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What Airline and Hotel Alliances Mean for Loyal Customers

Tips on how to make the most of rewards programs, and an insider's look at what your loyalty points really mean.
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Five hundred nights. That's how long it took me to attain lifetime Platinum status at Starwood Hotels, parent company of Sheraton, Westin, W and others. That's nearly a year and a half of key cards and bills slipped under the door--time (and some $100,000 in room charges) invested in the goal of locking in the amenities that top-tier loyalty earns.

More than anything, it means the suite upgrades that are all that's standing between a successful business trip and the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. So when I heard that Delta Airlines customers who haven't ever stayed in a Starwood property might walk in and claim benefits similar to mine because of a new alliance between the two brands, I was miffed.

I called Mark Vondrasek, Starwood's senior vice president for distribution, loyalty and partner marketing, who assured me that I was still far more important to Starwood than the 5.3 million new Delta Medallion-level friends (as estimated by Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer magazine). "As an elite in Delta's program, you'll get selected benefits in our hotels," Vondrasek admits. "But it's not as if you are suddenly granted elite status in our program. We worked hard to differentiate the two."

I appreciate Vondrasek's determination to ensure that the most loyal customers remain at the top of the ladder. Still, there are only so many suites, corner rooms and Club Level kings in each hotel. Even if I have higher status, when a stampede of Delta VIPs checks in first, will there be an upgrade left for me?

"At my 200-room property, 60 to 70 percent of my guests are Starwood Preferred Guest members as it is," says a concerned Robert Cartwright, GM of the Sheraton Portsmouth in New Hampshire. He believes such alliances will change the way businesspeople make travel choices. "I think it's going to be a pretty big shift," he says. "Marriott will probably find a brand with a similar reach that it can partner with. Then you'll see Hilton follow suit."

This is a long time coming. Airlines and hotels have operated in the same space for years, selling complementary products to the same demographic without offering anything more synergistic than the chance to earn air miles instead of points for a stay. Now, though, Delta will offer Westin's trademarked Heavenly bedding on its business-class sleeper seat. (I'm guessing Westin won't reciprocate by serving Delta's food at its restaurants.)

The alliance provides incentive for Delta customers loyal to another chain to try a Starwood property; Starwood elites get a free checked bag on Delta and can board before the riffraff. It's even possible for Starwood members to earn points while flying on Delta.

But since room inventories remain stable, my bankroll has value only as compared with everyone else's, right? If there's a new way to earn points that others can take advantage of, I need to do the same. But Delta barely services my home airport, so each time another Starwood elite steps on a Delta flight, I'm getting left behind.

I'll probably end up making my hotel choices based on airline affiliation, as opposed to the other way around. If United eventually chooses to pair with Marriott, I may well bypass Starwood hotels for Renaissances and Courtyards.

  Points of Interest

How to make the most of rewards programs

Don't cash in hotel points for airline tickets or air miles for hotel stays. A rule of thumb is that each industry can give you a better deal on its own inventory than on a partner's. For example, a meager $500 plane trip costs 40,000 Starwood points--which, alternatively, could get you a five-night stay at the Westin Grand in Munich.

Do Explore backdoor redemptions with partner airlines if you're getting thwarted by capacity controls. Since seats are allocated into different pools, securing award travel on a code-share affiliate can be easier than doing so through the carrier operating the flight. But read the fine print: Redeeming American Airlines miles for British Airways flights might work, but only BA's Avios points can be used for BA upgrades.

Don't Fritter away hotel points on overpriced awards. Save them for when you can use the fourth- and fifth-night-free bonuses that increase their value by 25 to 33 percent, or monthly redemption specials based on low occupancy. Points and miles are a currency--spend them wisely.

Do use expiring miles to buy magazine or newspaper subscriptions, especially on carriers you seldom fly. Any account activity typically buys you another 365 days before your points disappear. And if you have no plans to fly a particular airline again in the coming months, those 2,700 miles lingering in your account can get you something you can actually use, like The Wall Street Journal.