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.