When will I be traveling for business again? And what about my frequent-flier miles?
This was the year business travel flatlined, taking with it airline, hotel and convention hall profitability. For a time, it also jeopardized those loyalty-point balances coveted as freebie currency by frequent business travelers and many others, as miles and credit-card points seemed less valuable when no one was traveling.
But points programs are far from dead, experts say, citing better booking terms, the growing value of loyal customers to travel companies and the advent of creative programs that may allow you to spend points like cash more easily on things other than airline tickets or magazine subscriptions. In these largely stationary times, programs are keen to retain existing members.
“Most airlines have increased the value of their points by getting rid of fees,” said Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, a travel site devoted to rewards. He noted also that fees to change itineraries or refund miles on canceled trips have been dropped. “It makes it more valuable to redeem using miles because they’re fully refundable, whereas cash tickets are changeable.”
The bank of points — still somewhat growing thanks to travel-rewards credit cards that expanded to offer bonuses on things like groceries during the pandemic — and increasing opportunities to travel with the widespread distribution of vaccines suggest competition to redeem for seats is coming, leading to an eventual devaluation of points. But not soon, say experts, in part because many airlines used their loyalty programs as collateral when they borrowed money during the pandemic.
“Airlines will be careful not to jeopardize value and the loyalty of customers once this crisis abates,” said Vik Krishnan, a partner in the travel practice at McKinsey & Company, the business consultants.
Most analysts expect any near-term travel recovery to be driven by leisure travelers desperate for a vacation or to see family, not by business fliers.
Apart from health concerns and corporate travel freezes, “business travelers need a place to go to and currently office occupancies are very, very low so there is no real reason to travel to a city,” said Jan D. Freitag, the national director of hospitality market analytics at Costar Group, a commercial real estate firm, pointing to data that shows office occupancy averaging around 24 percent nationally.