Frequent travelers now have a whole new way to view loyalty points — thanks to a growing trend in loyalty program: hard-to-replicate, bucket-list experiences.
From red carpet access and backstage passes to cooking classes with Michelin-starred chefs, there’s an entire realm of VIP travel opportunities designed around the new “experience economy.”
Fueled by public interest in meaningful, authentic travel (as opposed to guide book recommendations), loyalty programs are hard at work crafting redemptions that offer personalized value beyond a typical hotel stay.
According to Chris McGinnis of TravelSkills.com, such alternatives are great for consumers and hotel companies alike.
“Unclaimed awards show up as liabilities on supplier balance sheets. This can be alleviated by finding clever ways to wipe them off the books,” said McGinnis. “The last thing a lot of frequent travelers want is another hotel stay. And many of these travelers have more points than they know what to do with.”
Experiences that money can’t buy
Marriott Bonvoy Moments makes points redeemable for premium access to one-time sporting, dining and entertainment events. Using points for experiences that cannot be purchased with money adds tremendous value, said McGinnis.
That’s exactly what one lucky family can do by using points to walk the red carpet at the “Frozen 2” movie premiere in London. Polo fans can secure a private athlete meet-and-greet and VIP access to the World Snow Polo Championships in Aspen, while the starstruck can mingle with celebrities at an invitation-only GQ “Men of the Year” party in West Hollywood.
Idina Menzel and husband, Aaron Lohr at the world premiere of Disney’s “Frozen 2” in Hollywood, California.
Michael Tran | FilmMagic | Getty Images
Points can be redeemed for VIP tickets to Manchester United matches with stadium lounge access (40,000 points) and the ability to travel on a charter plane with the team to an overseas match (386,400 points, via auction).
Automobile enthusiasts recently bid around 600,000 points to drive luxury sports cars through the Emirati desert while being pampered with luxe food and accommodations at various Ritz-Carlton hotels along the way.
In November 2019, someone cashed in 386,400 hotel points for Manchester United VIP tickets and the opportunity to fly with the team to the match.
Courtesy of Marriott
The night before kickoff, a sleepover package inside a lavish stadium suite at the 2019 Super Bowl “sold” for 3.2 million points via auction. It came with access to exclusive NFL events and top-notch dining.
Marriott has its own team of event planners that brainstorms and plans these special “moments,” which for most people would be out of financial reach were it not for their loyalty points.
Trading points for the great outdoors
World of Hyatt’s Find platform has carved a niche with redemptions across more than 50 destinations focused on the mind, soul and body. A California sailing package with Lindblad Expeditions — the program’s new expedition cruise partner — was an immediate hit for those with limited vacation time. For as few as 10,000 points, travelers interacted with photography and nature experts on a one-night cruise designed especially for World of Hyatt members.
Members can paraglide in California (about 15,000 points), book a private sailboat in San Francisco for six people (77,000 points) or enjoy a private helicopter ride over the Bosporus in Turkey (114,500 points). Hiking is a huge draw; members can go on horseback riding treks through the desert of Abu Dhabi (about 19,000 points), and redeem one of the platform’s most popular offers, a hike through California’s Los Padres National Forest — with a pack of friendly wolves (about 21,500 points).
An Emirati kisses his horse in Abu Dhabi.
KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images
Many travelers may not know what immersive activities interested them before they travel, and those wellness and adventure packages do the leg work for them.
What about airlines points?
While most airline programs have not shown similar enthusiasm for experience redemptions, other hotel brands have, with Elite Experiences from Accor and Hilton Honors Experiences, which both offer varied redemption options.
Low on loyalty points or don’t travel enough to rack up them up? There are lucrative ways to earn hotel points.
Elite status members of World of Hyatt and American Airlines AAdvantage can link accounts for reciprocal earning (redeem airline miles for hotel stays and hotel points for flights). World of Hyatt members can also earn points by paying in cash for U.S. and Mexico-based experiences under Hyatt’s program.
Co-branded credit cards — like the World of Hyatt credit card or Marriott Bonvoy credit card — can help thanks to bonus points for hotel stays. The World of Hyatt credit card even tacks on extra points for dining, travel and gym purchases as well as local transit tickets.