Hilton gives free internet access by status

The elites get free internet access at Hiltons, and the rest can eat cake … which is how it should be. The hotel company has decided to reward its best customers with this perk, which translates to between $10 and $15 a night in value. To qualify, you need to be gold-level or above. Internet access is one of the more unpopular extra charges, especially for business travelers who have no choice but to incur it. For Hilton, tying the waived fee to status provides an easy way to experiment with easing up on the fee while keeping it contained.

Jeff Diskin, a Hilton senior executive for customer marketing, “Business travelers rank quality, high-speed internet access as one of the most important guest room attributes.” He adds, “By giving complimentary internet access to our Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members globally, we will meet our guests’ evolving demands.”

An inside look at off-the-books elite airline programs

Imagine an airline experience free of middle seats, standing in line or dealing with nut-job flight attendants who withhold orange juice, water and any other service not related to “safety.” Tom Stuker, it seems, doesn’t have to close his eyes and pretend: he lives the dream. He’s spent 700,000 in non-middle seats this year alone, with complimentary cocktails, a hidden check-in process and a taste of luxury not present even in first class having become the norm for him.

Now, with 8.8 million miles racked up on United over his travel-intensive career, Stuker has been admitted to an elite frequent flier program, of the sort we covered here at Gadling not to long ago. This is the type of secret society noted in George Clooney‘s new flick, “Up in the Air.” Airlines don’t like to talk about it, but they actually do treat people well on occasion. You just have to spend a fortune to matter enough to them.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski Janikowski likens the airlines super-duper-premium offer, Global Services, to Yale’s Skull and Bones society. Like the elite underworld of the Ivy League, its members include CEOs, senators and other people envied by the rest of us.

So, how does this work?

1. You get a special check-in area. Avoid the great unwashed, and get greeted by name, as a concierge, of sorts, dispatches with your bags quickly. Your boarding passes will be waiting for you. At some airports, you’ll be able to pass through a hidden door to the front of the security checkpoint.

2. You’ll be watched. When? Well, when you move to the front of anything. We are all aware of those guys who occasionally are allowed to board before the elderly – before any announcements are made.

3. You’ll choose first. For everything, all the time. The meal will come to you before anyone else even knows there’s food on the plane.

4. Your lost luggage is scouted. If the airline loses your luggage, they actually try to find your luggage. Actively. A special team takes care of this.

None of this is truly life-changing, though, except the security piece. The real value of being a member of this type of secret society becomes apparent when something goes wrong … not unusual when airline employees are involved.

If you have a connection that’s too tight, the airline will rebook you on the next available flight – while you are still in the sky. A special agent will meet you at the gate with your new boarding pass, and a set of wheels will be furnished to take you to the next gate. If you need to go through security again, you’ll be escorted personally. In rare cases, a car will be waiting for you to dart you across the tarmac to your next plane. Terminals are for prolie scum.

Thinking back to Stuker, he’s got insane props with several airlines, but his favorite is United, because, “I am treated like a king.” Simply, he notes, “If I was in coach, I would shoot myself.”

Are you planning a mileage run? Four reasons to rush to the airport

There are only a few weeks left in 2009, and frequent travelers across the country are staring more intently at their mileage statements than Santa does at the naughty/nice list. The stakes are high: miss the elite cutoff, and a year of upgrades, accelerated check-in and other perks disappear. For passengers who see gold or platinum status levels within reach, year-end “mileage runs” can make a great investment. Pay for a cheap flight, even if it is just for a night or a same-day return, and use this benefit for the next twelve months on upgrades and services that would cost a fortune otherwise.

With the low prices airlines are offering these days to bring passengers back into the cabin, the return on your investment in a “mileage run” is higher than ever. But, it’s not all to the flyer’s benefit … there’s an upside for the airlines, too. They get loyalty.

Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk.com, a website for frequent travelers, told USA Today, “Whenever someone doesn’t requalify for elite status, they become free agents. And in tough times, airlines don’t want to gamble that some of their best customers will leave.” He puts the number of elite-level passengers at 7.3 million of the 210 million passengers who belong to at least one loyalty program.

So, the airlines are rolling out the red carpet for mileage runners. Here are four mileage run deals to kick around with the end of the year approaching.

1. Through December 15, 2009, American, Continental and United are doubling the elite-qualifying miles they give their passengers. So, a shorter mileage run goes a little further.

2. In the middle of next year, Continental and Untied are going to give each other’s elite passengers unlimited upgrades (based on availability) on domestic flights — and premium coach seats, too. So, if you hit the right status on either airline this year, you’ll gain even more for your efforts.

3. Starting in the spring, Delta will let you roll over extra elite-qualifying miles and credits you don’t need to reach a status level to the next year. So, you don’t have to worry about starting from zero when January 1, 2011 rolls around.

4. Delta is also adding a new top level — diamond — that will include even better perks, including free Sky Club membership.

For the frequent business traveler, especially, reaching a high elite level involves so much more than bragging rights. It defines your lifestyle for the next year — from how early you need to get up on Monday morning to your mood when you get home Thursday or Friday night. But, there are better measures to watch than up-ticks in frequent flyer accounts. My friend and former coworker from the road warrior days put it best: “The only thing better [than accumulating airline and hotel status levels] is watching them expire.” Yeah, nothing tops getting off the road for a while when you live that life.

Don’t become a hermit: eight tips for solo business travelers

Solo business travel can be downright depressing. Even if you hate team dinners (and your colleagues), don’t mind dining alone and prefer a bit of privacy, frequent individual business trips can turn you into a hermit. After a while, you socialize almost not at all, become intolerant of other people and seek out the types of conversation that can only be held in your own head. Along the way, you can become perpetually annoyed or even seriously depressed. The tendencies that characterize your personal life can invade your job performance, as well. Sucking at work can take a toll on your self-esteem, intensifying the problem. Before you know it, you’re beholden to this toxic dynamic — extracting yourself requires a triumph of the will, which is unlikely when you’re trapped by the pressure of a seemingly inescapable situation.

Prevention is really the only course of action at your disposal. Otherwise, you’re left waiting for someone else to notice the problem and pull you out of your rut. For lone road warriors, unfortunately, regular exposure to anyone is rare. Clients are most likely to realize the situation, but that’s more likely to result in a call to your boss than to you. Your extrication from the perils of solo business traveler life thus could come at the cost of a ding to your career. To avoid this, you’ll have to be, as the management gurus say, “proactive.”

Your sanity and livelihood are on the line. Fortunately, you’re inherently equipped to protect yourself, and the travel environment offers much that you can use. However, both your mind and the hotel offer plenty in the way of temptation, so try to stay on an even keel.

Here are six ways to ward off hermitdom for the solo business traveler:

1. Dinner should not be “do not disturb”
Avoid room service at all costs. Once you get a taste of the convenience, even if you have a good reason that first time, you’ll slip into the habit of eating in bed every night. It won’t take you long to have an excuse for every occasion. Go down to the restaurant. If you have access to a car, leave the property. Otherwise, you’ll start to think that meals should be consumed in hiding. Some restaurants offer a communal table for business travelers: take advantage of it.

2. Join the club
Most business travelers have some form of elite hotel status, allowing them to hang in the club-level lounge. Skip the hotel bar, and use the exclusive offering instead. Sure, the food (and sometimes the booze) is free, which is always a plus. More important is that you’ll be around people like you. Shared experiences lead to natural conversations. And, if you and the other guests in the club are on long-term projects, you may wind up with some new friends. You may have a companion for dinner a night or two a week.

If your hotel doesn’t have a club level (or if you don’t have the status yet to get in), see if it has a manager’s reception. These are not at all uncommon (I stayed at a Homewood Suites in a Nashville suburb for that had one nightly). You can snack a bit, get some free liquor and meet the other road warriers who live the way you do.

3. Seek open spaces
You don’t have to work in your room. Instead of holing up in your cave, take your laptop down to the lobby — it has all those seats for a reason. Listen to the piano player while you peck away. Or, sit by the pool. Just being around people will help you remember that they exist.

For many professionals, confidentiality is a concern, but don’t let this become an excuse. Find a seat with your back to a wall, and you should be fine.

4. Take your client out
Yes, this is like volunteering for more work, but you’ll get something out of it. In addition to maintaining some human contact, you’ll strengthen your business relationship. Forego big team dinners in favor of one-on-ones where you can get to know each other. Just be careful not to get too chummy: it’s a business relationship first.

5. Check out the local color
If you’re on a long-term assignment, join a local gym instead of using the one at the hotel. Hit Craigslist to see if there are any groups around that share your interests. At first, you’ll be plagued by the nagging thought, “But, I’d have to drive (or walk or take the subway) to go.” Think about what home life is like for a normal person, though. You leave the house all the time. It shouldn’t be any different because you’re in a hotel.

Local networking groups can be a great outlet. You’ll meet people who want to be met, and you’ll further your career … all while keeping yourself from going nuts.

6. Find a friend of a friend
You may not know anyone where you’re going, but there’s a decent chance you know someone who does. Ask around. A friend of a friend can help you get oriented and give you an occasional buddy for dinners and drinks. It may be awkward at first, but that will go away. In the end, you’ll make a new friend, and you’ll get the hell out of your room for a while.

7. Meetups and tweetups
The internet can be useful. I’m always seeing traffic on Twitter for various get-togethers. Poke around. Also, cruise LinkedIn (if your mindset is professional) and Facebook (if it’s not). There’s always something going on in just about every city, and social media can make it pretty easy to find something that will turn you on.

8. Treat yourself to a spa experience
Chances are you need it anyway. Line up a massage one evening, and enjoy human contact of the most relaxing kind. Sit in a hot tub for a few minutes afterward. Then, go back to the drudgery of solo business travel at least somewhat refreshed.

Airline elite status – does it still have any value left?

When I started my frequent flying back in 1998, obtaining elite status on an airline was not really high on my list of achievements. Then, when I started to pay attention to the people around me, I realized I was wrong. Back then, elite status on an airline was the one thing that helped make flying even more enjoyable.

Forget good food or a snack at the airport – getting preferential treatment when things go wrong, or the occasional free upgrade makes a real difference. After about a year of heavy flying, I had reached top tier status on three airlines, and was on my way to a fourth.

Nowadays things are different. Elite status is not just a luxury that can make your trip a little more bearable, it’s what you need if you don’t like paying for checked bags, or if you don’t like spending an hour in the security line.
In recent years, the value of frequent flier status has plummeted –

  • Certain elite perks are now being sold at check-in or as a paid membership
  • Elite level bonus promotions are making it much easier to become a top tier member
  • Additional levels are being introduced, lowering the value of the current top tier
  • Credit card promotions are making it possible to be top tier without ever flying
  • Status matching is more popular than ever

Certain elite perks are now being sold at check-in or as a paid membership

In the past, perks like preferred seating, priority boarding and special security lines were reserved for passengers with airline status or those that were booked in a premium cabin. Nowadays, airlines are moving towards the à la carte system, selling many of those perks to non-elite members.

A good example of this is something I took advantage of on a recent flight – I was stuck in coach, and had a very bad boarding group assignment. When I checked in at the airline kiosk, I was offered an upgrade to first class for just $50. This means I was able to take advantage of priority boarding, get a decent meal and fly in comfort for just $50 more.

To me, this is a win-win; I get a better seat, and the airline makes $50 it normally would not have earned. To the people up front that paid full price for their seat, it would appear unfair, and it means there is one seat less for elite passengers hoping for an upgrade. On some airlines, the upgrade systems prefer to sell the seat to anyone willing to pay for it before giving it away for free to elites.

Elite level bonus promotions are making it much easier to become a top tier member

When you chat with frequent fliers, you’ll often get a feeling for their sense of entitlement – many of them will also mention how they reached their elite status. Terms like “I made it the hard way” are thrown around to make it clear they reached the top tier by actually flying a lot.

Take for example the newest promotion by US Airways – their reduced qualification levels mean you can be “elite” after just a couple of flights. More elite members = more people fighting for perks. We could be sitting next to each other on a flight and have the same status, but only one of us had to actually fly all year to earn that status.

Additional levels are being introduced, lowering the value of the current top tier

On United Airlines, the top tier in their mileage plus program was always “1K”. 1K passengers flew 100,000 miles or 100 segments. Once they reached this, the airline would hand over a bunch of nice perks. Then, back in 2003, the airline started a non-published level called “United Global Services”. The program is not part of their Mileage Plus program, and is offered on an invitation only basis.

The reason behind this was simple – too many people were making the 1K level without actually spending as much as the airline wanted. Clever travelers could become 1K with just a few thousand dollars in tickets – which is lower than the price of a single business class international ticket.

With the 1K level came an envelope containing several upgrade vouchers (these are now electronic), and smart travelers could convert those into thousands of dollars in premium cabin trips, far exceeding the value of the tickets they purchase to make 1K. On frequent flier chat boards, it became a sport to make 1K for as little as possible.

The new “UGS” level aimed to reward those passengers that actually spent a lot of their money with United Airlines.

The UGS level didn’t have any of the documented perks of 1K, but it is obvious that UGS members get preferential treatment. What this meant to 1K members is that they were suddenly no longer at the top of the pecking order. If someone was eligible for an upgrade, they airline would pick the UGS member first.

Credit card promotions are making it possible to get closer to top tier without ever flying

Very few cards actually offer “EQM’s” (elite qualifying miles), but there are a couple of them that give a decent EQM bonus upon reaching certain spending levels.

Granted, you won’t become top tier with the average household spending pattern on a credit card, but heavy business spending can often contribute as much as 25% or more towards elite level qualification.

Status matching is more popular than ever

A status match is what you can do if you are currently flying airline A, but wouldn’t mind switching to airline B, without losing your elite status. The game of status matching means you really only need to earn status the hard way once – and after that, smart people can continue holding on to elite status on multiple airlines for several years.

What this means to elite passengers, is that in every line of elites, there could be several people who are “just as elite”, but have never actually flown the airline.

This is all fine and dandy if there is a decent balance (ie. the same number of people defecting to from Airline A airline B as those moving from B to A). In the real world, this doesn’t always work – and when the quality on one airline begins to decline, an unfair number of new elite members might flock to a new airline. Obviously, the more elite passengers an airline has, the more people will need to share the perks. On a busy Friday afternoon at the airport, this could mean longer queues at the elite security lines than at the “commoners line”.

Free status

On some airlines, top tier members will be allowed to nominate friends and family for certain levels in the frequent flier program. These levels are usually “entry level”, but in some cases it means the difference between a bad seat and a good seat, or $300 in luggage fees or free luggage. If you know someone with elite status, ask them if they have any nominations available.

The bottom line

The bottom line is simple (as far as I am concerned) – elite status is not as valuable as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong though – being a top tier member on a decent airline is still very valuable, but I’m convinced that the lower tiers are the ones that suffer the most – they are the ones that have to share the few remaining perks with a lot of newcomers.

This really only applies to US domestic airlines, as international carriers have managed to keep the most important parts of their programs protected from too much devaluation. Though, even those carriers have removed quite a few of their perks.