Over the past decade, I’ve been somewhat of a road warrior. I traveled coast to coast in the United States at least every two weeks, if not weekly, and made at least two trips to Europe annually. I traveled so much that most years I held top tier statuses at my preferred airline and hotel. Some months I’d spend more nights sleeping in a hotel than in my own bed. The valet parkers at the airport knew me by name.
It took a pandemic to make me realize how addicted I was to travel rewards, and how much I was sacrificing because of my addiction.
How did this happen?
Just like scientists in a lab, the travel industry has gamified travel.
Airlines have been using preferred treatment to train me to book their brand when I travel. My earned status opened a velvet rope to amenities like private security checkpoints, priority boarding, and gate to gate private shuttles. While you were stuck in coach wondering why they gate checked your luggage, I was comfortably in first class with my bottomless complimentary drinks, a warm meal, and my (much larger) bag safely in the overhead compartment above me.
Hotels bought my loyalty with early check ins, late check outs, free upgrades to suites (that would have otherwise gone empty), and tokens waiting in my room (wine, chocolate, etc.) with handwritten notes of gratitude on cards.
Even rental car companies offered me upgrades and points towards free days.
And all of this had the proven effect of encouraging me to travel more. In fact, the incentive programs work so well at encouraging brand loyalty and excessive travel that now almost every travel related company offers some type of reward program.
It all starts with the first upgrade.
One day you’re sitting in coach, waiting for the plane door to close so that you can get to your next city. Suddenly the gate agent appears, calls you by name, and invites you to join the passengers in first class. You’ve been chosen. You’ve arrived. And as Seinfeld noted, once you’ve been in first class, you can never go back to coach.
You research all of the travel programs, asking your friends which they think is the best before choosing a preferred airline and hotel where you’ll focus all of your travel dollars. You sign up for their points programs and maybe even get their affiliated credit card to maximize your efforts. You start to engineer your business trips around earning points – constantly trying to figure out how you can schedule your work trips to earn the most points.
Then you realize that these rewards programs offer points accelerators based upon your status; the higher your status, the more bonus points you earn for a mile flown or a nights stay. Now they have you hooked.
Each year they raise the bar to achieve each status tier. You have to travel further, and spend more money. The accelerators make it easier for those who already hold top tier status to continue to achieve that status, creating an ever expanding divide between Diamond and Gold.
And now they have you hooked.
Stop traveling and you lose all of the complimentary perks. Once you lose the status, you lose the points accelerators and it becomes that much harder to get back to the pinnacle of status.
But at what cost?
In some ways I cannot quantify the cost. Those hours in airports and on planes, the long nights in hotel rooms, and the endless hours of driving … they didn’t make me any happier.
I’d tell myself that it was worth it. If I couldn’t use the points, I’d share the wealth. I’d often shower friends and family with free trips paid with points I would never use.
I wore my preferred status like a badge of honor. I calculated trip miles and hotels stays, flying the furthest routes to earn the most miles, switching hotels every night to get “first night bonus points” when offered.
Let’s be honest, excessive travel isn’t good for your body. We spend a tremendous amount of time sitting, and the eating habits that most of us maintain “on the road” are less than desirable.
The saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is only true up to a point, and that’s usually about the time the other person realizes that they enjoy their life more without you than with you.
And if you believe like I do that your most valuable asset is time, then you’ll also agree that your time is too valuable to sell it to someone else in exchange for preferential treatment. That is, after all, what we are doing when we travel to earn points; we are exchanging our time (on a plane, in a hotel room, or generally on the road) for free perks. Time that you could be spending with the people you love, doing the things that you like to do, all while building the life you want to live.
A new beginning.
Like most people, I haven’t been able to travel as much over the past few months. And during that time, I’ve come to realize that I’ve been sacrificing everything that I love and appreciate all just to earn travel status. Through my work travel over the past ten plus year I’ve put at risk my health, my relationships, and my own happiness.
Now is the time to make a positive change. I’ve committed to only traveling for work when I absolutely must. If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic is that most things can be done remotely. I’m going to take full advantage of the comfort level most of my colleagues and clients have gained with tools like video conferencing.
For those times when I must travel I’ll be focused on having the best possible trip in the shortest amount of time, rather than maximizing my point acquisition. Since I won’t be brand loyal, I can shop for more convenient (and cost effective) flights and hotels without sacrificing quality. This doesn’t mean that I’ve sworn off points. Rather, I’ve decided not to let points and other travel rewards dictate my life.
The reward for this activity is handsome. I’m more productive in a focused environment, so I expect that I’ll be able to continue the amazing business success that I’ve had during this pandemic. I’ll also have more time to dedicate myself to my relationship, my full time job, my side hustles, and my passion hobbies. My relationship with my fiancé will most certainly be better. And I’ll be healthier – working out more and eating fresh, well prepared food instead of processed restaurant meals.
Will it work? I don’t know. I’ll send you a postcard, and let you know how it’s going.