Costa Rica's (small) role in the airline points and miles boom
Costa Rica's influence in the points-and-miles game.
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Most frequent fliers know each trip they take can earn miles. In the United States, credit card and travel rewards are ubiquitous — just try to watch a TV show without learning about Discover’s double cash back or the latest Capital One Venture Card.
As The New York Times explained earlier this year:
Within the loyalty-program space, travel and credit-card rewards are by far the most successful and well known. As one oft-cited, almost-certainly imaginary airline executive once put it, “People are willing to pay anything for a free ticket.” Travel rewards pose a compelling incentive — a shortcut to the playgrounds of the globalized elite. (Or, if not that, at least a chance to sit in the part of the airplane where cocktails are free.)
Whether you’re a rewards guru, or just a casual earner, you should know: Costa Rica played a (small) role in making this points-and-miles game popular.
In 1994, a group of Latin American airlines created LatinPass, a frequent-flier program that allowed passengers to accrue and redeem miles on any partner carrier. Among the founding airlines was Costa Rica’s LACSA (Lineas Aereas Costarricenses SA).
At the time, airline miles were a relatively novel concept, and the LatinPass partnership didn’t receive much widespread attention. But things changed in 2000, when LatinPass launched a bold 1 million mile bonus.
As the promotion read:
One Million Miles Bonus will be earned by any member who flies at least one international segment on each of the ten (10) LatinPass member airlines. Flies at least three (3) partner segments on any of our partner airlines (KLM, US Airways, TWA). Stays at least three (3) nights in at least any two of our partner hotels and rents a car for at least five (5) days from any of our Car Rental partners. FROM JANUARY 1 – JULY 1, 2000.
One million miles was a major bonus — enough for two-dozen round-trips from the United States to Central America! More importantly:
The value of the miles was worth more what you would spend to earn them.1
A story in the Wall Street Journal gave national attention to the promotion, and some 250 daring travelers eventually earned the million miles — many of them qualifying during a single week of nonstop travel. One recalled his successful efforts:
I planned one trip to South America and Central America to fulfill the conditions in March 2000. That trip took me from Miami to Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and back to Miami. In one week.
Those one million miles funded dozens of vacation weeks with free hotel rooms at Hilton Hotels.
LatinPass apparently didn’t expect so many winners, and the million-mile giveaway contributed to the company’s rebranding and eventual demise.2
While LatinPass no longer exists, the program thrust airline miles and rewards into the mainstream. So the next time you swipe your credit card and earn points on your purchase, remember: Costa Rica played a tiny role in making that possible.
Do you have a sudden interest in credit card points? You can earn 60,000 bonus points by signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card using our referral link. It’s not a million miles, but it’s enough for a free trip to Costa Rica.3
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The New York Times says travelers could earn the bonus by booking just $1,100 worth of flights and hotel rooms. The points could then be redeemed for dozens of flights.
The LACSA brand doesn’t exist today, either. The Costa Rican flag carrier became a subsidiary of Grupo Taca, which was purchased by Avianca. Today, you might fly “Avianca Costa Rica,” the Costa Rica-based subsidiary of Avianca.
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