Monday, February 25, 2013

Fear, loathing and devaluations (Or, why I'm not a fan of Hotel loyalty programs)

In the world of travel blogs there are isolated incidents (when one blogger is wronged and proceeds to tell the world how this insult was the greatest insult in the long history of travel-related insults) and then there are apocalyptic events (when an airline/hotel makes changes {usually a devaluation} in their customer loyalty program) usually leading to a system wide bitch-fest that leads to several blogs deciding that they all need to make a point by declaring their association with said company over. Yesterday's announcement by Hilton of changes in their HHonors loyalty program sparked the latter as you can see.  While granted, this has not been treated in the manner of a cut in bonus points by a branded credit card (something viewed as an ELE by referral-fee dependent travel bloggers) it did create some ripples throughout what United airlines has famously called the over-entitled elite travel community.

Before going any further I want to admit that, for the most part, I've sorta tuned this community out for a while.  Not only does hearing about every business decision as viewed from an angry customer standpoint get old, I'm halfway convinced that, with the current flow of information and exposing of deals, the blogs are doing more harm than good.  That doesn't mean that I don't keep up with the news, but I think the echo chamber has all but played its course.  Mistake fares are rapidly vanishing, the fuel dump is all but dead, and the 'tips' provided (for the most part) for getting the most out of your travel dollar are pretty much common sense.

You might not be surprised then to find out that my reaction to the Hilton HHonors program changes (which are technically a devaluation only on the higher end properties, but actually represent somewhat of a bargain on the lower end) is a big, solid Meh.  I understand that people are angry, that staying at nice hotels and taking pictures of the toiletries are a fave-rave in professional traveler land.  I get that suite upgrades are the bomb yo, and that getting a free breakfast of scrambled-boxed eggs with sausage shipped in two days ago from a processing plant in Iowa is a perk that must be saved.  I get that, and I don't begrudge anyone their feelings regarding those issues.  Different people value different things and that is why the hotel free breakfast, or a suite upgrade is worthless to me.

Don't get me wrong, I love upgrades, especially on airlines.  Even domestic Business/First upgrades on United come with perks like comfortable seats, (sometimes) meal service and an adult beverage or two to help you get a proper sleep if needed.  On my recent flight to Singapore, the wife and I scored upgrades to/from Hong Kong/Singapore which were in fully lie flat business.  This was, put simply, the best 3 hours of sleep I ever got on a plane.  Even on routes where you're not upgraded, for mid-level and above (gold and higher) premiers the ability to sit in econ+ is much preferred to being shuttled back to baggage class.

Hotel suite upgrades are usually a different beat however.  The ideal is that you're going to be placed in the Presidential suite where you might wake up naked surrounded by three European Countesses with peacocks wandering around and a tiger in your bathroom.  That dream, of course, is hooey.  The reality is you're going to get a sofa with rough fabric that was probably once the dalliance point for a weary business traveler and his escort for the night, and a desk that's designed for you to get work done. I'm on vacation, I don't want to get work done.  As a matter of fact the only benefit that I've seen (occasionally) from a suite upgrade is a nicer robe and superior bath facilities.  For someone like me, who views my hotel room as a way station on my travels; a place to sleep, shower and sit quietly on the toilet in the rare instances I've eaten something dodgy and the Imodium hasn't kicked in, as long as I have a comfortable bed, a climate control that works properly and hot water that's somewhere between scalding and tepid I'm generally pretty satisfied.

Another perk of "loyalty" is purported to be early check-in/late check-out.  But to be honest, I've rarely had a problem in this area either.  If the room isn't ready, the hotel is always more than happy to check your bags for you (and you'll usually find them in your room already when you do check in) and they'll let you use the restroom to freshen up before you go and have your first cup of coffee or a beer, depending on when you arrive.  I also have had good luck being given breakfast vouchers by being nice to front desk staff everywhere.  After being treated like the working class all day, it's amazing what a smile and personal compliment can do for your perks.
That being said, you're as likely to find me eating the free hotel breakfast as you are to find me in the fitness center taking pictures of the equipment.  It's just not something I value.

For the most part then, the Hilton HHonors devaluation means little to me.  My default booking tool is Hotels.com where I usually get good rates, pretty good customer service when things go pear shaped, and one free night for every ten nights stayed through their welcome rewards program.  I'm also given the option to stay in hotels that are not part of a chain, and I've found those stays to be some of the most rewarding of all.

To be sure, I don't blame the hotel loyalists for their grousing. After all, any devaluation to a program is a bad thing and goodness knows I've been guilty of piling on United for their changes to MileagePlus. But after all is said and done I've constantly reiterated my willingness to stick with Smisek and Co. for two important reasons: 1. Their program is still pretty good and 2. Their route network out of Houston cannot be matched. I imagine that you'll see the same sort of thing play out here.  After all of the initial bitching and moaning HHonors will up the sign-on bonus and the referral payouts to their branded credit cards and most of these bloggers will find a reason to do business with them again.

And so it goes.

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