What to expect from travel loyalty programmes in 2021
By Hannah Sampson
Travel companies largely froze their loyalty programs early in the pandemic, assuring customers that they would not have to hop on planes or stay in hotels to keep their status or points.
Now that vaccinations have begun in the United States and the United Kingdom, people will almost certainly have to start earning their miles and room nights again to count toward their status the following year. But the requirements will probably be lower than usual as loyalty programs continue to adapt to travel patterns in a pandemic.
"Early on, their goal was to retain loyal customers," Jonathan Kletzel, U.S. airline industry leader for consulting firm PwC, said in an email. "Eventually, this shifted to stimulating demand from their loyal base. Going forward, we anticipate companies will aim to capture pent-up demand and possibly take share from competitors."
Here are five questions about loyalty programs in the new year, answered:
What happens to my elite status?
You should still have it. Loyalty programs have largely extended the status earned for this year to 2021 and, in some cases, into early the following year.
"During the course of the pandemic, the airlines and most of the hotel companies and others put their programs on hold and said, 'Whatever you earned in terms of your status and credit spending, any other metric that mattered in terms of how they measured your value in 2020, would be extended into 2021," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "The travel industry recognized early in the pandemic that the virus was going to shut down the world."
I'm just a regular traveller without status, but I don't want to lose my miles or points. What about me?
Keep an eye on your individual programs, because some could start expiring in the new year. While most companies have kicked expirations down the road into the end of 2020, and in some cases into 2021, some have said those points will expire next year without any further activity.
American Airlines, for example, recognising "you may need more time than usual" to keep miles active, has paused expiration through June 30. Marriott Bonvoy is pausing expiration of points until August 1.
If miles are set to expire with no plan to travel, there's always an option to extend their life with other activity, like shopping through an airline portal or using a dining rewards program affiliated with the travel company.
Do I need to travel a lot in 2021 to earn status for the next year?
Probably (at least compared to 2020), but not as much as you would have before. Many loyalty programs have announced that they are lowering their requirements next year to earn high levels of status.
"For the most part, what the airlines have said is they will not require people to travel as much in 2021 to earn equivalent levels of status in 2022 as they did in 2019," Harteveldt said. "Because everybody in the travel industry knows 2021 isn't the year of recovery, 2021 will be the year they all hope that business recovery begins."
Hotels are likewise making it easier to achieve high status by reducing the number of nights guests have to stay.
Does it make sense for me to stay loyal to the same companies when all this is over?
Experts say they expect travel brands to battle over customers in the coming months, which could mean incentives like new perks for members, status matching or discounted prices - all reasons someone could jump ship.
Should I keep my travel credit card if it has an annual fee and I'm not going anywhere?
It's a good idea to call the credit card issuer and ask what they can do for you. Some have been cutting fees or offering credits toward streaming services or other purchases that are more useful right now, Harteveldt said.
Credit cards that are co-branded with a specific travel company may be a tougher call for people who are not planning to travel much moving forward.