For those who don’t know, Chris Elliott is a prominent and plain-talking consumer advocate who specializes in travel. He seems to be a real thing, and by that I mean that he’s more than just a talking head; he helps people. When you get wronged by a travel provider of any kind he tries to make you whole again. Sometimes successfully, so kudos to him for that.
He’s also a guy who enjoys sensationalist headlines and artificially created controversies to drive traffic and make his point. Hard to blame him for doing so, as the internet is a busy place. Sometimes, you’ve gotta scream off the top of your lungs in order to get heard. Fair enough!
Elliott’s pieces on mischiefs of the travel industry are often right on. I can relate. And he blasts airlines for the lack of competition. Considering how a couple of months ago we woke up to only three legacies left in the country, I can relate to that too.
There is one other thing on which I tend to agree with Chris. He warns against sticking with one particular program unless you are a seasoned or as he puts it, “managed” business traveler. Or at least he did (I’ll explain).
I couldn’t agree more. I also believe that the only way to stay ahead in a loyalty game with an airline is not to be loyal to anyone unless you are a captive of any kind. I also agree that going on mileage runs to keep or obtain airline status is silly and self-destructive, at least for a casual traveler.
So far, so good. We agree on a lot of things. It’s just that…
It’s just that he…
It’s that he doesn’t like us, travel hackers, and that hurts!
Why oh Chris why? What have we ever done to you!
Well, not that he really doesn’t like us. It’s more like he hates our guts. He wants us to burn in hell for all eternity.
I don’t mean figuratively. Credit card churners, said Chris Elliott, should burn in hell. His words. I don’t remember the exact quote or I would’ve put quotation marks around it. My memory is not what it used to be. Sorry.
I’m not sure to which particular circle of hell Mr. Elliott thinks we belong. Is it right next to Hitler? Above? Below? I gotta remember to shoot him an email with this question and hope that his answer doesn’t make me even more depressed than I am right now.
So why does he hate us so much? Because in his opinion, we’re unleveling the playing field. While normal people happily pay for their flights and (also happily) take their seats at the back of the bus, we, the corrupt few, undeservedly enjoy pre-departure bubbly and a good-night sleep in first-class flat beds over the Atlantic.
It’s all about that bubbly. Well, and that sleep too, of course.
What Chris Elliott doesn’t or doesn’t want to see is that our freeloaders’ nature costs us dearly too. We tend to be responsible with our credit. We don’t go on shopping sprees. We don’t carry credit card balances. We have to stay organized in order to remember all these credit card bills. What I’m trying to say here is that in reality, we deserve Mr. Elliott’s compassion like no one else. We suffer for our soup!
Maybe I should write him a plea for help. Or maybe not. Better keep a low profile, I guess.
Well, since I have to be completely honest, I must add the word “mostly” to the above paragraph. Not all of us are responsible. I’m sure there are still some poor souls amongst us who live to make credit card issuers very happy.
But I digress.
My reason for such a long preamble is very simple. Two days ago, consumer advocate Chris Elliott did the unthinkable. He sided with an airline on a very anti-consumer move. And not just any airline–Delta Airline! The same Delta that has been waging a never-ending war against its frequent-flyer program members since the day… well I don’t know, but it’s been quite a while.
Delta has recently decided to move to a revenue-based frequent flyer program. That means those who pay more for the ticket will get more miles. Those who pay for regular fares get babkies. Almost…
Of course, like everything Delta does, the move was decorated with all kinds of a la Delta verbal camouflage. The facts, however, are very simple.
This move is nothing else but a veiled attempt to talk frequent business flyers into buying more expensive tickets. Joe Six-Pack is not going to pay $800 for the same ticket he can buy for $150 because he’ll get more miles.
Chris Elliott’s reaction? He loves it! I think I know why. The new revenue-based model will make airline frequent flyer programs useless for anyone who is not a high value frequent business traveler.
“But isn’t it only fair?” you might ask. “That’s why they’re called frequent mile programs, right? To reward frequent flyers?”
Uhm, no. As Mr. Elliott points out–and rightfully so–“the newest programs are designed to reward the biggest spenders, not the most frequent travelers.”
So why then is Mr. Elliott “siding with the airlines on this?” Because for some mysterious reason that he never clearly explains in his USA Today piece, he believes that “revenue-based programs are better than the old ones they replaced” even if “not by much.”
Why does he believe it’s better? I think I know the answer because Chris Elliott has always been consistent in his beliefs.
He wants Joe Six-Packs stop playing the mile game. It’s that easy. And it’s not like it’s illogical, too. Earning miles butt-in-seat has always sucked unless you bill is picked up by your employer. From now on, however, it will suck even if your bill is picked by your employer unless you can trick the system and buy the most expensive ticket to get the same amount of miles you used to take for granted. Provided, of course, that you won’t (or don’t mind to) get fired for your shenanigans.
But the plight of business travelers is not Mr. Elliott’s concern. He’s a consumer advocate, and as such he knows the same thing known to all of us. A casual traveler who is unwilling to learn how to get loads of miles without actually flying is no match to conniving airline loyalty programs. Of course, those of us who have taken the time to learn the ropes, have been able to reap enormous benefits out of them. But this is exactly what Chris doesn’t like (to say the least).
...the programs were too easily manipulated. Some travelers reaped first-class perks from buying pudding boxes or U.S. Mint coins while actually paying as little as possible for their seats. That’s no way to run a program.
Let’s forgive Chris this old Mint reference that has been dead for about 3 years. He’s not one of us, so he doesn’t know any newer tricks. And he doesn’t have any reason to learn them.
But the reason Mr. Elliott likes it is this. The new Delta initiative is good because it makes it harder for an average flyer to play the game. That means fewer gamers and a more level playing field.
OK, fair enough, or it would be if it were true. But is it even true?
First, Delta just like most other airlines in the United States is addicted to free money no less than we, “the gamers” are addicted to free flights. They love to sell the miles–their “virtual currency” for real money. Mr. Elliott has been around the block long enough to know that.
The banks, on the other hand, have an addiction of their own. They love getting new customers. How? They give us miles. Lots of them. For free. As a token of their deep appreciation. 🙂
Airline loyalty programs aren’t really designed to reward you, but to extract more money from you and your employer. They’re just cynical marketing programs masquerading as corporate good will.
That sure feels like a scam to a lot of the good people sitting in the back of the plane. It’s something to remember the next time a crewmember or blogger waves one of those affinity credit cards in front of you offering you a “free” ticket — or you’re tempted to book a flight for the miles.
Um, problem! Why exactly would I stop applying for these”affinity credit cards”? I’m comfortable with the fierceness of bank competition in this country. Whatever base the airlines use to calculate their redemption levels, distance, region, or revenue, the banks will have to continue giving me enough miles with my sign-up bonus to make signing up for their cards worthwhile.
In other words, the sign up bonuses might become a little less lucrative, but I don’t see them going away.
But let’s say, Mr. Elliott wins. No more sign-up bonuses. No more airlines, acting like “loyalty companies” (his expression that I like). What’s next?
What goes next — inevitably — will be tremendous revenue losses from all the miles they won’t be able to sell. These revenues to airlines are more than the icing on the cake, it is the part of the cake, a huge one! These losses will trigger more expensive tickets, and all that level playing field Mr. Elliot is so passionate about, will become level indeed! With a much higher price tag for everybody.
But don’t worry. It ain’t gonna happen any time soon.
At the end, Mr. Elliott bestows us with a few pearls of wisdom. I just have to comment each and every one of them.
PLAYING TO ‘WIN’ SUFFICIENT MILES
• With new program changes, here’s how you can “win” the mileage game:
• Play if you can afford it. Generally, the newest programs are designed to reward the biggest spenders, not the most frequent travelers. If you book a lot of expensive tickets, you should consider actively participating in a program.
That’s all nice and dandy but how many people whose first name is not CEO consistently buy expensive tickets?
• Focus on one program. The latest changes don’t reward disloyal fliers, so be ready to give one of the airlines most, if not all, of your business.
Terrible advice. All of a sudden we have to become loyal? Here is my tip. Until or unless the other airlines make the same move, dump Delta completely (if you can) and focus on their competitors. Use American, United, use non-legacies, such as Southwest, for example. If it’s true that other legacies might adapt Delta’s scheme as well, then load on as many of their miles as you can now.
About Southwest. They also have a revenue-based program, but unlike Delta’s, it’s transparent and reasonable. So let’s not forget that even the same type of program doesn’t necessarily mean that other airlines will go ninja on you, Delta style.
• Work twice as hard. Airlines are on to you, and they are quickly closing many of the loopholes that allowed point collectors to “hack” the system. It may not be worth the effort.
Oh please! We’ll get there when we get there. Even as we speak, we are exploring other avenues to collect miles and points, and cash too. The world is not falling down. When the fat lady sings–another door will open.
Because, guess what! They always do.
Photo credit: By: Sarah_Ackerman