Perks like airline seat upgrades or free food are certainly welcome when it comes to loyalty programs, but travelers want more. For the majority of U.S. travelers, their top loyalty program priority is lower fees. That’s according to the Barclays US Consumer Bank’s 2023 Travel Rewards and Loyalty Report, which surveyed 1,000 U.S. adult travelers online in May.
In fact, perks ranked No. 4 in the survey. When asked to choose from seven travel loyalty program priorities, 52% said lower fees were a priority. Meanwhile, 42% of respondents preferred perks, which might entail free hotel night certificates, room or seat upgrades or free breakfast (respondents could select multiple answers).
Here’s what travelers prioritized, from most to least important:
- Lower fees (52%).
- Flexibility in redeeming miles or points (47%).
- Ability to earn more miles or points (46%).
- Perks I receive (42%).
- Ability to make last-minute changes (37%).
- More choice in airlines or hotels (32%).
- Personalized support (27%).
Hidden fees for travel keep emerging
Of the survey respondents who said lower fees were a priority, 72% of them said the importance of lower fees has increased from five years ago. Perhaps that’s due to the onslaught of fees that travelers have been hit with lately.
In air travel, fees easily manifest via basic economy airfares, which have grown in popularity over the past decade and in 2018 were dubbed “a permanent fixture in the U.S. marketplace”by the CAPA Centre for Aviation, which is a company that conducts air travel analysis and research.
Sure, basic economy airfares have been credited as a major driver for declining airfares. For example, August 2023 airfares were 19% lower than what they were in the same month in 2013, according to consumer price index data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But lower airfares have been accompanied by a la carte pricing for items that used to be included in standard airfares, such as the ability to check bags or to select your seat upon booking a flight.
Such fees aren’t limited to air travel only, either. In the hotel industry, the most hated fees include resort fees, which promise to cover the cost of resort-style amenities such as the pool, and even mundane benefits like Wi-Fi.
The first known resort fees sprang up in the late 1990s, according to the Federal Trade Commission, but they’ve become a special source of ire. Just look to the Junk Fee Prevention Act, which is proposed legislation that would limit hidden fees and surcharges across a range of industries, including resort fees. NerdWallet analyzed more than 100 U.S. hotels with December 2023 check-in dates and found that — among the hotels that charge them — the average resort fee was $38.82 per night.
And in a similar vein are cleaning fees, which are often charged by hosts who use vacation rental companies such as Vrbo and Airbnb. A NerdWallet analysis of 1,000 U.S. Airbnb reservations with check-in dates in 2022 or 2023 found that the median cleaning fee per listing for a one-night stay was $75.
This year, Airbnb launched a toggle that allows customers to display listings based on total price, rather than simply seeing the base price without fees until the checkout page. Since the launch of the tool, more than 8 million guests have booked travel on Airbnb using the total price display, and more than 260,000 listings lowered or removed cleaning fees, according to the company’s fall 2023 update.
Other loyalty program priorities beyond fees
While lower fees are critical, travelers also say they seek flexibility in earning and redeeming miles or points. That’s likely because many travelers rely on redemptions to make their trips possible.
Miles and points are typically accrued not just through frequent travels with that company, but through spending on travel credit cards. According to that same Barclays survey, 76% of travelers who participate in loyalty programs said they couldn’t imagine taking the kinds of trips they want without the benefits of such a program.