When we began traveling earlier in our marriage, we would seek the services of a travel agent to book our flights, accommodation and transfers. The process was always simple and all I needed to do was to provide dates of travel, make a payment and pick up a detailed itinerary. The only real research that I would do was to browse the catalogue supplied with the booking confirmation and go on the agents recommendation of suggested day trips or excursions.
Forward almost 8 years, Booking.com and other online search tools for hotels entered the market promising better rates (and delivering) and made the selection process easier and slightly more affordable than booking through an agent. Airline tickets were still being issued by agents who would offer a better price than tickets booked online. In some cases, you would book your own airline tickets and likely was introduced to the airlines loyalty program.
At that stage however, loyalty programs made no real sense, unless you intended to travel often, and stay at the same brand of hotel every time that you traveled abroad. The points system didn’t deliver on much, as you needed to fulfill a certain number of stays, or fly a certain number of flights to receive the full benefit, or tier upgrade.
2015. Travelers began comparing the cost of flights and schedules via skyscanner.net before making a decision with which airline to travel with. They proceed to the airline website or the App on their mobile device and are making bookings directly using their loyalty program membership numbers. The flight confirmation is then emailed directly to the passenger which gets printed out, or stored in the travelers App. Accommodation is booked via their App of the loyalty program that they subscribe to. They know that they will accrue points based on the number of nights that they stay and this in turn may be utilised for future travel. Travelers are steering away from online hotel search engines as they know they will not receive points or any perks for their stay. Transfers are a thing of the past; Uber, metered taxis and even public transport is used to get to your hotel once you arrive, because the convenience of owning a mobile device makes travel, well, convenient.
And then, as it did, traveling abroad progressed with the introduction of a loyalty program which promised that your spend would become an investment, where you could travel the world utilising the worlds best loyalty programs without the need of high costs. Where you would be sold the elite statuses advertised instantly and exclusively so you don’t have to hit the nightly threshold required.
For those readers who have been following me on Facebook, the name Zaheer, or Irfaan Scilla might sound familiar. Irfaan would try to ‘promote’ this loyalty program on every travel post which required travel-related advice from readers. He was never able to fully explain the concept and instead left readers frustrated. This prompted me to make direct contact with Zaheer, who I hoped would be able to explain the concept to me better and in turn, I could share the details with my readers.
Instead of having him explain the process of becoming a traveloyalty member, I decided to test out the program. As much as all this may or may not make sense right now, the only way to actually see the benefits is to physically test the theory out yourself. I received an instant ‘upgrade’ to the Diamond Elite status. TL recommended the Hilton promotion at Diamond Level as this offers the best value for our Rand. Once I received my login details, Zaheer asked me what my travel plans were for the year. We were very definite about taking the children on their first Umrah, with my in-laws accompanying us. I also mentioned to him that I was keen on traveling to Maldives in August, but I wanted to see whether the points accrued would be worth staying at any of the Hilton hotel chains (Conrad included) as opposed to the Four Seasons.
I supplied my travel dates to him and he checked the cost on his phone to show me what an approximate costing would be. Needless to say, I didn’t believe the rate and was pretty surprised at how ‘discounted’ it was coming in at! The App didn’t show the number of points that I would earn, so I was still slightly skeptical as to whether this was actually ‘worth it’. Zaheer sent through a detailed email, with flight details including approximate costing, including the approximate cost of the accommodation. Zaheer included contact numbers of people who would be able to assist with Visas and transfer details! (This is not a service that he offers, but he is willing to help if he needs to, so please don’t expect him to inquire air ticket prices or arrange your visas or transfers for you).
Needless to say, I was sold on his concept and proceeded to make my first booking on the App as a Diamond Elite member. At this stage, I had received hotel confirmations and also a confirmation that I had requested an upgrade for the rooms that I booked on email. This felt reassuring that all my bookings were in fact in order. Zaheer and I also recommend making contact with the manager of the hotel ahead of arriving. You may introduce yourself as a Gold/Diamond Elite, and request any personal preferences or mention any special conditions.
On the day of our departure from SA, I received a call from the Conrad in Makkah to formally wish us a good trip and to inquire what time we would be arriving. I was pleasantly surprised that the service began even before we arrived.
Upon arrival at the Hotel, I was notified that we were upgraded to the Suite. Our Suite and the second room allowed us all access to the Executive lounge which offered unlimited drinks (hot and cold), small snacks, cake, dessert and dinner until 10pm daily. This on its own was a huge saving, of money and time. The biggest relief was returning from Salaah into a cool space, where there was no queue for food or drinks.
How to sign up as a Traveloyalty member:
Step 1: Getting in touch – Your first point of contact with Zaheer may be done over WhatsApp if you find this an easier medium to chat on. He may also be contacted on email. (Quick reference: 084 600 3173 or email@example.com). Mention to Zaheer that you have read this article so he is aware that you are already familiar with the program. Kindly quote NiQi.
Zaheer is well-mannered and respectful. During all the time that we have discussed the program and bookings on WhatsApp, he has always been courteous. He called me twice in the few months since we made contact and he’s never been forward neither are the conversations uncomfortable. As a woman, this is an important point for me to make. You don’t need to get your husband to make contact, you are more than capable of messaging him, getting the information and relaying it all to your husband. Zaheer always responds to messages, but at times he might be slightly delayed if he is abroad (due to time differences). His policy to always respond to messages within 24hrs. He might suggest to call you if you are slightly confused and might need some extra information.
I also encourage you to sign up to his newsletter on his website (Quick reference: http://traveloyalty.co.za/wp/contact/)
Look to the right of the screen where you have an option of inputting your email address.
Step 2: Zaheer will likely explain the way the program works, as best as he is able to, or offer to send you the details of the program via email. I’m trying to avoid him re-explaining this step to you by compiling this article to assist you rather. With no disrespect to Zaheer, he has the most fantastic Loyalty program but he can’t sell the concept effectively enough!
Seeing that he is able to offer you Loyalty cards on over 8 hotel chains, we’re going to primarily discuss my experience utilising the Hilton program as that was the one that I tested. You may visit his website to view the others. These are the listing of hotels offered under the Hilton banner:
So basically, you can stay at any of these hotels to earn points.
I did not understand anything of what he initially said and again needed to understand how this worked for myself before sharing it with anyone online. The entire concept seemed far-fetched and a great mystery that only a selected few seemed privy to.
Let me unpack the concept for you.
1. To begin, Zaheer promotes instant elite statuses whereby you receive a virtual card on the HHonors App or you may request the plastic card by way of post which will arrive at your selected address in 4-6 weeks.
2. You may choose the tier of which you would like to be on. Here are the current options available on the Hilton Honors program. Note, the ‘normal’ requirements to obtain these ‘tiers’ are 10, 40 and 60 nights per calendar year respectively. By paying for your status, you automatically receive the benefits of the tier without having to initially stay a day at any of the hotels.
You only need 1 card for your family, not every member or adult in your family requires the card.
a) Hilton Honors Silver Tier. This membership will cost you $150. In order to extend the validity of this card, you need 4 separate stays (locally or internationally) to ‘earn’ Gold status. When I refer to ‘separate’, it could mean 1 night away at a hotel even close to you. This card is valid for 1 year should you meet the 4 stays requirements. The main benefits of being placed on a Silver Tier are the 15% Elite bonus (this translates to how many points you earn when you stay), your 5th Reward night free (based on booking with points), the 2nd guest stays free (your partner will never need to pay to travel with you again) and a late check-out (which is especially helpful if you are traveling abroad with kids and have evening flights). Te Silver Tier is no longer available however, there might be a future promo that may bring back this status.
b) Hilton Honors Gold Tier. You need to stay 4 separate stays (which means 4 nights at 4 different hotels) in 90 days to get the benefit extended to 2019. In addition to the perks that you would receive as a Diamond Elite, you receive only 25% Bonus points per stay. The Gold Elite will cost you $600 and is valid for guests booked in 2 rooms.
(1) Your partner stays free
(2) Complimentary breakfasts (limited to member plus 1 guest. kids usually free or a portion)
(3) Room upgrades
(4) Early check in and late check out: This is a huge bonus as it’s equivalent to almost 2 days of savings. With SA arrival/connection times, this helps if you need to depart from your hotel at a later time.
(5) Executive lounge access where and when available
(6) When redeeming stays purely on points, your 5th night is free (!)
c) In a typical situation, to achieve or retain Hilton Honors Diamond status, you need to earn either:
(1) 30 stays in a calendar year, or
(2) 60 nights in a calendar year, or
(3) 120,000 Hilton Honors Base Points in a calendar year
With Diamond elite status, you automatically receive a 50% bonus on all the Hilton Honors Base Points you earn, which means that you will receive 50% over and above what you earn on a stay in points. In addition, Silver, Gold and Diamond members will get every 5th night free when booking a reward stay of five nights or more using all Points. This means, that once you have accumulated enough points to redeem them, the 5th night will be complimentary when redeeming the points. This does not apply to booking made using cash, i.e you cannot get a 5th night free if paying for it monetarily.
Zaheer offers you a ‘card’ or membership that automatically makes you a Diamond member for $1250.
You could easily be happy with just the perks of the free partner, or the complimentary breakfast, but working towards a better build up of points is essentially what you’re aiming for, hence opting for a better Tier would mean more points being earned.
3. Next, the payment is done via PayPal or SA bank account directly to Zaheer. He then proceeds to obtain your login details and emails this to you. He set up my ‘account’ on the Hilton Honours App for me, so when I installed it from my Play store, all I needed to do was Sign in and not register (Basically, he registered me). You are now able to go on the App yourself, check your status and begin searching for Hotels and viewing the Hilton Honors discounted rates offered to you.
I recommend that you get in touch with Zaheer when you know that you want to book your first holiday. Remember the window to stay at hotels to fill up the 4 or 8 stay minimum (to extend the validity of the card) is 90 days.
Now that you have your virtual Tier upgrade/Loyalty card, how do you book?
Simply go onto the Hilton Honors App and hotel search. You may select the hotel or area and view what properties are on offer for the dates that you require. Remember the following when booking:
- In the number of persons section, select 1 adult. The second adult is automatically free so no need to input two adults. Remember to split your kids in to the two rooms when booking with 1 adult in each room.
- Choose the lowest rate for both rooms; select the standard room (because you almost always guaranteed an upgrade) without breakfast – because, as a Diamond member, breakfast is on the house (sometimes up to 120Dhs/75SR pp) for the main member and a guest. Remember, at some hotels kids are free and at others, the hotel works on a 50% fee. Be sure to book a Double room and not a single room if you have 1 adult and 1 or 2 kids. Some hotels are more lenient and provide perks to both rooms (if selecting 2 rooms). If you are slightly nervous that one of your rooms might not be upgraded, you may select the secondary room as the next room category so you are guaranteed that one of the rooms will receive the complimentary upgrade. Tip: When you are selecting rooms, you will notice a few options. If the ‘Honors Discount Advance Purchase’ option pops up on your list of options, select that. This is a few hundred Rand cheaper than other options, especially if it is an advance purchase, meaning its been booked a few weeks ahead of your travel dates.
- You should arrive at a screen that lists the total amount for your stay. If selecting two rooms, it breaks down that amount as well.
- Once you select the relevant boxes, your booking has been made and is non-refundable (you may contact the Hotel directly should you wish to cancel or amend the booking however it may not be done on the App).
- The booking should show up on the home screen of your App as well as a copy that will be emailed to you.
Essentially, the 5 points above are all you need to know to book your stay. The App is functional, aside from a few system errors on a Samsung mobile phone, it works efficiently, saves your credit card number, and shares location details, weather and lists options for upgrades and arrival requests. You may also check-in when the option becomes available so to avoid the tedious wait at the Counter at the hotel when you arrive.
Now that you have been equipped with the basics, here is how the program actually works and how to make it work for you:
The trick is to start planning your holidays in advance. If you know that you intend on traveling during school holidays, keep your dates in mind. Zaheer issues newsletters with specials or promotions. Promotions translate to SALES. Mid March saw the 35% sale which meant a huge discount on some of the 5 star hotels. The next one, according to Zaheer, is set to release at the end of May.
When the sale or promotion launches, get onto your App and put in the dates and search for your hotel. You will see the listing with the discounted rates. Always remember to select the lowest room, especially if you’re a Diamond member as you will be upgraded. Remember, this booking is non-refundable, so make absolutely sure on your dates. If you know however that you would like to book the best accommodation that is available, simply select one below the one you’d like.
The booking will show automatically on your phone and the amount will be deducted off your credit card in 1 to 2 working days. Work towards accumulating points on all your stays. Points equal Rands which equal free nights over time.
Here are a few tricks that I have learnt:
- When booking for a family group (for example, extended family traveling with you), offer to book their rooms for them. Remember you must be the person signing them in, so you need to make certain that you are traveling with them and checking in with them. You score on the points for your room + theirs! In turn, they benefit from your perks – win!
- Once you have finalised your booking, send the hotel an email with your confirmation number plus casually mention what Tier you are on their Loyalty Program. Being on a Diamond status equates to ‘well-traveled’ guest to them, which would mean better service and possibly additional benefits.
- Remember to check on the traveloyalty website weekly. Zaheer is quite diligent about updating his site with promotions. Most promotions are on a month-to-month time frame (some want to travel in January 2018).
- Be sure to watch your points accumulate and know exactly how to redeem them when the need arises. Going on to the Hilton Honors website will equip you with all the information that you need. Online you may also be able to find a ‘points calculator’, so you know what you might be able to spend your points on. Once you are ready to book your next trip, have a look at your points. If you are falling short, you might even be able to purchase them online. There are often points promotions which double up the number of points that you have bought, example: Pay $800 for 160 000 points. This translates into 2 free nights at a top grade hotel!
- If you’d like to call the hotel directly, simply call your closest Hilton hotel within SA, ask to be put through to the Hilton Honors department and ask to be transferred to the hotel. This is a great way to clarify any questions you might have before arriving and to make contact with the hotel if you wish to. You are charged a standard rate for this call.
- Don’t pay cash at the hotel for anything, charge everything to your room and pay upon leaving. Everything that is billed to the room gets points, so you are earning those points even when you are spending.
- If you have made a booking, and a sale comes up, email or call the hotel directly and ask whether they would be willing to cancel your booking, so you may book on the promotion. Ensure that you are honest so that they allow that leniency. Rebook on the sale rate and forward your new confirmation numbers to them.
After our trip, I earned over 220 000 points which we have used towards booking our next trip. Our total saving on accommodation: $5337! More about that when we travel again in August.
Zaheer Bhyat – 084 600 3173 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For those who specifically have queries on Umrah/Umrah in Ramadaan, see below:
Zaheer has shared the following with me to better explain how to travel for an Umrah during Ramadaan. He’s also listed the savings so readers are aware of how the points versus spend system works.