Travel secrets: what’s your loyalty membership worth?

The perks offered by loyalty and frequent-flyer programmes often mitigate the stress of travelling.

Being a member of a loyalty or frequent-flyer programme could include free meals, room and flight upgrades, and lounge access. Alamy
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A few years ago, I splashed out on a fancy credit card that gave me gold loyalty status with an international hotel chain and silver status with a UAE airline.

I’d always been a member of the airline’s frequent-flyer programme and had gained silver status once or twice over the years, but never flew enough with them to advance any further.

I was also a member of several hotel rewards programmes and had never received any more than free Wi-Fi – certainly not enough to sustain loyalty or encourage me to stay in that hotel over one that offered a better location or more competitive price.

That was until my fancy credit card gave me the elusive gold. With my newfound status, I could now check into any hotel within their network – ranging from budget to luxury – and not only accumulate the points, but also receive free room upgrades, access to the executive lounge, free breakfast and happy hour, free Wi-Fi and an altogether more enthusiastic level of service.

It became addictive. I enjoyed being treated like a VIP and I really enjoyed watching my points stack up. I stayed in hotels from that chain even when they were more expensive, just to see the points rise, or to make use of the free upgrades and breakfast.

There have been many times that the loyalty has really paid off. Sometimes it has been more economical – once meal costs have been factored in – for me to stay in this chain of hotels than it would be to go elsewhere. By being a member and travelling at less busy times, I’m able to avail myself of rock-bottom rates – I’m talking Dh300, including taxes, a night in summer – at this particular luxury chain.

There are times, of course, that my loyalty is questioned. I had an experience last month when, expecting the same level of service, I contacted a hotel in which I stay regularly to find out about a 20 per cent discount that apparently applied to my credit card. The terms and conditions stated I could get 20 per cent off the “best available rate”. I contacted the hotel to book, but after several frustrating emails and phone conversations was told they knew nothing about the discount. This was not the “gold” experience I’d come to expect.

I went online to book, only to be quoted prices that were more expensive than the rates I could get through the loyalty-programme app. I used the website’s chat function to ask how I could receive the discount, but was told the amount quoted on the website was the discounted price. “How can that be?” I asked. “It says the discount is 20 per cent off the best available rate. The best rate I found was through your loyalty programme for Dh385 per night. What you’re quoting with a 20 per cent discount is actually more.”

And this is when I discovered that hotels use language that makes no sense to the rest of us. The best available rate at some hotels isn’t actually the best available rate at all – it’s the rack rate, the rate they would charge if you walked in off the street.

How often do we hear the words “best available rate” and think it must be the best available rate, without questioning? How often do we go straight to a hotel chain because we are members of that loyalty programme? Do we do it for convenience, or is there another reason?

My husband and I almost always book with the same airline. There are several reasons for this – convenience, good service and a great entertainment system are the main ones. The other reason is the frequent-flyer programme. We both have silver status, which gives us access to the business class lounge and priority boarding, but that’s about it.

Our credit cards are linked to our frequent-flyer accounts, and we love nothing more than comparing points – for the record, I’m winning. In a few months, we will have reached the elusive gold status. Having spoken to those in the club, it’s a perk worth having – not because you pay any less, but for the better service. One colleague who has gold status told me that she and her travelling party were given business class benefits – even though they were travelling in economy – because it was someone’s birthday.

When it boils down to it, we all want to feel special. Travel can be stressful, and when we’re greeted with a warm welcome and given priority treatment, it takes the edge off. It gives us something to look forward to.

Visiting the calm of a business class lounge at the airport, boarding first and not having to fight for space in the overhead luggage compartment, or being invited to a hotel’s executive lounge for evening canapés – these are the things that make us feel special when we’re travelling.

And that’s why it’s addictive. Is it worth it? That depends on your priorities. Would I have ever achieved gold status with a hotel chain without my fancy credit card? No, I would not. But now that I have it, I’m desperately trying to hold onto it.