4 Loyalty Program Changes That Should Be on Your Radar

Learn how this year's biggest travel rewards program shifts will impact members.

By Christine Smith, Staff WriterAug. 16, 2016
By Christine Smith, Staff WriterAug. 16, 2016, at 12:01 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

4 Loyalty Program Changes That Should Be on Your Radar

Businessman waiting for a flight at the airport vip lounge, resting comfortably in armchair.

Because you should be rewarded for your loyalty.(Getty Images)

It's been a year of shake-ups in the travel rewards industry. In a push to compete with online travel agencies such as Expedia and Priceline, many hotel brands, including Choice Hotels and the Wyndham Hotel Group, started rewarding loyalty program members with discounted rates for booking directly through their brand's website. Meanwhile, several frequent flier programs decreased elite membership benefits, like first-class upgrades. And in perhaps the most significant shift of all, American Airlines' AAdvantage program no longer rewards frequent flier miles based on distance flown, but rather dollars spent, following the revenue-based earning model of programs such as Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus.

To help you navigate evolving rewards program rules, U.S. News spoke with points and miles experts about what this year's key changes mean for you.

Virgin America Elevate Elite Members Can Earn Higher Points Bonuses

Instead of free first-class upgrades and complimentary or reduced-priced airport lounge passes, Virgin America Elevate elite program members are now rewarded with additional bonus points. "The tweaks this year were really just to stay that one step ahead and make it a little bit easier for members to achieve status within our program," says Stuart Dinnis, Virgin America's director of loyalty. "It's an important thing for us as a smaller airline to make sure that once people have tried us, we've got ways around our loyalty system to continue to reward them and recognize their loyalty to us," he adds.

In past years, Elevate Silver and Gold members received 6.25 and 10 bonus points per dollar spent, respectively. Now, Elevate Silver members collect 7.5 points, and Elevate Gold members can accumulate 12 points per dollar spent. That means Elevate Silver and Gold members will earn enough bonus points to redeem a free flight faster than they could a year ago.

However, Elevate Silver and Gold members who purchase economy tickets will still be charged extra for in-flight perks, such as movies, snacks and drinks. Main Cabin Select seats (Virgin America's premium-economy class option) include some in-flight benefits but cost more upfront than base fares. And all rewards members, including those with Elevate Silver and Gold status, will now pay an additional $70 to $399 to upgrade from Virgin America's economy or premium economy cabins to first class.

Choice Hotels Offers Weeknight Rewards to Increase Earning Potential

In an effort to reward members quickly, Choice Hotels announced several changes to its Choice Privileges program. Choice Hotels, including extended stay properties such as EconoLodge and Rodeway Inn, now award 10 points per dollar spent on qualifying stays (versus five points previously).

Travelers staying during the week will also receive Your Extras rewards, or complimentary perks for booking a midweek stay, from Sunday to Thursday. Members have six benefits to choose from, including 500 Choice Privileges points, a $2.50 Uber trip discount and 100 frequent flier miles with partner airlines such as Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, among other bonuses.

Beyond Your Extras, Choice Privileges also tweaked its point expiration policy. Members can retain their points as long as there is account activity, which includes using, earning or purchasing points, at least once every 18 months. Members will also see more seasonal sales, with a reduction in the number of points required for a free night. Plus, members who book directly with Choice Hotels, instead of through a third-party site like Expedia, are granted an extra 2 to 7 percent discount on accommodations.

Wyndham Rewards Adds New Tiers and Membership Benefits

According to Zach Honig, the editor in chief of miles and points advice site The Points Guy, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts made consumer-friendly changes to its loyalty program. Anyone enrolled in Wyndham Rewards now receives free in-room Wi-Fi, and elite Gold level members can now take advantage of late checkout times. The program's two newest tiers, Platinum and Diamond, offer members additional perks, such as early check-ins and an annual 3,000 or 6,000 point bonus. This point bonus automatically qualifies members for a discounted room rate (known as a go fast award). Diamond members also receive complimentary welcome amenities, such as cheese plates and samples of local beers. What's more, these top-tier members score two complimentary passes to a local attraction, event or experience (known as a go free PLUS award) for every go free award night booked in one of Wyndham's top 25 global destinations, including London, New York City and Orlando, Florida. And, as is the trend with other hotel loyalty programs such as Marriott Rewards and Hilton HHonors, Wyndham Rewards offers special members-only rates for stays booked directly with Wyndham.

Why the change? By adding more tiers and perks, Wyndham sought to simplify its program without taking away benefits from its members.

"You always know what you need for an award. You always know how many points you're going to earn every night," says Noah Brodsky, Wyndham's senior vice president of worldwide loyalty and engagement.

American Airlines' AAdvantage Program Shifts to Revenue-Based Model

The AAdvantage program's revised earning structure is arguably one of the most significant changes in the travel rewards space this year. Miles are now awarded based on dollars spent instead of distance traveled. Members at the basic tier now receive 5 miles for every dollar spent on American Airlines flights, while elite members receive between 7 and 11 miles per dollar spent, depending on their status.

"Shorter flights tend to earn more; longer flights tend to earn less," says Gary Leff, author of frequent flier site View From the Wing. "They are awarding more expensive tickets with more miles, but in general, they are awarding fewer miles than before."

This means travelers who often purchase high-cost tickets (such as first-class fares) will earn more miles, while fliers who typically purchase the least expensive fare class will likely see a significant decline in the number of miles earned.

And starting Jan. 1, 2017, American Airlines will introduce additional qualification requirements for earning elite status, as well as a new membership tier – Platinum Pro. To achieve elite status under the program's new criteria, AAdvantage members will need to keep earning 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (miles that are given based on the distance traveled) or 30 Elite Qualifying Segments (points that correspond to the number of destinations in a flight itinerary) per year, plus 3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars, which will be awarded for every dollar spent on eligible flights.

But if you don't want to spend big bucks to earn miles for attaining elite status, fret not: There are still plenty of ways to collect miles "by leveraging your everyday activities and banking patterns," says Summer Hull, the creator of the point advice blog Mommy Points. With a rewards-focused credit card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, you'll receive perks such as generous sign-up bonuses (40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months, for example) and points for purchases, which can be used to cover the cost of flights and hotel stays.

Christine Smith, Staff Writer

Christine Smith is an Editor for the Travel section at U.S. News, where she manages the annual ...  Read more

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