What to do when a rewards program isn't so rewarding

  • More than half of reward program memberships are inactive.
  • Nearly 6 in 10 consumers have left a loyalty program because it took too long to earn a reward.

Don't be so quick to ditch a rewards program that doesn't seem so rewarding.

U.S. consumers collectively hold 3.8 billion memberships in loyalty programs, up from 3.3 billion in 2015, according to new data from research firm Colloquy. But more than half of those memberships (54 percent) are inactive, and 28 percent of consumers have abandoned a program "without ever having redeemed a point or mile."

Slow earnings was a prime reason, with 57 percent of shoppers telling Colloquy they ditched because it took too long to rack up enough points or miles to claim a reward. (The firm polled 2,258 U.S. adults in late 2016.)

Fair point. True to the name, loyalty programs tend to be the most rewarding for loyal (i.e. frequent) users.

"Rarely does a loyalty program acquire [new] customers. That's not what it's made for," said Melissa Fruend, a partner at Colloquy. "It's made for folks who are already interested in the brand."

But so long as the program is free, experts say, there can be value in signing up even as an occasional or one-time user.

"I always recommend joining," said Zach Honig, editor-in-chief The Points Guy. "Otherwise, you're just throwing opportunities away."

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Many hotel chains, for example, offer free Wi-Fi to members, a perk that can be worth up to $30 per night, Honig said. Joining could also net you express check-in, special room rates and other deals. Kimpton offers its program members a small credit to use toward the minibar.

(Read the program requirements first, though, Honig said: You may need to book directly or meet other requirements to snag such freebies.)

In retailer programs, joining often results in extra coupons and offers you wouldn't otherwise have received, said Michelle Madhok, chief executive of sale-tracking site SheFinds.com.

Making programs more rewarding

Before you leave a rewards balance in limbo, look for opportunities to earn, transfer or redeem rewards with partners, Honig said. That can help you make better use of a preferred program, and reach rewards faster.

"It pays to do a little research and see what opportunities exist beyond what may seem obvious," he said.

For example, Honig often exchanges points earned through a Chase credit card for miles in United's frequent-flyer program — and then recently, he used those miles for a first-class ticket to Thailand on a partner airline.

Madhok points to the networked Plenti program, which lets shoppers earn points at companies including Exxon, Macy's and Rite Aid, and then redeem them with some other partners. Reward portals provide another opportunity to boost earnings, she said — letting you rack up, say, miles in a preferred airline for buying a sweater or ordering flowers for Mom.

"I always recommend joining. Otherwise, you're just throwing opportunities away." -Zach Honig, editor-in-chief, The Points Guy

Pay attention to brand promotions that could net you bonus points, Fruend said. Double points are a common retailer offer, which could get you to reward levels in one shopping trip, she added.

If you see a slow-but-steady accumulation toward a bigger reward — like that free flight — it also helps to understand when points or miles might expire, and what you need to do to keep your account active, Honig said. Resetting the clock could be as simple as having some activity in the account, whether that's earning a few points through a reward portal or redeeming a few for a small perk.