American Express Is Offering Affinity Cards, Well After Rivals It's Teamed Up With Hilton Hotels And Delta Air Lines. Visa And Mastercard Are Pioneers In The Field.

Posted: October 16, 1995

It took a while, but American Express has finally started teaming up with travel companies to offer "affinity" cards, which help people earn frequent- traveler rewards.

American Express and Hilton Hotels are offering a Hilton Optima Card that gives points in the Hilton HHonors frequent-guest program for everything charged to it. Like many other credit cards these days, the co-branded card has no annual fee and starts with a low interest rate for the first six months. The variable annual interest rate rises to close to the legal limit after that.

Delta Air Lines and American Express have said they will start a co-branded Delta SkyMiles Optima Card in early 1996. Those who use the card will earn Delta frequent-flier miles for everything charged. Details about interest rates haven't been announced.

American Express' competitors, Visa and MasterCard, are the leaders in this area, having offered affinity cards that earn frequent-flier miles for several years.

American Express does offer its own frequent-flier rewards program, called Membership Miles, in which you can earn points with several major carriers and hotel chains, but only after you have charged at least $5,000 to your regular Amex, Amex Gold Card or Optima accounts.

American Express' foray into this area comes at the same time that it, as well as MasterCard and Visa, are working diligently to get companies to issue corporate cards to all of their business travelers.

The card issuers say corporate cards help companies control travel expenditures by providing uniform reports that make record-keeping easier. By knowing more about what they're spending and where, corporate travel managers then should be able to negotiate more effectively for volume discounts on airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars, according to the card companies' sales pitches.

But if the pitches for corporate Amex, Visa and MasterCards succeed, it stands to reason that fewer travelers will be using their personal affinity cards, including the new Optima cards, that earn extra mileage on a particular airline.

The disappointed business travelers will be those who earn a lot of miles by legally double-dipping: They not only get miles for flights directly from an airline but even more miles simply by charging all of the costs of business trips to an affinity card. The travelers then pay off the affinity-card bill after being reimbursed by their employer.

The affinity cards will appeal most to those travelers whose employers don't require them to use a company-issued card, and to those who put other personal purchases of travel or merchandise on the card.

To no one's suprise, many corporate travel managers and financial executives loathe airline affinity cards. That's because of the temptation they create for travelers to direct their flying to a particular carrier, even if fares may be lower on another airline.

NO ROOM IN THE APPLE. Remember a few years ago when hotel rooms were selling for a song because overbuilding created a glut? Those days are definitely over, done, gone, finito, especially in New York City, according to PKF Consulting, the hospitality and real-estate consulting firm.

In its most recent projections for the industry, PKF expects hotel occupancy in New York to reach 76.5 percent by the end of 1995 and 77 percent next year. Occupancy was 75 percent in 1974. The average daily rate for a New York hotel room will be $150 this year and about $156 next year, PKF believes.

"These numbers reflect the classic supply-and-demand equation," said PKF senior vice president John A. Fox. "While we've seen a steady increase in demand, there have been virtually no additions to the supply of rooms in the city."

But don't expect occupancy to get much higher in the Big Apple, Fox cautioned. In the peak business-travel months, such as October, hotels sell out close to 90 percent of their space, meaning the city's lodgings are about as full as they can get, he said.

CHANGE FOR GOOD. International airline passengers come home from a trip with an average of $2 worth of foreign coins in their pockets. Travelers usually think they'll save the coins for another journey, but, in most cases, that doesn't happen. The coins simply wind up sitting in a jar at home.

If that's happened to you, consider giving the coins to the airline if a carrier's flight crew collects them at the end of your flight.

British Airways, for one, gives the change it collects to Unicef, the U.N. agency for children, and the money really adds up. By this fall, the airline estimates its "Change for Good" program will have collected about $3 million for the charity. Interestingly, many donations, especially from first-class and business-class fliers, actually are in paper money or in checks, BA says.

PHONING HOME. A growing number of places across the United States have started selling prepaid telephone calling cards, an invention popular in Europe and other parts of the world for years. Many convenience stores have added them to their array of items for sale.

Now, Budget Rent a Car has joined the movement. Budget teamed up with DataWave Technology Inc. in a test-marketing plan, installing vending machines that dispense phone cards in 25 of its busiest U.S. rental offices.

The cards sold at the Budget locations should have a special appeal to international visitors: They're multi-lingual. The cards provide purchasing and dialing instructions in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Chinese.

Using cash or a credit card, you can buy the calling cards in increments of $10, $20, $30 or $50. Printed on them are a toll-free number to get you started, and a four-digit personal identification number that has to be entered to make a call go through.

Send your business travel question or comment to Tom Belden, The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.

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