If you're unhappy with your loyalty program, you might relate to John Franklin's story. Actually, you might relate to it even if you aren't unhappy with your loyalty program.
Franklin, an American Express cardholder since 1969, was trying to redeem some of the 500,000 points he'd accumulated on his card over the years. He thought it would be easy to turn the rewards into business-class tickets to Brazil.
One representative told him that his points would cover only part of the cost of his flights and that he'd have to make up the rest with cash. Another said the points would cover the cost of the outbound flight but not the return.
"I spent an hour on the phone, mostly on hold," said Franklin, a retired executive search consultant who lives in the District of Columbia.
An American Express representative told Franklin that his points weren't as valuable as he thought – only about a penny apiece – which made him regret his decision to spend thousands of dollars with the card.
"I feel like a complete fool, having all these years figured there would be a trip of our lives, for which I would use points," he said.
Franklin belongs to a growing group of consumers who are unhappy with their loyalty programs. These travelers have spent years, even decades, accumulating miles and points, only to discover that the loyalty only goes one way. They're also learning a few hard truths about the actual value of being a frequent traveler – facts you need to know before you make your next booking.
To reach their profit goals, travel companies have devalued the programs to the point of irrelevance. They do that by requiring more points for a "free" room or airline seat or imposing fees to redeem points.
"Rewards programs are no longer the great benefit they were," said Andy Abramson, a communications consultant from Los Angeles who, as a frequent business traveler, has elite status with several airlines and hotel chains.
"On the airline side, availability is getting tighter and tighter, and costlier," Abramson said. "For hotels, travelers often find themselves in a room far below what they usually stay in while earning the points."
Of course, travel rewards programs still have legions of fans who insist that participating in an airline or hotel loyalty program has many benefits, such as "free" tickets and upgrades, the ability to check a bag without paying for it, and first-class lounge access. Rewards program enthusiasts take to blogs and online forums to celebrate the loyalty lifestyle, angrily shouting down anyone who dares to question the wisdom of their choices.
But an increasing number of travelers are doing just that. They note that the tickets and upgrades are not free but earned through months or years of flying, staying and spending – often paying far more for less convenient arrangements than they could have made elsewhere. Plus, everyone used to be able to check the first bag without paying extra, which makes a "free" bag offer seem like an empty gesture, at best. And they bemoan that travel has become so stratified, particularly air travel. It seems as if seats in the back of the plane keep shrinking to make room for bigger, lie-flat seats in business class.