Paying For Points

I belong to many different airline and hotel rewards programs (which I am sure the rewards program pros would say is not a good approach, by the way). Lately, it seems like I am increasingly being offered a chance to buy points or miles in those programs. That happens whenever I check in for a flight on one of my rewards program carriers. Similarly, one of the hotel programs recently sent an email announcing that I can get “free” miles by buying points and then having the hotel chain match the points I’ve purchased.

The notion of buying points or miles seems incredibly weird to me–like using real money to buy Monopoly money. Sure, points can be used to buy certain things, but there always are conditions, limitations, and strings attached. Why would you want to take money that can be used unconditionally, to purchase whatever you want, and convert it into something that can be used only to buy one thing, with restrictions? My inherent cheapskate tendencies rebel against that notion. At least some people who profess to be proficient in rewards programs agree that, except in very limited circumstances, paying for points or miles doesn’t make sense. And the exceptions kind of prove my point. You need to spend a lot of time with rewards program provisions to figure out whether your circumstances justifying buying the points or miles–and who has the time to study rewards program fine print?

There’s one other thing about the buying points or miles that bugs me: the program sponsors are being paid for doing nothing. It’s no wonder that prospect of purchasing points or miles is raised so frequently. And it also seems to distract from the businesses’ attention to their core activities, too. Rather than figuring out whether they can entice me to spend money on points or miles, I’d rather that the hotel chains focus exclusively on providing clean, decent rooms in good locations, and the airlines focus on offering safe, on-time, uncancelled flights.

The Points Imperative

I’m on the road today, staying at a hotel I’ve stayed at before.  When I arrived at my room last night, I found something new positioned on the TV remote control — a notice encouraging me to make “the green choice,” turn down housekeeping, and earn 250 bonus “rewards” points in the bargain.

Like most — if not all — business travelers, I’m a participant in various rewards programs for airlines and hotels.  Unlike some people, I’m not a fiend about it.  I don’t have a credit card associated with an airline or hotel chain that would give me double and triple rewards and allow me to really maximize point accumulation, and I don’t plan my travel around using one airline or staying in one hotel chain to concentrate my points and earn rewards faster.  I know that this costs me the ability to rack up rewards more quickly, but I’d rather take the most convenient flight and stay in the most convenient place, regardless of whether it’s my preferred rewards option, and if that means it takes a lot longer to get those free nights or free flights, so be it.  Convenience today is more important to me than potential free vacations down the road.

It’s interesting, though, that the rewards programs now seem to be morphing into an even more general behavioral modification device and incentive program.  I’ve been receiving emails from one hotel chain promising me points if I take surveys that will take 5 or 10 minutes to complete, for example.  And now a hotel chain thinks that an offer of 250 rewards points might just tip the balance and incentivize me and other travelers to hang the “no service needed” notice on the outside door handle of our rooms.  I suppose that there are some people who are so focused on getting points that the bonus points offer really could change their behavior, decline maid service, and save the hotel on housekeeping-related costs.  (I decline the maid service as a matter of course, points or no points.)

It would be interesting to know what kind of studies were done to develop these points incentive programs, and how successful they are at producing the desired behavior.  How did the hotel chain decide that 250 points — as opposed to 500 points, or 1000 — was sufficient to entice people to reject maid service, and is the program working as intended?  I’m not an expert in these programs, obviously, but 250 points doesn’t seem like a lot.  Was part of the points decision-making process in that case to make the “bonus” large enough for people to care about, but small enough that people would need to engage in the kind of long-term behavioral change that would really produce savings for the hotel chain?  And how many people are really willing to answer detailed surveys about their backgrounds, personal interests, and preferences in exchange for 1,000 of those coveted points?

For some people, maximizing point accumulation apparently is an imperative, and we can expect the airlines, and hotels, and other rewards program businesses to continue to use the programs to encourage us to change what we do and how we do it.