The Importance of Cruise and Other Travel Loyalty Program Memberships

Jane and I figured out the importance of loyalty programs decades ago. We tell friends we are “Married to American Airlines, Marriott and Cunard.”  Two of them must be involved wherever we go. If you cruise on a regular basis, it is in your best interests to understand how loyalty programs work and how to use them to your advantage.

  1. Cruise lines. Yes, we are married to Cunard. Their World Club has four tiers of membership, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond. We strived to reach Platinum status, which requires seven voyages or 70 nights at sea. Why? Because Platinum status allows you to stand on “the short line” when embarking in New York or Southampton. When a ship is boarding 2,000+ passengers (or more) you want to get onboard as quickly and smoothly as possible.
  2. Airlines. The airline industry coined the expression “Frequent Flier” in connection with their affinity programs. The purpose is to extend courtesies to their best customers. We have been flying with American Airlines since the early 1990’s. American has four primary tiers: Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum. (Concierge Key, the highest tier, is by invitation only.) We hold Lifetime Platinum status, meaning we do not need to requalify every year. It’s far from the top, yet the benefits are ample: This allows us to board in one of the earlier groups (Group 3 out of a total of 8). This means a better chance of getting overhead bin space. We also get perks like lounge access on international flights, free checked bags and better seats in coach without surcharges. Years ago, the distance you flew determined your status. Today, it’s the dollars you spend on airfares and the affiliated credit cards.
  3. Hotels. Hotels picked up on the idea, instituting their frequent guest loyalty programs. Marriott is our hotel chain of choice. I hold Lifetime Titanium Status, which is pretty close to the top. When traveling in Asia, a hotel manager suggested we cross the threshold quickly to cross the lifetime qualifying threshold as the program was soon to be revised. The major benefits include room upgrades and hotel lounge access, the latter translating into a pretty good free breakfast. Earned hotel points can quickly translate into free hotel stays.

Why do loyalty programs matter?

  • Upgrades. On cruise ships, an empty cabin produces zero revenue once the ship leaves the pier. A balcony cabin, an ocean view cabin and an inside cabin require the same effort to clean. Generally speaking, everyone uses the same dining room. Cruise lines often upgrade passengers based on their loyalty tiers. The airlines and hotels often follow the same policy, to varying degrees.
  • Free flights and free nights. Cunard does not award points, but it does not reset everyone’s status to zero every year. Your earned status is yours forever, or put another way, the only way you can move is up. Hotels and airlines let you earn points and exchange them for flights and nights. When you are cruising in Europe, a major component of your vacation expenses can be your airfare and European hotel expenses. These points can be used towards reducing those costs.
  • The magic multipliers. Hotel and airline loyalty programs are like pinball machines. The higher your status in their program, the greater the multiplier of your points earned. This is very important when using their charge card. When we book a Marriott hotel using our Marriott Visa card, the points add up quickly. This earns “free nights” faster.
  • Free nights. When you belong to a hotel’s loyalty program and also sign up for the affiliated credit card, you often get a free night’s hotel stay, expressed in a point cost. This can be handy on those cruise vacations.
  • Point transfers. You might assume each airline or hotel operation is a little fiefdom, like one computer system that does not want to run another system’s programs. That is not always true. As an example, American Express allows you to transfer points earned in their loyalty program to Marriott’s loyalty program. 1,000 Amex points becomes 1,000 Marriott Bonvoy points almost instantly, with no transaction fee.
  • Point purchases. You found a great flight and the frequent flier points required by the airline seem reasonable. The only problem is you do not have enough! You can buy them from the airline and its card affiliate.! Sometimes they run a sale, giving you a 20% extra point bonus.

It can takes a bit of luck, but you can get “free stuff” and a smoother journey if you learn how to get loyalty programs to work to your advantage.

Cover photo: Carnival Splendor cruise ship and Disney cruise ship at dock in Port of Miami ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews

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