Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Points and Miles and Rewards--Oh, My! Organizing Frequent Travel Programs
Travel can be a real headache. First, there are the modern indignities, from taking off your shoes to choosing between TSA-fondling and subjecting yourself to the radiation and embarrassment of airport security backscatter scanners.
Then there are hotel alarm clocks that require a PhD to set, woefully indifferent desk clerks and overly attentive bedbugs. (Ick! But at least there's a national registry!)
The recession led to staycations (the name, not the concept -- people have been staying home since long before the internet). The cost of travel keeps going up, with airlines charging for everything from checking luggage to selecting seat assignments to booking a ticket. (Isn't charging for booking a ticket like a supermarket charging to let you pay for your groceries?) One airline actually considered charging for use of the bathroom until Boeing refused to install the requisite equipment out of fear for flyer safety!
Frequent travel loyalty programs used to be a highlight of the travel experience. Sure, sometimes it was hard to find dates on which you were able to use your miles or points, but generally, the experience took some of the sting out of travel, because you knew the money you spent would be, in part, rewarded down the line. Now, you not only must pay to purchase miles (for yourself or for a gift -- which, of course, makes sense), but you now have to pay to transfer -- yes, to GIVE -- your miles to someone else, even in your own family. (Imagine if you had to pay Macy's if you decided to pass along a sweater or purse to a friend or sibling!) It's enough to make a Paper Doll "harrumph!"
It's a comfort, then, to know that at least keeping track of travel miles and points need not be difficult or paper-intensive. Once upon a time, there were only a few domestic airlines and primarily business travelers made use of loyalty programs. Now, every credit card seems to have an affinity program, and airlines and hotel chains have intricate reciprocal arrangements. You can earn, buy, sell, trade and combine miles with the help of ingeniously sophisticated sites and wise travel points gurus.
THE OLDEN DAYS
A decade ago, I used to help my clients organize their loyalty points by creating file folders for each of the travel programs and filing paperwork in reverse chronological order. Back then, all the programs mailed quarterly updates, so we just popped the most recent mailing into the front of the folders and purged the out-of-date paperwork once a year. For an occasional heavy-duty traveler, we created Excel spreadsheets to track miles added or redeemed.
Nowadays, it's a rare loyalty program that sends any mail unless trying to induce you to sign up for an affinity credit card. Instead, the programs send emails which may reference your point/mile balance but probably require you to log in to the web site, forcing you to search for the password. (Technology is great, but I still prefer letting one's fingers do the walking across a few file tabs vs. through layers of online validation.)
Paper Doll is not a frequent "frequent traveler". I generally use one of two airlines, and as for hotels, it would be far from exact to call me loyal, but hedging my bets against a future in which I am a jet-setter (or am able to creatively combine points and miles for a big reward), I participate in the loyalty programs of every hotel chain in which I've stayed in the past few decades. Trying to track all of that data at each individual site and supervise a DIY spreadsheet is so taxing that I don't see myself doing it, let alone my clients.
Enter, the loyalty point aggregators!
AwardWallet tracks loyalty reward points and miles in 321 (and counting) programs, including major airline (100+), train (5), hotel (40+) and car rental (13) programs.
You can also use it to aggregate and track credit card reward point programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Thank You Network points, and frequent shopper programs as varied as Aveda's Pure Privileges, office supply rewards programs for Staples, Office Depot and Office Max, Hallmark Crown Rewards and Ebates. Track dining programs, from the big guys (iDine, Open Table) as well as individual restaurant chain programs (from Landry's and Outback to Panera and Qdoba).
Registration is simple: create a username and password, provide your name and email address (which doesn't have to match the email addresses with which you've registered for your loyalty programs), and agree to the terms and conditions.
Once you join, begin adding program information by clicking the green plus sign at the top of the page. Then type the name of any program into the search box or select from a long alphabetized list. Enter your user name (or rewards account number) and password, and AwardWallet pulls up all the vital information. It will always automatically update all information for that account upon login, and you can sort by program name, balance or expiration date.
Even if you lack a few key pieces of login data, it's easy enough to go to a program web site and use the password recovery to straighten everything out before adding the information to AwardWallet. (Heck, you'd have to do it sometimes, so why not now?) I added eight major travel programs in about 20 minutes, and now when I log in, I can not only see updated point tallies (associated with the program, account number, and, if applicable, expiration dates), but also trip details for upcoming flights, rentals or hotel stays.
AwardWallet has two plan levels. At both the (free) basic level and (paid) Plus level, you can automatically track rewards balances for an unlimited number of plans, organize rewards into "custom" views, automatically track travel plans, and share rewards balances and travel plans. You can also get notified of impending expiration of loyalty points or miles (90, 60, 30, and 7 days in advance), though the basic level limits you to warnings for only three programs.
The Plus level has additional features, such as historical charts of point balance changes and the ability to export data to an Excel spreadsheet (e.g., for corporate record-keeping). If you upgrade to Plus status but choose not to renew the next year, AwardWallet will merely downgrade you to the basic level, keeping all of your data fully available.
Interestingly, the Plus has a Priceline-esque name-your-own-price fee that seems both quirky and mysterious. For what it's worth (which remains undefined), AwardWallet has provided me with a code that the first ten registrants can use to upgrade to a free year of AwardWallet Plus. Have at it, Paper Doll readers -- enter the following code during the registration process:
Points.com is similar to AwardWallet, but offers a few twists in terms of functionality. To sign up, provide your email address and create a username and password, plus your country and state or province. (You can also provide your city or community, in order to be provided with earning opportunities, but this is optional.)
Points.com participates in fewer programs than AwardWallet, including 55 airlines, 14 hotel chains, 4 credit card rewards programs, and 29 (mostly obscure) retail programs. To add a program to your account:
1) Scroll down in the correct category and click "add" for the intended program.
2) Click on the Register Program button.
3) Supply the requested program login information and click (again) on the Register Program button.
The system will then update your account with your point details for your reference. But Points.com isn't just for tracking points -- it enables users to buy, sell and trade points!
Once you register your account, use the search function to find someone who needs, say, 3000 of your airline program points and is willing to offer 7000 of his hotel program points in return, via the site's Global Points Exchange. (There are fees associated with most trades, in part to cover the fees charged by the individual programs.)
The site also helps you make trades between your own accounts, allowing you to turn certain hotel or dining points into airline points, and vice versa (again, with fees attached). You may also use Points.com to redeem miles or points for gift cards from retailers including Amazon, Best Buy, Home Depot, Pottery Barn and Crutchfield -- a great idea if you've got a small number of soon-to-expire miles.
Points.com has an intriguing model, but the trading functions may be more confusing or complicated than you'd want to bother with unless you have an urgent, pending need to acquire miles or points. For reference, similar sites which broker sales or trades of frequent traveler miles include AwardTraveler.com and Air-Awards.com.
Mile Tracker started out a decade ago as a Windows-only downloadable software program created by "a guy named Mike". Now, the cloud-based program is powered by USA Today and can be used by everyone.
Once you create an account by supplying your name and email address and creating a password, the system will send you an activation key by email. After activation, you'll have one more step--creating a user name--before you can get started. At first, I wondered at the disorganization in not creating the user name as part of the initial set-up, but it turns out that one MileTracker account can track miles for multiple travelers (Mom, Dad, the kids, Alice, Sam the Butcher, etc.)
Add mileage programs easily: select the user and program to add, then enter the login information required by any given program. Just wait a few minutes for the system to populate the fields with your mile/point information, which you can view under the Account Summary tab. A nice time-saving feature of MileTracker allows you to not only view and track your points and mileage on the site, but a navigation button grants you one-click (already-logged-in) access to whatever program you want to view at its official site.
In addition to mileage and point tracking, MileTracker boasts features including airport links, currency converters, flight trackers (including information on flight delays), mileage calculators and a USA Today feed of travel-related news via the Today In the Sky blog. However, I did encounter some odd programming hiccups that make it hard to recommend.
MileageManager.com is an oldie-but-a-goodie, dating back to an offline service that began in the 1980s and went online in 2001. It's much more than a consolidation service, providing some real comprehensive mileage management, but at a price (albeit a small one, of $14.95/year, and there's a 30-day trial membership). And, unlike AwardWallet and MileTracker, MileManager only allows one person's loyalty programs to be tracked per account, so a married couple would have to maintain two separate accounts.
MileageManager tracks balances and activity for frequent traveler (hotel, airline, car rental) and credit card rewards programs, as well as elite status-related characteristics. Like the paid version of AwardWallet, MileageManager offers unlimited notifications for expiring points/miles, but in a unique offering among these sites, MileManager has an Award Planner service (in beta development) to help identify which of your programs have award travel bookings available.
Members type in basic information regarding an impending trip (dates of travel, number of award-related tickets needed, the airports of origin and destination, etc.), and the Award Planner locates free tickets and opportunities in each applicable loyalty program. This saves an inordinate amount of time, whether surfing airline sites or being lulled into an elevator music-induced stupor while on hold with your frequent traveler customer service line.
While I'd encourage readers to check out all possible point management options and evaluate them with regard to individual needs, frugal Paper Doll gives top scores to the free, easy-to-navigate AwardWallet. Happy traveling!
posted on: 3/29/2011 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.
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