Travels with Bob

The Scoop on Travel Affinity Programs

People with an “affinity” for or a relationship with certain brands, companies or organizations can reap various rewards and benefits provided by loyalty clubs or affinity credit cards.Travel-Affinity-Programs

Merchants offering customers Green Stamps to redeem for merchandise in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the initial airline frequent flyer programs were early examples of how companies use customer rewards to grow sales and build brand loyalty.

Cruise lines and other travel companies have discovered the value of rewarding past guests with a variety of “perks” when they cruise again. Affinity programs, such as the Princess Capitan’s Circle, Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Club or Holland America’s Mariner Society, attract repeat business through discounts and various onboard amenities for their loyal guests.

More recently, some leisure travel providers have discovered affinity credit cards that provide card holders “points” or “miles” for purchases made using their branded card. In short, consumer loyalty programs and affinity cards have become mainstream and extremely valuable marketing tools for travel companies competing for your loyalty and repeat business.

While such programs may provide leisure travelers substantial benefits over many years of customer loyalty, it’s important to realize they may also have a down side and possibly even hidden costs.

Opportunity cost represents the greatest risk of booking your next cruise with the cruise line where you may lack only a few nights or points to get to the next affinity club reward  level. What you give up is the opportunity for a different cruise experience that may be better suited to your travel style and more in line with what you actually seek. It’s important to evaluate the value of the perks you might receive from your usual cruise line versus the advantages and benefits of trying new travel brands and experiences.

Please don’t get me wrong. I personally belong three cruise line affinity clubs, including two that offer substantial perks if I select them for my next cruise. And frequently, I do elect the cruise line that showers me with the most benefits. Yet, I prefer first to look closely at the itinerary and examine my objectives for the next cruise before deciding.

When considering affinity credit cards, it’s vital to understand annual fees and charges, as well as interest rates assessed on card balances. In fact, I recommend against such cards if you are likely to carry a card balance. Card fees and interest charges can easily offset any travel benefits with airline credit cards, for example. And, as redeeming miles for flights becomes increasingly difficult, such credit cards become less valuable.

Travel affinity programs are usually good for the travel company and the traveler, so long as you don’t overlook other travel opportunities. So, do your homework or consult your travel advisor before assuming that your affinity program rewards represent the best option for your next cruise or leisure travel trip.