Are airline loyalty schemes worth it?

Flying to your dream destination by plane is an enjoyable but often expensive experience. But with some airlines offering low fares at ‘no frills’ is it better to stick to one airline to enjoy the full benefits of their loyalty programs or do you save more money by shopping around for the cheapest flight?

Does local loyalty pay?

According to South African Airways (SAA) spokesperson, Kabelo Ledwaba, airlines understand the challenge of obtaining new business versus maintaining existing customers and for this reason customer loyalty should never be under estimated. “Loyalty should be repaid with tangible value; and this is what the SAA Voyager programme strives for,” says Ledwaba.

SAA’s affiliation with the Star Alliance in 2006 brought with it a range of benefits for its loyalty programme. This now gives Voyager members access to over 1 200 destinations in more than 180 destinations of the alliance network across the globe.

Voyager consists of five tiers – Blue, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Lifetime Platinum status, and each status comes with its range of benefits. They include lounge access, priority check-in and a waiting list excess baggage allowance, a chauffeur drive and bonus miles.

“Achieving each tier level is determined on the basis of travel activities carried out by members during each calendar year. The more you fly the higher your status and the greater the benefits,” says Ledwaba.

What can a foreign flight offer you?

As with most loyalty programmes, the secret to getting the most from a frequent flyer programme is to understand what benefits it offers and how you qualify for these, says Daniel Bainbridge, British Airways (BA) strategic commercial development manager in South Africa.

Most programmes are arrayed in tiers and with (BA) the entry level tiers offer an opportunity to collect rewards when you fly or by using the services of partners such as car hire, hotel or credit card companies. As you advance through the tiers you receive service benefits on the ground and in the air which includes free seat selection at time of booking and access to worldwide lounges.

But there is a common misconception that the more you fly or use partner services, the more you earn. While airlines want customers to fly regularly, they also want to encourage them to upgrade or pay a bit more for the convenience of being able to change their tickets.

“If you fly frequently, but always buy the cheapest ticket you’ll still collect rewards but not as many and you won’t progress to the next tier very quickly. However if you fly business class you’ll earn more miles and will also accumulate the tier points which will enable you to advance your status in the programme,” says Bainbridge.

This can be frustrating for entry level members who may feel it’s taking too long get service benefits as well as earn rewards.
For this reason British Airways has added a new bronze tier, between the blue entry level and silver membership, where the service enhancements start to kick in. It takes just half the tier points to qualify for a bronze card and it offers some additional benefits which include use of the business class check-in, seat selection seven days before departure and a 25% reward bonus on every mile flown.

“Some frequent flyers simply don’t realise the rewards and benefits they could be earning by joining a loyalty programme,” says Bainbridge.
On a return economy flight to London an entry-level blue British Airways’ Executive Club member will earn enough Avios (the Executive Club currency) for a round-trip flight from Johannesburg to Durban, Livingstone or Harare. If the customer opts for the R500 reward flight saver, paid for with Avios, the Executive Club will also cover all taxes and charges. The same trip flown in first class would earn enough for a return flight from Johannesburg to Mauritius, if the R500 reward flight saver is included.

Flying without loyalty benefits

Despite not having loyalty programs Mango Airlines has still managed to remain second to SAA Airlines as the country’s best local airline. According to the airline’s spokesperson, Hein Kaiser, loyalty programmes typically add to the production cost of a flight and so Mango has opted not to implement such a programme, but rather focus on keeping flights as affordable as possible.

They also focus on convenience. Mango was the first national airline to accept payments through Edgars and Jet retail account cards. They also offer bookings through Shoprite, Checkers and Checkers Hyper Money Market Counters.

Mango offers a big variety of specials too. You can find their specials on where you can book an affordable flight from their leisure and premium options. At the time of writing, their one-way specials include a flight from Johannesburg to Durban at R595 and a Johannesburg to Cape Town Flight for R999. But such specials are usually subject to specific days and availability. Most of their specials are offered over weekends and holidays.

So should you sign up for loyalty schemes?

Flying frequently is an expensive affair so it could be beneficial to use an airline that offers a loyalty programme where you get rewarded with the comforts of a chauffeur and lounge access. For those who don’t fly often enough to accumulate rewards, shopping around online for an affordable flight is a better strategy, especially if you often fly locally.. But, when it comes to cheap flights, you need to book fast and keep an eye out for on-line deals. If you know when you are flying it also pays to book well in advance as buying last minute means you could pay more.