| Special to USA TODAY
5 ways to protect your loyalty points from hackersLoyalty programs have become popular targets for hackers. Buzz60’s Sean Dowling has more.Buzz60Is it time to give up your travel rewards program? That’s not a theoretical question for Karin Kemp, a retired graphic designer from Matthews, North Carolina.With few opportunities to travel last year, her loyalty to United Airlines has wavered. Special offers and bonuses weren’t enough to keep her engaged in her program, and she started to use a different credit card as her primary. Kemp is still keeping her Chase-issued United credit card active, but only because she has a ticket credit for a canceled flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Bologna, Italy. She had hoped to get a refund after United canceled one of the flight legs but was only offered an expiring ticket credit. “I think they should refund for flights that didn’t go because of the pandemic,” she says. “This year, I’ll be reassessing my loyalty to United.”She’s not the only one. Many travelers – or should I call them former travelers? – are asking an obvious question as they mull over their New Year’s resolutions: Is it worth being loyal to a loyalty program?The travel industry would like everyone to answer “yes.” And they have legions of disciples who will tell you there’s no downside to playing the loyalty game – none whatsoever.But that’s not true. Some travelers will come out ahead by remaining loyal but many others will lose. The only real winners are the companies to which you are loyal. And they are doing their best to make sure you don’t give up your rewards program in 2021. Some experts say don’t give upThe travel industry, which relies on its loyalty programs to turn a profit, is desperate to keep customers in the fold. Since the pandemic began, they’ve reduced or waived annual fees on credit cards. They’ve also added bonuses and tapped the brakes on point devaluations. They’re doing anything they can to remain relevant at a time when the pandemic is redefining the concept of customer loyalty. It’s almost impossible to find a loyalty program expert who won’t tell you to keep your program this year.”Since most traveler programs are free to participate, there is little downside to remaining in loyalty programs,” says Dave Andreadakis, chief innovation officer at Kobie Marketing, a loyalty marketing company. “Most travel programs offer several ways to earn miles and (hotel) stays through their partner network so customers can still find value in their traditional travel loyalty programs, even when they don’t travel.”What’s more, it’s a buyer’s market for miles this year. Miles have never been cheaper, says Andreadakis. Almost all programs have extended status into 2021 to account for the lost travel time during the pandemic. And a lot of programs lowered their tier requirements, making it easier to reach elite status.And, of course, participating in a loyalty program is “free.”Travelers shouldn’t jettison their rewards program, especially not their travel rewards credit card, says Erik Budde, CEO of the rewards website GigaPoints. “We will travel again, and racking up rewards now will help you cover future travel,” he says. “I recommend doubling down and staying dedicated to your travel reward credit card.”Why you should cut up your loyalty cardBut there’s another side to this, and it’s never been more evident than now. Kemp is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who offered their unquestioning loyalty to a travel company for years. They obediently booked flights to earn miles and turned a blind eye to better fares on other carriers. Then they discovered the loyalty only went one way. Stephanie Smith, a retired teacher from Orlando, Florida, cut up her American Airlines credit card this year. She’d had problems getting credit for flights and was tired of paying an annual fee but never using the benefits. “I gave up,” she says. Instead, she’ll use Delta to fly between Orlando and Los Angeles to visit her family and not worry about loyalty.Want out? These cards offer diverse rewards and still let you earn travel rewardsSo why do loyalty programs exist? To answer that question, you have to study the earnings reports of airlines and hotels. You’ll find that these programs are highly profitable. Airlines sell their miles to credit card companies, who award them to their own customers. But the points and miles are not free. You pay for them with annual fees, and businesses mark up the prices of their products to cover the high merchant fees. Why that free travel isn’t free: You pay by annual fees and not shopping faresBut for the airlines, the programs are profitable. How profitable? Well, back in September, Delta used its frequent flier program as collateral for a $9 billion loan. With valuations like that, it’s no wonder there are so few loyalty program critics. Criticizing frequent flier and frequent stayer programs threatens to disrupt a money-making machine.But the pandemic has made travelers doubt the value of loyalty programs and the credit cards that help generate more miles and points. COVID-19 showed travelers that even though they had stockpiled points, they weren’t that special. And the increasingly desperate offers haven’t convinced customers to stick with the programs.There’s only one thing that would make them stay: being treated like valued customers. Frequent flyer programs have become increasingly elitist: Is it time to end them?Who should participate in a loyalty program in 2021?Business travelers. If you have to travel more than three times a month, then participating in an airline, car rental or hotel loyalty program makes sense. Travel companies created these programs for you. Frequent leisure travelers. If you have several lengthy international trips on the itinerary for 2021, then participating in a rewards program can help you.Travel hackers. If loyalty programs are a game to you, and you love collecting the modern equivalent of pudding box tops and buying gold coins for the miles, you have my permission to keep going. I don’t want to interfere with your fun.