Travel Insider: Don't call me loyal

JOSH MARTIN
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2014

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A weekend away here, a three-course meal there and always making you feel just that little bit better than anyone else in the room. Airlines really pull the moves when they want you to stay loyal.

Upgrades, lounge access and priority boarding, life for the living-out of-a-suitcase set can be pretty sweet - even sweeter when the boss is picking up the tab.

But for leisure travellers, an open relationship with airline loyalty programmes will protect you from betrayal when the fine print is read, the earn rates change and unused rewards expire.

New Zealand travellers overwhelmingly choose Air New Zealand's airpoints programme, with 1.5 million members.

It offers dollar-for-dollar exchange rates (a $199 flight costs 199 airpoints), although Qantas Frequent Flyer Miles scheme is also popular (albeit limited by subsidiary Jetstar's smaller domestic network).

Research in the US found only 40 per cent of loyalty programme members were satisfied and would recommend friends to join. There is no comparable public data in New Zealand, but airline loyalty scheme members make a lot of noise whenever earning and redemption rates are altered.

LOYAL AND LOVIN' IT

Besides business travellers, who place less emphasis on price, prioritise full service airlines and are frequent flyers, loyalty to just one airpoints scheme makes sense for those poor souls whose closest airport is served by only one airline - it may take some of the sting out of having to pay monopoly prices.

Signing up to one scheme also makes sense if you are dead-set on booking a long-haul flight with a carrier that also offers short-haul options close to home.

Many airlines offer free memberships sporadically, even during flights, and let you use boarding passes to retrospectively add the current flight to your points or miles balance.

It's pointless to shell out a $50 to $60 joining fee in order to earn just enough rewards to enjoy a $50 to $60 flight.

That's not to say I wasn't grateful when I joined an airline loyalty scheme a few years back after a trip to California - it easily paid for a flight to Queenstown the following winter. So take the free lunch if it's sitting there on the table.

'BATTERED-FLYER SYNDROME'

Cash in, but don't forgo discounted airfares and fly at ridiculous hours "just a few more times, until I'm gold status and get my trip to Sydney!". The sums are simple - if you chose to pay an extra $20 each flight, solely because you want to add to your points or miles balance, then you have already paid your "free" flight, and then some.

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The tie-ins with credit and debit cards could prove a fatal attraction. The Kiwibank Air New Zealand Low Fee Mastercard earns one airpoint for every $160 spent, with a $25 annual fee. You would need to spend more than $4000 on the card per year in order to balance out the annual fee.

The ANZ Qantas Frequent Flyer credit card offers one mile earned per dollar spent and charges $95 annually. So spend more than $4000 annually on the card, yet not incur any interest or fees (how often does that happen?) and you'll be points positive . . . even if you're cash negative.

FREE AND EASY

The zero-sum game above backs up a UK study that found only 40 per cent of respondents had redeemed a reward flight and 60 per cent believe it takes too long to gain anything of value.

The fact is, the airlines wear the pants in this relationship and can devalue the clout of reward miles and points as they wish.

So rather than going through the breakup stages of denial, anger, pain and guilt, let's cut straight to acceptance - which means signing up for more than one rewards programme.

It's far better to be single and ready to mingle with many airline rewards programmes, at the very least the two dominant ones in your region. New Zealand's main players offer generous lifetimes on their points and miles earned, compared to US carriers.

This way the "airline loyalty programme" is not a factor when choosing the right flight, but forking out $2500 on a return ticket to Europe doesn't come without a small gift, from whoever you choose to fly with.

HOW DO THEY COMPARE? Qantas awards miles for every seat booked. Air New Zealand awards airpoints for every regularly available fare, but not its popular "Grabaseat" fares.

QANTAS

For an economy class traveller ("Starter Plus" bundle fare):Flying Auckland to Sydney earns 1300 Frequent Flyer miles

Flying (Jetstar)Auckland to Wellington earns 1000 Frequent Flyer miles

Flying Auckland to Hong Kong earns around 5900 Frequent Flyer miles

To get a free return flight to Sydney costs 36,000 Frequent Flyer miles

For a business class traveller: Flying (Jetstar) Auckland to Wellington would earn 1000 Frequent Flyer miles

Flying Auckland to Sydney earns 2000 Frequent Flyer miles

Flying Auckland to Hong Kong earns 8800 Frequent Flyer miles

To get a free return business class flight to Sydney costs 72,000 miles

AIR NEW ZEALAND

For an economy class traveller: Flying Auckland to Wellington (SmartSaver) earns three-five Airpoints

Flying Auckland to Sydney earns (The Works) 7-10 Airpoints

Flying Auckland to Hong Kong (EconomyFlexi) gets 48-72 Airpoints

To get a free return flight to Sydney costs around 400 Airpoints

For a business class traveller: Flying Auckland to Wellington earns 9-16 Airpoints

Flying Auckland to Sydney earns 5-76 Airpoints

Flying Auckland to Hong Kong earns 196-263 Airpoints

To get a free return business class to Sydney costs around 1650 Airpoints

THE CATCHES Taxes and fees on redeemed flights on either airline must be paid separately, in cash. Less frequent travellers would need to earn more airpoints and redeem them over their four year lifespan. Qantas Frequent Flyer miles do not expire provided your balance increases over each year.

Josh Martin is a journalist with Fairfax Media's business bureau. Contact him at josh.martin@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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