So is loyalty to an airline worth it? Two basic questions for every traveler


As frequent flier programs become increasingly complicated and dollar-based and as awards seem to be harder and harder to get, many travelers are wondering if it’s worth making the effort to be a frequent flier with a particular carrier.

While the answer is different for everyone, the two basic questions all travelers contemplating joining a frequent flier program and planning to commit to a single airline or alliance have to ask themselves are the same — What is my goal? Is it reachable?

Is a “free” flight the goal?

If the goal is a free ticket and travelers fly a few times a year, it’s going to take a while to get a ticket to a top destination like Hawaii or Europe. And, with award travel so difficult to find, especially during peak periods, it probably isn’t worth a lot of trouble to try to earn a free coach ticket in a couple years.

In addition, with premium business or first class tickets “costing” 100,000 miles and up, infrequent fliers may not only spend years accumulating miles, but they may find the mileage requirements have changed by the time they get there. (United, for example, has upped the mileage needed for business class tickets twice in about 2 1/2 years.)

Now, using credit cards can also get miles to make up the difference, but even so, depending on usage, it may make sense to use a card that is not tied to a specific carrier.

Is an upgrade the goal?

In this case, there are a few questions to ask. One, how far in advance can travelers book tickets? Upgraded seats can be more difficult to obtain than free tickets. On some routes, waitlists may never clear, even when flights look open. I’ve had clients waitlist upgrades 10 months out, with a wide-open flight, but then the flight fills up with higher status passengers and/or paid business class fares or full coach fares with “instant upgrades if available.”

Even high status doesn’t always help on a premium popular route. Personally, I’m a United 1k. I waitlisted an upgrade with miles back in December for a flight in March that didn’t have a single seat sold from Washington, DC, to San Francisco. However, the flight ended up completely full in first, with passengers who either paid for business or a high coach fare — $700-$900 one way — with an “instant upgrade.” (Eventually, I ended up 12th on the waitlist at the airport for a cabin with only 24 seats.)

Is the goal status?

Status means perks such as free baggage, preferred seating and priority boarding. In that case, much depends upon how much travelers fly. While thresholds differ, it generally takes in the neighborhood of 25,000 miles (and $2500 with United and Delta) to reach the lowest elite status with the legacy carriers. For that, elites get a free checked bag and an early boarding group.

In theory, lower elite status with a legacy carrier also means possible complimentary upgrades, but except on very unpopular routes, those upgrades are very unlikely to happen. And on United, the lowest elite status (Silver) doesn’t even mean being assigned preferred seating until 24 hours prior to the flight.

For status that really means something — exit row seats, potential lounge access, and even a chance for an upgrade, it generally takes at least 50,000 miles per year.

If travelers fly a high number of miles, then, yes, in my opinion, putting all of their travel eggs in one basket will make the experience more pleasant. As one client said, “They treat you less badly.” And, these days, status can even determine what kind of reservations agent is assigned on the phone.

On the other hand, while the details vary by carrier, if fliers are not going to reach elite status even if traveling 100 percent on a single carrier or alliance, it is probably better just to take advantage of the best routings and fares, and buy the perks on a case-by-case basis.

Whatever the decision, I do recommend even semi-regular travelers sign up for mileage programs on any airline they fly. The programs cost nothing, passengers don’t even HAVE to give the airline their email address. There may be an unexpected benefit. One long trip could provide enough miles for a domestic award.

Plus, the way airlines are merging, miles on an airline one seldom flies might someday be valuable for one’s preferred carrier.

  • Lisa Simeone

    I’ve been using a British Airways credit card for years. Since I use my cc for everything, rarely paying cash, and pay off my balance 100% every month, it’s totally worth it. I accumulate miles without even noticing it. They add up.

    They allowed my husband and me to fly First Class — on BA’s dime — from Europe back to the States last year. Same thing is happening with our trip this year. The BA card is a godsend.

    Since I refuse to deal with the abusive thugs of the TSA, we now take the QM2 across the ocean, then fly home. And even when I still flew in this country, I long ago stopped flying coach. I don’t make a lot of money, but I decided back in 2003 it was worth it for me to either upgrade or pay outright for World Traveller Plus, Business Class, or First Class, depending on what was available. Saving a few bucks is not the most important thing in life, and I reached an age when I wasn’t going to put up with cattle car class anymore. I know people who make way more than I ever have, and they still fly coach (and complain about it). That’s their choice.

    Edited to add: I also have an Amtrak credit card. With those miles, we’ve traveled back and forth Balto/New York many times already, all for free. I use that card only for automatic payments, such as the monthly gym fee, so again I accumulate miles without even noticing.

  • Ribit

    Q. So is loyalty to an airline worth it?
    – For the frequent traveler where someone else is paying the airfare and where the traveler can pick the carrier, probably yes.
    – For the infrequent traveler that uses an affinity credit card enough to gain meaningful points, probably yes..
    – For those that have limited carrier choices, yes.

    – For everyone else, no. One can likely save enough shopping for airfares to pay for the otherwise “free” flight.

  • dcta

    I actually think that the credit card points programs are a better value in the long run than a traditional Frequent Flyer program.

    Like Lisa Simeone’s response below, I would offer that a card program linked to airline is going to get you great value – you accrue points from everything you spend – not just on flights flown. So even if Lisa buys a ticket on Delta – if she charges it to the BA card, she will earn BA points. It is most often a faster way to get to the necessary point level than any other.

    HOWEVER, I am seeing my clients that are using American Express or Visa point programs not tied to a particular airline (so NOT the DL Skymiles AX – I’m just talking about a generic AX) finding that they are getting the best use out of any sort of “points” program. The points accrue from every purchase and then they are “exchanged” for dollar values – the consumer can purchase a ticket on any airline and apply points to the air ticket to cover the full or partial cost of the ticket. These programs do seem to give consumers much more latitude in what they are booking. BUT like Lisa, you have to keep on top of your balance – you can’t use the points until you’ve paid the related bill.

  • Carchar

    Even if one does fly in this country, it does not pay to go by air from NY to DC and points in between. It is so much more comfortable and, yes, faster to go by train. No security lines….yet. You just have to be at the station by the time your train arrives. Until last month, Amtrak used to have a very lenient change/cancel policy. Not so now, but still better than the airlines.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Yes, that’s why I take the train from Baltimore to NY. I also take it for business trips, no matter the length, including an upcoming trip to Santa Fe.

  • BobChi

    Granting your premise that the piece is for the “average traveller”, I would contend that credit cards are the secret and the average person may be well within range of amazing free trips. I write from Agra, India, where I just saw the Taj Majal yesterday using United miles to get to India for free. In terms of paid trips, I’m probably your typical average traveller.

  • MeanMeosh

    I agree with others that affinity (airline-based) credit cards are probably the best bet to accumulate miles for those that don’t fly much, but then again, consider that a free coach domestic ticket usually means spending $25,000 on the card (and more like $60,000 for a free coach ticket to Europe), assuming 1 mile per dollar spent. Even that can be a tall order. Factor in that most of these cards carry an annual fee, carry higher interest rates than other cards if you carry a balance, and that mileage programs pretty consistently devalue, and you have to be careful before jumping on the bandwagon (granted, if you fly twice a year and check one bag each way each time, the annual fee pays for itself). You could play the game and “churn” affinity cards, I guess – get the card for the sign-up mileage bonus, use it for 11 months, cancel when the annual fee gets billed, and then rinse and repeat with another card – but that always seemed like too much work to me. Personally, I prefer non-branded “points” cards. You can usually get one without an annual fee, and just take a statement credit for whatever you want when you’re ready.

    On another note, I would add that not all FF programs are stingy when it comes to upgrades. One of the big pluses of AAdvantage has been their relatively liberal upgrade policy. Any fare basis code is eligible for upgrade, and under the “sticker” system, my upgrades would clear probably 80% of the time as a Platinum, and 60-65% of the time even as a lowly Gold. We’ll see how all that works out in the Doug Parker regime.

  • jim6555

    Taking the train in the Northeast Corridor is much different then doing so in other parts of the country. I live in Tampa and travel to the Ft. Lauderdale area every few weeks. Here is what I face if I want to go by train. Each day, there is only one train in each direction. In both directions, the trains depart at about 12:45 pm and take about 4 1/2 hours to cover 260 miles. The southbound train originates in NYC and is frequently late, sometimes several hours late. The times and the length of the trip just don’t work for me. I will either drive or fly. Hopefully, someday Amtrak will get the funding that it needs to properly serve the entire nation.