Are loyalty programs trying to kill you?

Companies want you to travel again — even if it's the last thing you do

Is Choice Hotels trying to kill John Parisi? 

Parisi, who works for an investment management company in Boston, received an email from the Choice Hotels' frequent-stayer program recently, advising him to use his points — or lose them.

"In the middle of a pandemic, where we all have been advised against traveling, Choice Hotels is encouraging me to stay at one of its hotels so I don’t lose my points," he says. "That is the most irresponsible thing I have heard in a very, very long time."

Parisi’s problem raises an important question: Loyalty programs are designed to encourage more travel. Isn't that dangerous and irresponsible during a lethal pandemic?

Choice hasn't taken out a contract on one of its own customers, of course. But like many travel companies, it may be pushing him to do something that’s hazardous to his health. Unfortunately, there are lots of willing loyalty program members who are ready to comply. It's all the more reason to seriously reconsider your loyalties in 2021.

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How to keep your points during a pandemic

Parisi, who had stayed at a Quality Inn back in 2019, didn't stand to lose a lot of points — only 710.

How could he keep them? The Choice Hotels notification explained his options:

To maintain an active status in the Choice Privileges Rewards Program and retain accumulated Choice Privileges points, you must engage in qualifying activity beginning with the first day of the month after your activity is completed through the eighteenth consecutive month of inactivity, such as completing a qualifying point-eligible stay, earning points, airline miles or Amtrak Guest Rewards points, redeeming Choice Privileges points, earning points from a purchase using your Choice Privileges® Visa® card, earning points with one of our partner programs, purchasing points, and referring a friend. Choice Privileges points will be forfeited in accounts with no qualifying activity during the previous 18 consecutive calendar months.

But none of those choices made sense for him. He doesn't carry a branded Visa, isn't planning to fly or take Amtrak, and doesn't intend to refer any friends to the Choice loyalty program. 

I asked Choice Hotels about the email it sent Parisi. 

"We certainly understand that our Choice Privileges members want to maximize their point value during this period of uncertainty," said Pearl Amaechi, a Choice Hotels spokeswoman. "We have provided a multitude of options for members that would like to keep their points active, or leverage them beyond a hotel stay."

Frequent travelers "still want miles"

Truth is, a lot of travelers particularly frequent travelers still want their miles. Yes, even in a pandemic. And yes, even when collecting and using rewards may expose you to a deadly virus.

I know because after my recent USA Today column, in which I reported that some travelers were reassessing their rewards programs for 2021, I heard from none other than Hal Brierley, chairman of The Brierley Group. Brierley is one of the godfathers of modern loyalty programs.

"All too often I see articles based on a few consumers' comments being extrapolated to report on an industry trend," he complained.

A recent survey by DYNATA and the Brierley Group examined credit card usage among frequent travelers. It found 24 percent of respondents say they used credit cards that earn travel rewards more in 2020. Only 12 percent said they were using these cards less, and 62 percent said they were using them "about the same." Here are the full results of the DYNATA research (subscribers only).

"It’s clear from our research that travelers expect to travel more in the months ahead, not less, and they are more active in their travel programs, not less," Brierley told me.

Now, being active in a program doesn't necessarily mean you're traveling. But let's not kid ourselves. The folks Brierley polled were frequent travelers, and they aren’t waiting for someone like me to give them the "all clear" to take their next trip. They're traveling because they have to or because they want to or because they "still want miles."

Do loyalty programs care about your health?

Parisi's case makes you wonder if loyalty programs actually care about the health of their customers. 

They clearly don't care about your financial health. I outlined my objections to travel loyalty programs in a comprehensive story on my consumer advocacy site last week. I noted that loyalty programs short-circuit your common sense, raise the price of travel, and create an entitled class of consumer. They're also an unsustainable bubble that will eventually burst.

But what I didn't say in that story but I'm telling you now is that I have close friends and family members who have played the loyalty game and lost. Big time. They ended up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with late charges piling up. All because they wanted more miles. It's disheartening and embarrassing.

So why should loyalty programs care about your physical health? Well, the only reason I can think of is that if you die of COVID-19, you won't be able to continue earning more miles. That would be a shame for the company's shareholders. A cynic might also argue that the death of a program member is positive because the company will never have to make good on the promised "perks" those points convey. But let's not go there.

Maybe I've missed it, but I haven't seen any loyalty programs sending emails to their members, urging them to "please stay safe" or encouraging them to skip travel and earn points by shopping online. Instead, they are urging their program members and affinity cardholders to travel and travel more.

Parisi makes a valid point. I've already talked about travel agents who recklessly sell vacations in the midst of an outbreak. I think it's fair to add loyalty programs to the list of bad players during the pandemic. 

This is the perfect time to reconsider your loyalties. If your affinity credit card company is prodding you to book a flight or buy something you don't need, maybe it's time to cut your card into tiny little pieces. If your loyalty program is pressuring you to reserve a hotel room at a time when COVID-19 deaths are at an all-time high, perhaps it’s time to quit.

Parisi says he'll never darken the door of a Choice hotel property again and has stopped participating in its loyalty program. He says Choice can keep the points, too.

"To me, it was the principle that they thought the points were more valuable than my health," he says.

I think he made the right call.

Do you think loyalty programs care about your health? Would you travel now to keep your points active or to reach elite status? I'm interested in your thoughts. The comments are open. By the way, if you aren’t a subscriber to Elliott Confidential yet, I hope you’ll consider signing up. Your support funds the advocacy journalism in this newsletter. Here’s how to subscribe.

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