Quitting a frequent-flier program looks easy: You cut up your card and donate the miles to charity. And that's it.
But after a recent column in which I questioned the value of loyalty programs, I realized that there's a little more to it. Living miles-free in a world that's polluted with points is difficult -- and for some, impossible.
Vera Finberg decided to toss her United Airlines miles into the shredder after a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand. The carrier had made her buy more miles to redeem an award ticket and denied her priority wait-listing benefits because of a technicality, she says.
"We canceled our United credit card after that," she told me. "I go to Boston every six weeks and will travel to L.A. this year. I may even go to Europe in the fall. I won't fly on United for any of these trips."
Problem is, people like Finberg, a retiree who lives in Fairfax, Va., will now be tempted to join another airline's loyalty program, which may work better for her but in all likelihood will just work better for the company offering the incentives.
It's easy to see why people might be having doubts about their loyalty. Take the issue of seat availability. A recent survey found that from June to October, 68 percent of the United award seats requested were available. United's numbers are so-so in comparison with those of other carriers. Southwest Airlines ranked highest, with a 99 percent availability rate for the same period; US Airways trailed the pack with just 10 percent.
There's also the value of points. Airline miles have been assessed as being worth anywhere from one-tenth of a cent to no more than two cents a mile, and not by an admitted skeptic like me, but by the companies themselves.
If airlines are calling their own loyalty points worthless and acting as if they are worthless, is it any wonder that customers are doing the same?
Alice Watchke, a teacher from Minneapolis, dropped her American Express credit card, which had allowed her to earn Delta Air Lines miles. She says that leaving was easy; the card made promises it didn't keep.
"When we enrolled, the ads all said, 'Round trip flights for 20,000 miles,' " she recalls. She amassed 45,000 and her husband earned 62,000. When the time came to cash them in, she was told that she would either have to pay a $150 renewal fee plus 60,000 miles each for the desired tickets, or buy the miles for an additional $400. Instead, she canceled her card.
But the problem isn't leaving. It is, instead, feeling as if you're being left behind.
How do you live in a world where you can earn a mile for anything? How do you travel with any dignity when you're punished for saying no to loyalty programs? The difficult answer is that you must. Until we break our collective addiction to miles and tell travel companies that they can't play customer-service games according to our loyalty status, nothing will change.
If you're annoyed by those red-carpet boarding areas at the airport and by the way elite fliers are treated like royalty, just wait. It won't be long before there's a completely different set of rules: one for the haves and one for the have-nots.
Peter Hansen, a former elite-level customer, doesn't want to live in that kind of world. He believes that companies aren't really loyal to their customers, something he found out the hard way when he retired.
"It was truly amazing how quickly the preferred status turned into forgotten status," he said. "The loyalty simply evaporated."
To which I say: Why should travelers wait?