine with a note wish­ing me plenty of cre­ativ­ity. iv­ity Four Sea­sons’ Ho­tel des Ber­gues in Geneva has per­son­nel that mon­i­tor in­di­vid­ual guest ar­rivals at the air­port to guar­an­tee that some­one from the ho­tel staff awaits them at the door once they reach the ho­tel. The per­son­al­ized greet­ing is a pleas­ant sur­prise, and no guest needs to visit the re­cep­tion desk as in-room reg­is­tra­tion is the norm. Lux­ury ho­tels es­pe­cially seem to have mas­tered the art of car­ing for loyal, fre­quent guests.

The op­tions are end­less, and with your loy­alty pro­gram do­ing the leg­work to cre­ate these mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ences, why not let your imag­i­na­tion go wild and try some­thing you would not other­wise con­sider?

Hoard­ing miles is never rec­om­mended as this type of mile-based cur­rency only de­val­ues over time

Loy­alty Evolves

The good old days of col­lect­ing miles and points is chang­ing though. South­west, jet­Blue, and – be­gin­ning in 2015 – Delta of­fer loy­alty pro­grams that re­ward cus­tomers based on the amount of money they spend ver­sus the num­ber of miles they fly. While this cer­tainly di­rects the ben­e­fits to the air­lines ’high­est spenders (and right­fully so), it also upsets the cal­cu­lus of loy­alty for ev­ery­one else.

For years, ho­tel pro­grams have op­erat op­er­ated this way by giv­ing points based upon ro room rate, but the air­line ir­line in­dus­try has held out ut and, as a re­sult, trained cus­tomers to play the mileage game. Now cus­tomers might not re­main loyal to a par­tic­u­lar air­line if they are not re­warded in the same way.

The change is meant to en­cour­age high-profit busi­ness travel fares, but it locks out small busi­ness own­ers and leisure trav­el­ers that must re­main price­con­scious. Pre­vi­ously, they may have been will­ing to spend just a bit more to travel with their air­line of choice to rack up miles, but this new type of pro­gram no longer re­wards that be­hav­ior. This change ac­tu­ally en­cour­ages people to book the low­est fare on any air­line (rather than re­main­ing loyal) since there is lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion to stay with one brand. Ex­chang­ing ho­tel pro­gram points for a free night is much eas­ier than re­deem­ing miles for pre­mium seats, which is prob­a­bly why trav­el­ers are more ac­cept­ing of the points-per-dol­lar plat­form with ho­tel pro­grams.

Many ex­perts ar­gue that it is only a mat­ter of time for other air­lines like Amer­i­can and United to fol­low suit. True, the small per­cent­age of busi­ness trav­el­ers on ex­pense ac­counts will reap big re­wards from this type of loy­alty pro­gram shift, but it is yet to be seen how this will af­fect air­line cus­tomer loy­alty go­ing for­ward. That is, un­less air­lines plan to re­lease more award seats to ease the in­creased bur­den for earn­ing miles.

Is It Still Worth It?

So for trav­el­ers who make the con­certed ef­fort to con­sol­i­date their mileage with one air­line pro­gram, the ques­tion be­comes, is it still worth it. And the an­swer clearly is yes. There are lux­u­ri­ous travel ex­pe­ri­ences out there that would other­wise be out of reach to the aver­age trav­eler.

Hoard­ing miles, how­ever, is never rec­om­mended as this type of mile-based cur­rency only de­val­ues over time as air­lines raise award ticket prices, tighten avail­abil­ity and ad­just their pro­grams to dis­cour­age loy­alty among lower-spend­ing trav­el­ers. Col­lect, redeem, and en­joy is the mantra of many ex­pe­ri­enced trav­el­ers who find that the best value comes from pre­mium cabin re­demp­tions.

Sure, the con­cept of loy­alty and re­ward has evolved a great deal since the 1980s, but at the same time, in­dus­try com­pe­ti­tion has in­ten­si­fied. For now, the most mem­o­rable, unique and over-the-top travel ex­pe­ri­ences are still within reach of those who dis­trib­ute their travel dol­lars loy­ally and care­fully with the right pro­grams. BT

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