Poor Elite Treatment on Discount and Award Stays: I Am Not My Rate!

One of my favorite resorts is the Intercontinental Bali. The service is great. I wouldn’t stay at the ‘regular hotel’ it’s large and busy and there are just so many wonderful and inexpensive places in Bali to go. But their club lounge experience is really nice, it’s peaceful, and it represents just a phenomenal value although pricing is certainly higher than it was a couple of years ago.

There are three separate ‘wings’ of the hotel, the main property, the Sinjara wing, and the Club wing. As even an regular ‘ol Ambassador you can expect an upgrade to a Duplex Suite, they don’t upgrade generally between the wings though so if you want club you need to book (or buy up to) it.

Historically they were very generous with upgrades, as a Royal Ambassador in 2008 I received a Jimbaran Bay Suite which was just amazing, three separate seating areas on the balcony even. Club guests receive complimentary roundtrip airport transportation, though it no longer includes VIP fast track through immigration. And I understand though that they’ve downgraded the club experience somewhat, it used to be that there was complimentary food off a menu to order 24 hours a day and that’s no longer the case. A lovely spa, nice rooms, good service, it still seems like a property worth returning to.

But they’ve gotten much tighter on upgrades indeed, and they pay a great deal more attention to room rates than they used to. Last year some good friends received a Uluwatu suite when booking a club room on the Friends & Family rate. This year they were told that the friends and family rate is no longer eligible for upgrades at all. Technically according to the rules, to be sure, but a change in attitude towards their guests. (There are some reports of Royal Ambassadors still being upgraded from club room bookings to Duplex Suites but I haven’t seen recent reports of better upgrades than that, and they’re proactively telling folks they don’t upgrade the rate.)

Intercontinental’s terms and conditions allow them not to upgrade at all not just on rates like friends and family, but even on award nights. When using points — and mind you, there’s no way to use additional points to reserve a better room with Priority Club in contrast to Starwood, Hyatt, and Marriott — very few if any benefits apply at all. I offered a detailed discussion of the policy and a particularly bad Willard stay report back in January.

Last week I wrote about possible changes coming to the Priority Club program and Carol made a very trenchant observation, that I think captures something really fundamental:

Until they offer the same upgrades for awards that they do for paid stays, they are not a competitive program, Royal Ambassador or no. I’m not made to feel second class when I book an award at Starwood or Hyatt.

What some hotels, and some programs, forget is that the loyalty programs promise better treatments for their most loyal guests.

The best expression of the principle came from Flyertalk member PremEx in 2003, when Starwood announced that they would no longer honor elite benefits when booking stays through third party websites like Expedia. I raised the point, and his quote, last summer:

Welcome to the Starwood Preferred Rate® Program. You are no longer a Preferred Guest.

Forget about the 25 or 50 or 75 stays you had on normal rates, that earned you Platinum. Walk in the door on Jan 1, 2004 on an occasional Priceline or other third party booking…and magically and mystically you’ve somehow become a Non-Preferred Guest!

And now that that fundamental change in the program has kicked-off and that wall has been shattered to pieces, where will it end?

Only property elite benefits when staying on Rack Rates? That also would certainly improve elite benefits too…on only those times that you were staying on Rack Rates!

Slippery slope, my friend.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be a Preferred Guest. As long as I’m at a Starwood property, I prefer and expect to get the recognition I earned. And I earned that status all on qualifying rates.

Because I’m a Platinum Preferred Guest. I am not my rate.

This is a very important principle, and not just from a consumer standpoint. Programs destroy the goodwill they create when a loyal member walks into their property and is treated less well because of how they booked their stay. They no longer feel like an honored guest. Either the person is important to the chain or they aren’t. If they stay, say, 50 nights during a year on a qualifying, paid rate and they show up on an Expedia rate because it’s the only place that was selling the room, or because the room was booked for them by someone else, and they are treated less well then their loyalty feels less meaingful. More importantly, when they stay loyal and earn their points and finally cash in those points and aren’t treated as well becausee they’re taking advantage of what’s supposed to be a reward for their loyalty, their loyalty feels a whole lot less meaningful.

For frequent guest loyalty to mean anything, it needs to be that when a guest walks into a hotel they are important to the chain. Every time. Radisson in Europe even has the “Our World, Your Lounge” program where they tell their elite members that they’re welcome in a hotel any time even when they aren’t staying at the property– come in, have a complimentary cup of coffee, and use our internet. They’re a valued customer, every time, even when not staying at the hotel.

Similarly, there’s an issue for the airlines, if an elite member is flying on an award ticket they should be eligible for an upgrade. Using points, after tons of flights, they shouldn’t be treated less well than a customer on a discounted fare. (And don’t get me started on airlines that take the short-sighted view that full fare trumps status for upgrades, so that a Delta silver on a cheap government fare trumps a Diamond on a discount fare.)

Your members are people, your points are the reward, every time they walk into your hotel or up to your checkin counter they are the same person regardless of rate or fare. An honored guest is an honored guest. Or as PremEx so trenchantly reserved, “I am not my rate!” This deserves to be screamed from the rooftops.

Update: I should add that honoring status benefits on award stays is very much the norm, only Priority Club (that I can think of) has rules which permit a hotel not to do so. Honoring status benefits on Priceline stays is something that Marriott and Hyatt do. No earning towards status, but benefits are provided. Starwood and Hilton do not.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Full fare upgrade priority. This was a huge pet peeve of mine against flying Delta. As a Northwest Platinum flying Washington National – Salt Lake City shortly after the merger I remember being around 30th on the upgrade list three times in a row at the gate. I’ve assumed plenty of government fare silvers for instance trumping me.In many markets it won’t matter a great deal (though not suprising they’re shortening the upgrade windows, so that last minute higher fare purchasers will jump to the top of the queue). But depending on how they treat government fares as full fares this could kill Mileage Plus from the perspective of a non-federal DC-based flyer. And Dulles is a hub.This change, I believe, is the most concerning of all. We need to shout from the rooftops, “I am not my rate or my fare!” […]


  1. I half agree and half disagree with your comments. The half I agree with is that loyalty members should receive their elite benefits on award stays too – after all, they earned the points, and they deserve the treatment they get. The half I disagree with is that they should get the same benefits if they book a rate on an opaque site like Priceline or Hotmail, and probably even Expedia, hotels.com etc. The loyalty program benefits cost the hotel money to deliver, and the basic deal is that in return for giving you those benefits, you are paying a higher rate, or a rate that isn’t being split with merchants like Expedia. Basically the OTA rates have stripped all the extra costs out, and when you are shopping there, you don’t express any brand loyalty. Frankly you can usually get comparable rates on the hotel websites, so you can do some comparison shopping on Expedia, and then book on the hotel website. In return for giving the hotel the full rate, you get the benefits. If you book on Expedia and they take 35%, you don’t get the benefits. Seems pretty straightforward.

  2. “when you are shopping there, you don’t express any brand loyalty.”

    I don’t think most folks consider themselves loyal to a booking channel, but to a hotel chain.

    Your brand loyalty is to your selection of hotel.

    And even on a Priceline stay, you are important to the chain through your other nights. YOU are important to them. And elite benefits are often quite inexpensive to deliver. The upgraded room isn’t an incremental cost, at least when the hotel isn’t 100% occupied, and if it is it’s just a question of to whom to give that room. Again, not a meaningful cost. Breakfast benefits maybe, but that’s not something offered across all chains in any case.

    Again, take my example of a rate being BOOKED FOR YOU by someone else, say that Expedia was used and no benefits delivered. I suppose you could say that the traveler didn’t choose the hotel in the first place. Maybe, maybe not, they just didn’t choose the booking channel is all we know from the example. But even if they didn’t select the hotel… most programs don’t offer points and benefits for the travel arragner, plenty of travelers have people book their travel for them. Programs offer meeting planner points. Thirty years ago Southwest offered a program ‘for secretaries’ who would earn free travel by booking their bosses on Southwest. But generally it’s the person who is staying, not the person making the booking, who earns the rewards from the loyalty programs. And they may not even know the booking channel used.

    But my point remains, that a guest is a guest is a guest and failing to treat the elite member as an elite member every time diminishes the value to the program that they are creating with their elite benefit, because it undermines the program in the eyes of the member.

  3. I do agree with the points regarding hotel benefits on award stays. PCR (and Amb) are cheap on that. Though with PCR, their elite benefits are pretty much nil anyway…so not a big loss. I do actually stay in IHG properties mostly, but only because PCR hands out points like candy which are quite useful for family vacation stays, where saving a buck is more important than other considerations usually.

    I think hotel elite benefits should apply for 3rd party bookings as well. I understand the point of view that those rates can (though not always) be a lot cheaper. But we’re talking about the hotel’s most loyal guests, who generate tons of steady income all year. A marginally smaller profit (in theory) on an occasional 3rd party booking shouldn’t trump what is often many years of loyalty. And I agree it’s a slippery slope.

    Not sure about airline upgrade policies. Mostly a UA flyer so that seems familiar to me, but with a recent match have been on DL more. A pro in DL’s favor is for Gold and up they a do allow upgrades on award tickets.

    And yes, gov’t YCA fares often (though not always) are cheaper than a public full-fare Y ticket. But a Silver on any Y, B, or M fare will also trump the deep discount Diamond guy, whether that is a public fare, corporate rate, whatever. Not sure why you singled out a Gov YCA fare. Plus the gov’t agrees to mandate employee & military member use of DL for the given City Pair in exchange for the discount.

    I still don’t know which airline upgrade philsophy I prefer. I guess it’s just two ways to skin that cat.

  4. @Ryan I used the government fare example because I’m based out of DCA. In my short stint as a Delta Platinum, prior to the introduciton of Diamond, I remmeber being #40 on the upgrade list for DCA-SLC. Government fare flyers are mostly a non-issue around the country. At DCA you don’t want to be a Delta elite if you don’t work for the federal government (but if you do, you sure do!).

  5. YCA federa government fares are not always Y booking classes. In my experience they are often W, V, M, and H. Very rarely am I on a Y or B booking class on a government ticket. But the city pairs that I usually fly are contracted to United, so can’t speak for Delta. In any event, they are always way more expensive than the discounted fares, which is why some of us who manage budgets often attempt to get waivers to obtain discounted tickets, especially for group travel. The risk of that is that the same restrictions apply with respect to cancellations and changes, whereas YCA fares are fully refundable, fully changeable with no penalty, which is why they are a benefit to the government.

  6. They don’t offer benefits on PL rates because they infact want you to spend more to get your elite benefits. Just like upgrades often require a more expensive fare class, the program is used to extract more revenue, and to the company you are your revenue.

  7. We tend to forget the amazing value of PB. Yes, it will be great to have the benefits, but if they drop PB, I prefer the current situation.

    With regard to bookings through third party sites, I think guests stay loyal (at least I do!), they are just looking for the best price (and that is why they also use ebates and the like and PC is a participant there).

  8. I am AA Platinum Elite. I unknowingly booked a Basic Economy Fare through my Corporate Travel site Concur. When I was unable to choose seats I contacted AA, who indicated that no one, not even a high tier Elite, has the right to pre-select a seat on a Basic Economy Fare. I requested that they waive the rule since I wasn’t aware I was booking such a restrictive fare, and they refused to do do. Additionally, the mileage award is less for the fare for everyone, including Elites.

    So much for valuing my loyalty. If I had known that was the situation, I would have chosen a flight from a different carrier, which had better flight times.

    I recommend that you publish an article re this, as I believe most Elites are as unaware as I was.

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