I sometimes think New Year's resolutions are too focused on the new when what is really needed is a hard look at the old. This is certainly true of travel loyalty programs. Since most programs reset the counter on your eligibility points in January, now is the time to do a checkup, to make sure your programs are still meeting your needs.
Pull out your program descriptions, your calendar, your travel schedule and some reading glasses (for the fine print). Just five check points and you're done.
1. Know your programs. Loyalty programs are in constant flux, and the ones that worked for you last year might not do the job this year. Check to see if your programs have changed since you joined them, then consider whether your travel patterns will change this year.
Will you be traveling the same routes and times? Will you need different accommodations when you get where you're going (better conferencing facilities, perhaps, or a suite instead of a single room)? Will you be traveling with companions who are using other travel programs? Whatever the reason, if you are better served by another program, now is the time to change.
2. Schedule your trips for the year. Remember November and December, when you were frantically trying to squeeze in enough year-end points to qualify for the perks and awards you want? Do you want to do that again this year? I didn't think so.
Remember, all loyalty programs operate on the same principle, i.e., "What have you done for me lately?" You have to keep coming back to your travel partner, and you have to build points before you can cash in for perks. Since it's a new year, your ticket for elite privileges has been renewed. So schedule your trips now, at least on paper, to make sure you can maintain the loyalty level you want. Added bonus: You'll save yourself from a mileage run next New Year's Eve.
3. Swing your partners. One benefit of the network airlines is that their loyalty programs often include allegiance partnerships; when you do business with one of these partners, you can earn extra privileges. But you need to keep up with the partnerships so you can get the most bang for your buck.
Once you've chosen your travel programs and have scheduled your trips, determine which partnership offers will benefit you. Pay special attention to point bonuses that can put you on the fast-track to elite status. Two caveats. First, partnership opportunities come and go, so stay current with the available program options. Second, know that some of the best bonus offers require you to sign up in advance.
4. Check online opportunities. Most airlines and some hotels charge extra when you book by phone but reward you when you make reservations on the Web. When you need personal assistance, discuss your itinerary with an agent, book the reservation online, then have the agent make any necessary changes. This will save you money and get you the bonus.
5. Think about sleeping and driving. In the past, travelers have focused their earning efforts on airline loyalty programs. But with ever-dropping airfares and rising hotel and car-rental rates, secondary programs deserve special attention these days. Getting elite status with a hotel or car rental company can mean cost-saving free nights and miles of free driving. I predict that 2006 will be a banner year for secondary programs, so plan your elite qualifying activities across the boards to score the goods.
OK, your checkup is done and you're good to go. Travel safe, and enjoy your well-earned elite status.