Are award passengers/guests treated differently?

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.

Filed Under: Advice, Hotels
  1. The PC downgrade and refusal to provide elite benefits on award stays would likely have me looking elsewhere.

  2. I don’t know if it was the purser’s manifest or not, but on the manifest in the forward kitchen on a TK leased 777 I noted FO next to my name and FF next to the other passengers names. I assume the first letter was seating and the second letter was fare class, O being award first.

  3. G’day all,
    Firstly Ben – Great work mate! Just discovered your site and it’s fab!!

    Secondly – Awards. I predominantly fly Singapore Airlines (SQ). I have redeemed around 100 sectors on them and partner airlines. Peeking into the galley and notes I have only seen pax name and status & no reference to award bookings.

    When on awards I have no hesitation to enjoy the flight and service. All my miles come from personal flying with the airline and in effect I have paid for the privilege of the award. In australia we don’t get so many ‘free’ miles so 90% of my miles come from flying on SQ regularly.

    On my first ever upgrade to 1st on SQ I was very shy and didn’t drink Krug or eat very much as I felt I was there for free. Since then I realise my upgrade was because business is full, they needed my seat and I have given them enough business each year to hit their top status requirements. In addition SQ top tier status counts only 1st and business class flights and you must now spend $25,000SGD per year to renew (this does not include taxes or surcharges) and miles flown do not count for status re-qualification. So when i bumped up – I enjoy the flight! In 10 years of top tier status I have only been upgraded 5 times.

  4. AS to was I treated differently?
    Every flight on SQ, be it award or being bumped or a commercial ticket = > SERVICE has always been the same.

  5. I agree with your analysis for the most part, but there are times when international airlines discriminate against award passengers “outright.” For example, a few years back I flew several first and business sectors on JJ, EK, and IB (on seperate trips, not one “mega trip” like yours!) and although at the time they all offered free limousine transfers to the airport, all of them denied me the transfer as “free” tickets were not eligible. For the most part this policy was official and stated on their websites (i.e., not just an ill-informed agent being an ass).

  6. I can’t say I’ve really noticed a difference in treatment when traveling F on reward. What I seem to get is a lot of surveys, Singapore, ANA, Viet Nam, Swiss, which I’ve often thought it might have been related to some kind of notation in the manuscript. Something interesting though, to your point of special care to the carrier’s top tier fliers, once flying ANA F NRT-FRA on award I noticed the gentleman across the isle from me on the other number 1 seat, did get the ‘treatment’ he was not even given a menu. The FAs were almost his private geishas, which I found really nice.

  7. I’ve never noticed any difference in treatment on airlines. Generally, I’ve not had any lesser treatment at hotels either. Sometimes it depends on the property and also whether I’m a repeat guest at that location.

    PC does have the lack of official elite benefits, but some properties are better than others at *voluntarily* extending benefits on such a stay. Not that PC benefits are anything special even for Platinum! (But they give away points like candy which works for my needs.)

  8. Having just completed a trip in Europe and staying in *wood properties, I requested room upgrades at the three properties we stayed at. At all three hotels, I was reminded that I was staying on points. (Never used the word free). In MAD and BCN, the hotels told me that no upgrade rooms were available since the hotels were “full”. Of course, the first chance I could, I checked online to see if any better rooms were available. Of course there were…….

  9. I can’t say about hotels because I have never used points to stay in one.

    When it comes to flights though, I don’t think I have ever felt I was being treated differently onboard. But since I don’t fly a lot they could possibly tell that I am on an award simply by the way we interact. I flew on an F award last year on LH, TG and UA. I am not interested in caviar and champagne and lots of chichi food. the FAs on TG seemed really disappointed that I didn’t want any of that stuff. I was still offered everything. But when I refused they looked sad…like I was taking away their chance to shine or something. On the midnight flight to ZRH all I wanted to do was go to sleep so I passed on the first meal service all together and you’d have thought I killed somebody’s puppy. But that is just a round about way to say I didn’t feel treated any differently.

    However I flew an award on ANA using UA miles and they basically abandoned me in Bangkok when I was stranded there due to the airport shutdown in 2008. When I called them to deal with the cancellation they punted me to UA because I was on an award. Luckily the women at the UA ticket office there were amazing in helping get me where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time. I think being on a C class award helped immensely.

    I think the extra special service some pax get may be based on the fact that they fly the route often so they are recognized by the crew or they are some VIP who we may not recognize but the crew has either been alerted to their presence or just knows who they are.

  10. @A.S. The same holds for El-Al: I’ve never flown them first class, but their web site states that complimentary airport transfers are for paid first class passengers only, and specifically excludes upgrades and award tickets. I’m guessing that’s because they pay hard cash for each transfer, as opposed to airport or in-flight services where the incremental costs are lower.

    The web site is also very specific about the transfer benefit: in Israel it’s a BMW 7 Series car with no distance limit; outside Israel the car is not specified and will only take you 100km/62mi, except at EWR going to or from Philly where the limit is 161km/100mi. Not that I’ll ever get to use it, but it’s nice to know 🙂

  11. Too things I’d add:
    – The difference between being on a paid ticket or on an award may be the largest in irrops when it may be harder to get endorsed over to an airline in a differenet alliance when on an award (although I’ve been endorsed from LH F to DL J so it’s possible).
    – I think the reason hotel stays are relatively lucrative for the hotels is because the hotel model is setup to accomodate franchises which are completely seperate businesses, in addition to the “no blackout dates” factor. Hotels pay the rewards program for points to give out to guests and are paid by the rewards program for redemptions at their property.

  12. I remember on a flight on BA that I was treated very differnt by the FA. Upper deck and I was always served last, it was very noticable. Now I do not have so much problem with them running around and giving meals to some kind of priority to allow certain passengers a better choice of food but up until this day i do hold a grudge against this FA because she passed me several times for handing out the menue which she did in the same order as afterwards the dinner.

    I am not sure what special deal she thought she was having with withholding a paper menu several times, but she must have had a reason …

  13. I have not seen a difference in-flight but on the ground I have. TG tried to downgrade me on one sector because I was on a free / award ticket, can’t remember which word they chose. I didn’t cave and offered them several options which they didn’t like – upgrade to F, take me on another airline, etc – and they took me in C as ticketed.

    Similar to @gba also any reroutes are not accommodated even when it’s to everyone’s advantage, and no-one is hurt. I was denied a change from a NH 4pm flight to a NH 10am flight on a UA award due to unspecified ‘restrictions’.

    On the hotel side, I always thought they tell you it is a points stay to make sure you know you’re not on the hook for cash. Normally they tell you your room rate (‘the XYZ corp. rate’) and/or write it on your receipt, and this way you know up front.

    On Priceline stays, on the other hand, they often treat you like steerage class.

  14. Funny you mention that:

    “I just experienced a similar situation at IC Madrid. Was upgraded on a sweet dilemma nights redemption to a Club Suite as an ambassador, but wasn’t allowed any of the club benefits or other benefits associated with the room. I don’t know enough about the Ambassador/RA program, but is that normal? Seems a bit cheap. When I get upgraded on a flight or use miles for a flight, I don’t expect less service than is offered to a cash-paid customer.”

  15. After just returning from London where I spent two free nights at the Churchill Hyatt I can say they certainly went out of their way to treat me well. I was upgraded and treated very nicely. On checked my bill was $0.

    Unfortunately I was a week too early to see the new Regency Lounge on the 8th floor.

    On a side note I personally would not stay there again due to the location. Way too crowded (I guess with shoppers?). Much preferred my stay at base2stay in Kensington. A quiet locale but a short walk to the tube (Earl Court) and restaurants.

  16. @ johndeere19 — While there are many cases of being discriminated against on an award stay, I don’t think that’s one of them. It’s not unusual at InterContinental hotels for an Ambassador to be upgraded to a club room without club access. As an Ambassador one wouldn’t otherwise get lounge access, so getting a suite upgrade as an Ambassador actually sounds like a great upgrade to me. Frustrating nonetheless to be so close yet so far from club access.

  17. It does suck that ICH doesn’t give the earned benefits on award stays. However your award stays do count toward your total nights for RA re qualification.

  18. We flew first class Thai entirely on points from Australia to Europe. We noticed no difference…until the last leg Bangkok to Sydney was cancelled and we had to stay a night in Bangkok to wait for the flight next day. Thai said they would not cover the cost of the accommodation because we were award passengers, but they would have if we were paying customers. I protested and they relented but on a one-off basis, and paid for the airport hotel. For the cost of very little really to the airline it did give a bit of a bad feeling. And after fabulous, perfect service all the way until that it seemed a bit silly of the airline.

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