Tuesday, March 5, 2013

When travel media and travel blogging meet, it's a match made in steerage.

This will come as no surprise to you, but I have a complaint.

I want to take a minute today to look at the problems that so-called "travel-blogging experts" are creating for the rest of us and how the travel media is allowing this to happen without so much as a "hey, waitaminnit?!??"

I bring to your attention today's article on the perceived reduction in value of lower-level airline elite status in the New York Times authored by Susan Stellin.  In brief the subject is that members of airline loyalty programs, especially the lowest two tears of status, are seeing the value of said plans disintegrate faster than the Astros' chance at the playoffs in 2013.  By way of illustration I quote the following:

“If you hold the airline’s credit card, you pretty much have the same perks as the 25,000-mile elite flyer, except the upgrades,” said Steve Cox, an elite member in Delta’s top tier. “But people with lower status are usually not getting upgraded anyway.”
Still, Mr. Cox said he appreciated the extra customer service he received, which includes a dedicated phone number that elites can call and priority rebooking when a flight is changed or canceled. That came in handy when he and his wife were rebooked on different flights returning from Dublin to San Francisco, and he sent a message to Delta asking for help.
“Within 20 minutes, someone called my cellphone and then personally worked with me and forced open award seats so we could fly together,” Mr. Cox said. “If you don’t have elite status, you’re not going to get that — you probably wouldn’t even get a response from them.”

On the one hand we have a perceived devaluation, which is a lack of upgrades attributed to the prevalence of credit card holders but, on the other hand you have the same flyer admitting that the differentiation of customer service was important and (wait for it).....ultimately a benefit.  that these three paragraphs totally demolish the premise of the article seems to escape all notice.  In fact, there is still a very real value in maintaining status with airlines, even at the lower tiers.

Later down in the article you have "travel blogger" and implied (by the writer) travel expert Scott Mackenzie of Hack My Trip* offering suggestions how to increase your chances to receive the almighty free upgrade.  Then, when you go through to his site you see a welcome post and a "best of" link-post where he lays bare all of his "tips & tricks" which, in at least one of them, he openly discusses ways of falsifying information as a means to receive a status match.  In short, he chooses to use the article to increase page hits (and his status as an 'expert') instead of acting like an expert and correcting (or at least providing additional context to) some glaring errors in the reporters story.

And that's where I think the so-called "travel experts" are getting it wrong.

First off, I'm not going to sit here and yearn for a travel blogosphere fueled by unicorn tears where some mythical 'code of ethics' exists and we all blog in the public interest without any hope of financial benefit down the line.  To be honest, it's the secret, closely held dream of  almost every blogger to be applauded for their work and to be given $100K to continue on providing nuggets of wisdom to the masses.  We all start out thinking that our writing has the wisdom of Plato, the pithiness of Samuel Johnson and an independent journalism streak so wide it makes Hunter S. Thompson look like an intern. The exception to this are people authoring emo personal blogs.  For them, they just want anyone to know how hard life is when they have to do the dishes. 

In short, I'm OK with travel bloggers trying to make money.  I'm also OK with trip reports that show nothing but the inside of planes and hotel bathrooms, hotel buffets and airport lounges.  Yes, I find them about as interesting as a room full of economists but I do recognize there are people out there who really do care what brand of shampoo X Hotels are using.

The problem that I AM having is that, in many cases, the bloggers are perpetuating the myths that the airlines have all but scuttled Elite programs.  They've certainly been devalued, but the idea that credit card holders get identical benefits is just not true.

Now, full disclosure.  I have written before on how I think the future Elite programs are going to be credit-card driven, and how I do think that cardholders are not too many years away from being the real elites with any airline.  Yes, the recent United decision to mix credit card holders with mid to bottom level Premiers was disappointing, the main perk in pre-boarding being that you have space in the overhead bin above you to place your carry-on, but it wasn't (as I stated back then) the end of the world.  There are still very real reasons to stay in loyalty programs that haven't gone away yet, and it's a disservice to novice travelers to steer them away just because you're angry about losing the privileges you used to have.

It's also true that complimentary ugrades are harder to get, but that's got nothing to do with the credit-card holders and everything to do with airline mergers and a decrease in the open seat/eligible elite ratio.  Saying that airline have "devalued" your elite status because you don't get upgraded as much any longer ignores the simple law of physics that two pieces of matter cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

You saw the same thing happen when hotel loyalty programs were recently devalued.  It's like a cyclical grouse-fest interspersed between outing good bargains (which causes them to go away in most cases) and pimping referral links to favorite credit cards.  What the so-called "travel experts" are really good at is pimping their own brand.  Which, in reality, makes them glorified salespersons.  Not that there's anything wrong with that (nor am I suggesting, except in one specific case listed above, that they're doing anything unethical or dodgy) but it's a more accurate descriptor than travel experts, which they have fooled the know-nothings in media into believing they are.

Not only is that bad for the state of travel reporting, but it's horrible for the state of travel blogging as well.








































*Note: I do not know Scott Mackenzie, I have had no personal or professional dealings with him.  Nor do I hold any personal grudge against him.  By all accounts that I've read on message boards he's a nice guy.  Whatever his motivations for blogging I have no clue.  And no, we have never had any financial arrangements intertwine in our blogging.  My readership is too small and my writing too poor to garner the amount of readers as he. I only use him as an example becaue of his presence in the article.  There are many others that I could have used but did not.

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