Reader Jd asked the following question in the Ask Lucky section of the blog:
As most of your long haul F/J trips are award travel, have you ever experienced any instances where you have been treated differently as it’s an “Award” vs actual premium cabin purchase? Also what about hotel stays on an a redemption vs standard rate. Any difference in the treatment/service you receive?
To me this is a very interesting question because I remember wondering the same thing when I first started redeeming miles for international first and business class travel. Since then I’ve probably flown somewhere around 100 segments in international premium cabins on award tickets, so I feel fairly qualified to answer based on my experiences. The same goes for hotel stays, though let’s tackle those separately.
Speaking about flights, the quick answer is “no,” I’ve never felt like I was treated differently because I was on an award ticket.
However, I think there’s a distinction to be made here depending on whether you’re flying a US airline or an international airline.
For better or for worse, a lot of flight attendants for US airlines assume passengers are either upgrading or on award tickets. Given how easy it is for them to get into the cabins as well through their non-rev benefits, premium cabins aren’t quite as “protected” as they are on international airlines. Interestingly, US airlines almost exclusively differentiate based on status as opposed to the fare you’re paying. While I can’t promise this is the case with every US airline, most US airlines just have passengers’ status on the meal order sheet and manifest, as opposed to what kind of a fare they’re on. Occasionally they’ll differentiate if someone is on a full fare ticket, though it rarely happens.
On international airlines I’ve never noticed different treatment, but I think it’s for a completely different reason. For one, generally premium cabins on international airlines aren’t as attainable as they are on US airlines. In other words, there aren’t nearly as many people upgrading or on awards, and therefore they view everyone as being a valuable customer. A “Singapore Girl” would never even dream of flying Singapore Airlines first class for free, while it’s a given for many US flight attendants to fly their airlines in international first class.
Furthermore, while flight attendants on US airlines often assume that miles and upgrades grow on trees, foreign flight attendants typically have no clue how cheaply you can accumulate miles to get into their premium cabins. In other words, even if you were on an award ticket, they would still consider you to be a valuable customer, given that you had to fly all those miles to earn that ticket (or so they think). Just don’t tell them you bought US Airways miles for $1,000 to get into their first class cabin. 😉
Now even on foreign airlines, you’ll notice that occasionally their top tier elites get a special welcome aboard or are thanked for their loyalty. Along the same lines, if a certain meal choice is running out, they might give the meal to one of their top tier elites over another passenger, but that’s not a function of whether you’re on an award ticket or not, but rather whether you’re an elite member with them or not.
While we’re talking about manifests, I think it’s important to correct a misconception (at least based on my experience). A lot of people assume that the manifest has everything about you on it. Yes, the manifest that the purser gets might have a bit of information (sometimes it will indicate if you’re on an award or not, and sometimes it won’t), but keep in mind that most flight attendants never see that. There are several different versions of the manifest, and in a premium cabin, the one flight attendants will most commonly see (and use for addressing you by name during meal orders) only has your name and sometimes status on it.
So for airline travel feel absolutely no shame in asking for whatever you’d like, and don’t be shy because you’re on an award. Most of the time they don’t even know, and even when they do, they don’t think any less of you.
Now, hotels are a slightly different story, and I find this to be pretty ironic… let me explain. Airlines can very well lose money by releasing an award seat. For example, if Lufthansa has one first class seat remaining on a flight and released it into the award “bucket” a day before departure, they may very well be losing out on a $10,000 ticket that someone could buy on a walk up fare. While I have no insight into how airlines compensate each other for award tickets, I assume it’s not a function of the load factor (in other words, United isn’t paying Lufthansa any differently for an award seat regardless of whether the first class cabin has one passenger or eight passengers).
The funny thing with hotels is that for the most part, they can’t really lose with releasing award space. Since most hotel programs have “no blackout dates” on redemptions, the hotels are typically compensated by the loyalty program based on the occupancy at the hotel – if the hotel is full, the loyalty programs basically pays the “best available rate” to the hotel (as I discovered with my recent stay at the Andaz 5th Avenue), while if the hotel is empty, they pay somewhere around the marginal cost.
So in theory, hotels should actually be bending over backwards for award customers, since they’re just as valuable as paid customers and have the potential to have a lot more disposable “currency” (aka points). However, at hotels I’ve found a bit more “discrimination.” For one, it’s not unusual to be reminded at check-in that one is on a “free” stay. I know that’s just my pet peeve, but there’s no such thing as a “free” stay… especially in my case, when I mattress run with the purpose of accumulating these nights.
Beyond that, maybe it’s just my suspicion, but at times I can’t help but feel like I don’t get quite as good of an upgrade because I’m on a “free” stay (as they like to call it). Most loyalty programs honor elite benefits on award stays now, and I commend Hilton for even counting award nights towards elite qualification. On the other end of the spectrum is Priority Club, which does not honor elite benefits on award stays. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than being an InterContinental Royal Ambassador, working hard to earn points, making an award redemption, and then being told at check-in that because I’m on a “free” stay, I won’t get a room upgrade, club access, free internet, free minibar consumption, etc. That’s no way to reward loyalty!
Anyway, sorry for rambling, though I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Has anyone felt like they were treated differently because they were on an award? I’d be especially curious if anyone has been treated differently in-flight on a foreign airline because they were on an award, and what the circumstances were.