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How airline and hotel loyalty programs are changing due to COVID-19

What are hotel and airlines doing to retain the value of loyalty members' points and rewards at a time when most of us can’t travel?

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Last updated: 18 May 2020

Almost eight in ten Australians belong to at least one consumer loyalty program, with airline points schemes some of the most popular. 

Qantas Frequent Flyer has about 12.9 million members, and the embattled Virgin Australia, which went into voluntary administration in April, has 9.8 million members in its Velocity Frequent Flyer program. 

Loyalty programs for international hotel chains also have large membership bases. Accor's ALL Accor Live Limitless program has 4.2 million members in the Pacific region and its paid Accor Plus program has 150,000 Australians signed up.  

But most people are unable to travel due to global restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult for them to use or earn loyalty benefits. This means members' points, rewards and status tiers could be in danger of losing their value or disappearing altogether. 

Here, we look at what different hotel and airline rewards schemes are doing to help members retain the value of their points, even if they can't fly or stay in hotels.

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Hotels

Marriott Bonvoy

Marriott's Bonvoy program seems to have one of the more generous offers to customers affected by COVID-19. 

Members' status levels – from Member through to Ambassador Elite – earned in 2019 will be extended to February 2022, and the points members have in their accounts that were due to expire will now last until February 2021. 

But be aware that once that deadline hits, points will expire if your account has been inactive for 24 months, so it's worth checking when you last used or accrued points. 

If you've accrued Suite Night Awards, their validity will be extended for one year – up to 31 December 2021 – and if you have a Free Night Award expiring in 2020 you'll be able to use that until 31 January 2021.

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Hilton Honors

Hilton is extending its Diamond, Gold and Silver Hilton Honors member status tiers by a year. They'll now expire in March 2021 or March 2022, depending on whether they were earned in 2019 or 2020, respectively. 

Also, Mark Weinstein, Hilton's senior vice president and global head customer engagement and loyalty partnerships, sent a notice to members in April explaining that unexpired Weekend Night Rewards issued up until August 2020 would be extended until 31 August, 2021. The expiration of points will also pause up until December 2020.

accor live limitless logo

Accor Live Limitless

Despite being one of the world's biggest hotel groups, with brands including Sofitel, Orient-Express and Grand Mercure under its umbrella, Accor's response to the COVID-19 crisis has been more muted. It currently offers members of its free loyalty program less relief than many of its competitors. 

The company is crediting its elite members (Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond) with half of the status nights and half of the status points needed to ensure they maintain their status in 2020. 

Accor has so far made no announcement about freezing the expiration of points. 

accor plus logo

Accor Plus

There's a better deal for members of the paid Accor Plus program. This lets its members extend their 12-month memberships by six months, providing their membership was valid as of April 2020. 

However, a spokesperson from Accor said they are currently reviewing their offer and it may change soon. 

"We are trying to be [as] flexible and generous as possible," added Henrik Berglind, the company's vice president loyalty, Asia Pacific, in a statement.

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IHG Rewards Club

Known for the luxury brands Six Senses and InterContinental, as well as more budget chains such as Holiday Inn, IHG has extended all its IHG Rewards Club members' program status to January 2022. 

But they've only reduced the qualification requirements for their Spire, Platinum and Gold Elite status tiers by 25% for 2020 – rather than extending them automatically, as many of their competitors have done. 

In addition, the expiration of Club members' points will be paused until 31 December 2020, instead of their usual 12 month expiration in the case of inactivity. Points for Elite members don't expire under ordinary circumstances. 

Finally, members of the InterContinental Ambassador program (as of 15 March 2020) will get a three-month membership extension and a three-month extension on unredeemed Weekend Night Certificates. 

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Hotels.com Rewards 

"We have paused the expiration of any collected nights or reward nights due to expire between April 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020," a spokesperson from the hotel booking site said in a statement, after which they will return to their usual 12-month expiration.

The company also says it will extend all Gold and Silver memberships due for renewal between 1 February 2020 and 31 January 2021 for an extra year.

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World of Hyatt 

Of all the big hotel chains, Hyatt has one of the clearest and most generous rescue packages for its members. 

It has pressed pause on the expiration of all World of Hyatt loyalty points until 31 December 2020 (they usually expire after 24 months of inactivity). 

Any acquired Free Night, Suite Upgrade or Club Lounge Access awards due to expire between 1 March 2020 and 31 December 2020 will be extended to 31 December 2021. 

Like most companies, Hyatt will automatically apply these extensions to members' accounts without the customer needing to do anything. 

And most impressively or all, Elite members – Discoverist, Explorist and Globalist – will automatically have their memberships extended from 31 March 2020 all the way to February 2022.

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Airlines

Qantas Frequent Flyer

Australia's main carrier hasn't announced any pause on the expiration of its Frequent Flyer members' points, which ordinarily expire if there's 18 months of inactivity on the account. 

Worried about when you last earned or burned a Qantas point? One of the easiest ways to top up your account without spending a cent is by downloading the Qantas Wellbeing App. This awards points according to the number of steps you take in a day – and just one earned point will keep your existing points active without you having to spend points on wine or electronics that you may not want or need. 

One extension the company has committed to relates to its membership tiers – Silver through to and including Platinum One. Existing memberships due to expire between March 2020 and February 2021 will be extended for 12 months.

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Velocity Frequent Flyer

Virgin's loyalty program, Velocity Frequent Flyer, may be a separate company to its troubled parent airline, which went into voluntary administration in April. But that doesn't mean that everything's rosy for anyone with a collection of Velocity loyalty points. 

The company initially froze members' ability to redeem their loyalty points for four weeks from April 21. But it reassured members that their points aren't going anywhere, and even those due to expire will still be available after the four-week pause. 

As of 15 May, members are able to use points to book flights for travel as of 1 September 2020. 

However, if the airline folds altogether or is sold to another company, it's unclear what will happen to any unused points.

For more information, visit What happens to my Velocity frequent flyer points if Virgin Australia folds?

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Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer and PPS Club 

Singapore Airlines has one of the most straightforward – and generous – offers around. It's automatically extending all its KrisFlyer Elite and top-tier PPS Club memberships for an extra 12 months if they were due to expire between March 2020 and February 2021. The company will also extend expiring Elite Gold and PPS rewards – such as cabin upgrades – until March 2021. 

But whatever your status, it's worth keeping an eye on the expiration date of your Miles, which automatically vanish from your account after 36 months if you don't use them (unless you're a  PPS Club member, in which case your  Miles don't expire at all). But the airline has provided some relief by giving a six-month lifeline extension to any Miles due to expire between April and August 2020.  

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Cathay Pacific Marco Polo Club

If you hold a Green, Silver, Gold or Diamond tier membership of Cathay's Marco Polo Club rewards club, you'll be kept on that tier of membership for an extra 12 months if it was due to expire between May and December 2020. (Bad luck for anyone whose memberships expired just before in March and April, when some of the strictest travel bans were in place.) 

Anyone who has an unused mid-tier benefit, such as a Business Class Lounge pass, that's due to expire in the same time period will also have it extended for another 12 months. 

There has been no change to the expiry period of club points. A membership year lasts 12 months and, if you renew, upgrade or downgrade, your club points will automatically be reset to zero as the new membership year begins.

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Emirates Skywards

Emirates will let you retain or extend your member status, depending on your circumstances. 

Silver, Gold and Platinum members whose status was due for review between March and September 2020 will have their status automatically extended until 31 December 2020.

Members with a tier review date before 1 March 2021 can keep their current status with just 80% of the usual travel requirements (although this might be tough, given how much air travel is suspended). 

There's also a freeze on the expiration of Skywards Miles points until 31 December 2020, after which they'll revert to their usual three-year validity.

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Etihad Guest

Etihad is operating a limited number of passenger services. Members of its Guest loyalty program will earn double Tier Miles on trips made between 1 March and 30 June 2020. Alternatively, they'll get 5000 bonus miles if they were planning to fly during this time, but exchanged their booking for a credit instead of cancelling altogether. 

To help maintain their tier status, eligible members will receive bonus Tier Miles every month until June 2020. Plus, members who achieve 80% of the qualifying requirements for a tier status will have their membership kept on or upgraded for 12 months. Members who achieve less than 80% of requirements will have their tier status extended until 31 December 2020.

Also, any miles that were due to expire in March, April or May will have their life extended for an extra three months, as long as the member has been active in the program during the past 18 months.

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Air New Zealand Airpoints

Silver, Gold and Elite members of Air New Zealand's loyalty program Airpoints will all get a 12-month extension on their status, and Koru memberships are being extended by six months. 

However, the company has made no move to extend the validity of customers' Airpoints dollars, which automatically expire if they're not used within four years. The airline's website reminds its members that they can book flights using points up to 12 months in advance, and advises that they book flexible fares if they're uncertain about when they'll be able to travel.

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British Airways Executive Club

British Airways is another airline that's apparently been reluctant to go down the route of automatic tier extensions for its members.  Instead, it has lowered the point threshold needed to retain membership status by 30% for anyone whose membership was due for review in April, May or June 2020. 

Customers holding a Gold Upgrade Voucher, Companion Voucher or Travel Together Ticket earned with a British Airways credit card will have the validity of that bonus extended for six months. But the airline hasn't made any promises about extending the life of any accumulated points, which expire after 36 months of account inactivity. So spending or donating some points may be the way to go.

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American Airlines AAdvantage

American Airlines has made multi-layered offers to its customers during COVID-19, although many benefits apply only to  top-tier members. All AAdvantage Elite members will have their status extended to January 2022, and anyone else looking to maintain or upgrade their status will have the qualification thresholds lowered. 

The company also announced that members whose miles were set to expire between 1 April and 30 June would receive an extension until 1 July. American Airline points ordinarily expire after 18 months of account inactivity. 

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United Airlines MileagePlus

United's loyalty club members have one distinct advantage over almost any other airline loyalty club – their points don't expire at all, at any time. This gives them automatic protection from the corrosive effects of minimised travel at this time. 

Existing Premier members will also have their status extended until 31 January 2022 (conditions apply). Others may find it easier to join that top tier during 2021, as qualification thresholds will be reduced by 50%. 

United also has a second tier of points called PlusPoints, which can be earned only by 1K and Platinum members, and give holders extra benefits such as cabin upgrades. The life of these points will be extended for six months if they're due to expire on or before 31 January 2021.

What can you do to keep your points active?

If you belong to one of the loyalty programs whose points expire if there's no activity on the account – such as Qantas, Accor, Singapore Airlines and British Airways – then you may need to find a way to earn or spend points during a time when you're unlikely to be spending money on an airline ticket or a hotel stay. 

You can spend points on items such as  electronics and wine at specified retailers, or you can earn points on branded credit cards or health insurance. 

But if big-ticket buys aren't on the cards for you right now, you could consider other options, such as downloading the Qantas Wellbeing app (iOS or Android), which automatically awards you points for your daily steps or even for following your sleep routine. 

Alternatively, you can donate Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer points to Make-A-Wish Singapore. Etihad Guest members can donate their miles to charities including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Emirates Red Crescent (which supports refugees impacted or at risk as a result of COVID-19). You can also divert Emirates Skywards miles to the airline's own foundation, – which supports dozens of projects dedicated to improving the lives of  vulnerable children around the world.

Are frequent flyer credit cards still worth it?

Frequent flyer credit cards let you earn points for every dollar you spend and some even offer sign-up bonuses of up to 150,000 frequent flyer points.

But not every card delivers great value and some even leave you worse off (this was true even before the COVID-19 crisis).So if you can't spend the points because of the current travel restrictions, should you hold onto your card?

If you have an existing rewards card for which you've already paid the yearly fee, it might be worth hanging on to rather than cancelling early if it means you'll end up paying another yearly fee for another  card. 

But this advice only applies if you pay your card off in full each month. Rewards credit cards usually have higher than average interest rates, so if you don't pay them off in full, you'll end up paying more than the value you get from the rewards. If you've been affected by the pandemic financially and are struggling to make repayments, you might be better off switching cards to one with a lower interest rate.

"Banks market their rewards programs to lure people into purchasing expensive credit cards, often using the trap of 0% balance transfers. However, be careful. As the balance transfer period ends, the interest rate of these cards often skyrocket above 20%," says CHOICE banking consumer advocate Patrick Veyret.

"It's simply unfair the rates banks charge people on frequent flyer credit cards. While the cash rate is at historic lows of 0.25%, there is no justification for the big banks to continue charging interest rates of frequent flyer cards in excess of 20%."

What can I do if I think my points have been unfairly devalued?

"The first thing you should do is contact the airline or hotel group directly," says Ian Jarratt OAM from the Queensland Consumers Association.

"Do it in a professional, non-aggressive way – always try to be an assertive rather than an angry consumer."

If you don't have any luck and your complaint relates to an Australian airline, you could try contacting the Airline Customer Advocate, which offers a free and independent service for eligible customers who have unresolved complaints with the major Australian airlines. 

If your complaint relates to a hotel, contact your state or territory consumer protection agency or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

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