Don’t Be Loyal to Frequent Flier Programs

An interior view of the first class section on a British Airways flightA few years ago, I wrote a post about joining frequent flier programs. At the time, I was in the process of picking one to join, but now I feel the post is a bit dated, and my thoughts on the subject have changed as I’ve started to get more into mileage programs and accumulating frequent flier miles. Which means it’s a good time to write a new post on the topic.

Back in 2008, I was going to join the JAL awards program because they not only partnered with Oneworld, but also a few other airlines I enjoy, like Emirates. But in the end, I joined American Airlines, which is also a Oneworld partner.

I joined American over JAL because I realized that when you don’t fly that much (and back then, I didn’t), it’s much harder to earn airline miles when you aren’t racking up points by using a travel credit card. So I picked American since they partnered with JAL, and I could use their credit card to get bonus miles and miles from my day-to-day spending. I’ve been loyal to AA/Oneworld ever since.

Now, three years after my first post, I believe that unless you are a super flier, you shouldn’t stick to one airline or airline alliance. Using credit cards and special offers will get you all the extra points and miles you need to get free flights on any alliance. There’s no need to be loyal. The only thing gained by being loyal to one airline is elite status and the amazing perks that come with it.

And therein lies the problem. If you spread out your flights among a large number of different carriers, you dilute your mileage balance. It will take you ages to earn enough miles to redeem for a free flight, and you definitely won’t fly enough on one airline to gain elite status. It takes 20,000 miles on most airlines to get the lowest elite status. Most people don’t fly that much per year.

Elite status is all I care about. I want the extra perks — the free baggage, airport lounges, priority boarding, and free upgrades. I will pay more for a ticket and be loyal, because, in the end, the perks make the higher price worth it.

But for the casual flier? I don’t believe loyalty is worth it.

I don’t think anyone who flies less than 20,000 miles per year should bother to be “loyal” to one airline. Unless you have a real affinity for one airline, the benefits you get for your “loyalty” aren’t worth the added price you’re going to pay for your fare. I’ve stuck with American this year because I knew I would fly at least 20,000 miles and make at least their “Gold” status.

One of British Airways' first class lounges in an airportBut why pay more if you’re only going to fly a few thousand miles per year? Don’t be loyal. Just go on price. If you know you aren’t going to meet the elite status threshold, why pay extra?

Loyalty is great if you know you’re going to be using a service a lot. If you’re always staying in hotels or flying tens of thousands of miles per year, staying loyal will get you a lot of added benefits. My platinum status with American gets me upgrades, lounge access, and the ability to skip the long check-in line. These conveniences are worth the extra money I’ve paid by taking American and their partners over cheaper airlines.

It makes sense to be loyal when you’re a road warrior.

But when you’re a casual traveler, it doesn’t make sense, because you pay more without seeing the added benefit of “status.” There are so many ways to get free miles these days that if you’re just a casual, few-times-per-year flier, you’re better off using those methods to get free business or first-class tickets, which give you all the elite perks for that one flight anyways.

This year, I won’t make platinum status on Oneworld. By the time I get back to Europe, I’ll have flown 29,000 miles with American this year. It takes 50,000 miles to get to Platinum, the status higher than Gold. With only one big flight left this year (to Asia), there’s no way I’ll make Platinum. So for the rest of the year, I’m flying based on price alone. It’s not worth it for me to pay a higher fare for status I’ll never get. If I can’t be treated as an elite flier, why pay like one?

I think everyone should sign up for frequent flier programs. That way, when you use a company, you’re accumulating rewards. Never miss a chance to get rewards. I’m a member of every airline and hotel loyalty program for this reason. But if you’re only taking a couple of trips per year, there’s no reason to be loyal to one program.

Save yourself money and go with the cheapest ticket.

  1. Geez, American is only 50K miles to Platinum? Delta/Skyteam is 75K for platinum which I just hit on my horrid practically RTW flight this weekend. I was all rah rah about status and loyalty, but booking my last trip has made me realize that if you pigeon hole yourself into one alliance, even as a big frequent flyer — sometimes it bites you in the butt.

    I needed to pay for my last trip to ensure I hit my status this year, which turned into a massive nightmare because Delta and KLM couldn’t coordinate to get me from Asia to Los Angeles to Amsterdam and back to Asia. No RTW, nothing. Seems pretty simple – I had the same origin and end, just with a stop in LAX and AMS. Only option was to fly all the way back through the US to Tokyo and finally to Taipei versus going home direct to Asia. Not to mention the cost was through the roof. We paid it and well, worst travel experience all the way around. Some of it was not the airline’s fault (we got diverted after airport closure, had power failure, emergency landing, stuck on the plane for 5 hours, AND then the tail was struck by lightning). And that was just the flight from LAX to AMS. LOL

    On the 2 day journey back to Asia this weekend, we were harassed by immigration in the US (citizens) and almost denied entry by customs, all because our flights itinerary raised red flags. We didn’t get one single elite upgrade on nearly 30 hours of travel, had 15 minutes to run between planes in Tokyo, and had some of the worst flight attendants I’ve ever dealt with.

    I have to say, we are considering switching alliances after this whole ordeal, and while it will be like ripping the bandaid off to start again, it is probably worth it to not have all our eggs in one basket. Since we do fly so much, I am thinking Gold on multiple alliances is the way to go if you truly fly that many miles to get high enough status. At least that’s my goal for next year. LOL

  2. Polly

    We’ve never bothered being loyal and just sign up for which ever airline we happen to be flying with the hopes it might pay off some day in the future. Outside of RTW and business travel, it doesn’t seem anyone ever gets any value out of these programs.

      • One other point you didn’t mention (that I’m sure you know) is that it’s often very hard to redeem your frequent flier miles. Even when they don’t have blackout dates, they often have limited availability. Sometimes you have to pay premium for last minute booking or international flights. Given all the limitations, it’s just another reason not to be loyal to an airline.

        • NomadicMatt

          While I didn’t mention it, I know it. Sometimes the mileage needed to book a flight can change mid-reservation (happened to me once with AA)! It took me ages to find a BA flight to redeem miles on too. Just another pain in the neck.

  3. Matt, great article with some truly unorthodox opinions. I agree, unless you are on track to at least earn the lowest tier of rewards, don’t even bother being loyal. However, now that Delta recently got rid of their expiration dates on mileage earned, other may follow suit, and it could be useful to stick to one, or at least a select few(maybe one in each alliance) to build up the rewards you want, even if it takes several years’ time. I think that the best thing to do is to pick your favorite airline in each of the “Big 3″ airline alliances, and then you should join that program. These 3 alliances cover 60% of all the world’s flights, and then you can sign up for the few holdouts(JetBlue, Virgin, etc.) as you fly them. Anyway, great post!

  4. I make less 10 flights a year. So for me there is another reason not subscribe to every airline: Minimalism
    It saves me a lot of paper, newsletters and cards around my home! Most of the time I don’t use the rewards anyway so why should I bother with paper coming into my home?! For the real digital nomads ok, but for the usual flyer it’s just waste of time & energy.

  5. Bob

    FF programs depend so much upon the airline or who happens to own the airline at that moment. FF programs WILL actually work wonders for you when you happen to have a family tragedy overseas (it does happen). Unfortunately, FF programs expire and change when airlines change so, so long!! (trans-Atlantic) NWA first-class upgrades… the sky-Nazis (Delta) have managed to do away with that…

    I’ve found FF programs to be useful in short–mostly useless–flights that you normally wouldn’t bother taking a commercial flight for, for family emergencies, and for donating FF miles to nephews, nieces and stepchildren.

  6. They’re not rewarding us mere mortals in any way anymore either. American just came out and said it was going to start charging for window and aisle seats for people who aren’t elite level fliers. In other words, if you’re not a business traveler or someone who is in the air every month for other reasons, you’re just a number on a spreadsheet.

    In the U.S. anyway, the only airline that seems to consistently buck this trend is Southwest. You get a few perks if you fly them a lot, but they act like they want everyone’s business, not that the rest of us are just a nuisance to be milked with as many extra add-on fees as possible.

    I pay $450 a year for an Amex Platinum card. That seems like a princely sum, but it buys me many of the same perks, like lounge access almost anywhere. That way, I can just go on price and schedule.

    • NomadicMatt

      Since I’m in airports so much, lounge access is the most important thing I want while I travel. It’s a life saver when you are in an airport every other week.

  7. Mileage loyalty programs are all a strategy game to me- I think about the amount of miles I need to get my status, then if it’s not a flight that “matters” (i.e. a short domestic flight that is only giving me less than 5K miles), or if I’ve already hit my status for the year, I fly for price alone. However, I have noticed that even if I am not able to make my status one year, if I flew enough smaller flights the year before, I will be able to get up to a free flight sooner rather than later.

    However, I may be biased, as like you, I make the Premier/Premier executive status (I fly United, so premier is 25K/50K annually) so I feel like my money goes farther on United, as when I book with them I also get double miles from my status. It also helps if other family members have status as you can shuffle miles and rewards back and forth- both my parents have 1K (100K miles annually) status, and thus when we fly together I can get free upgrades, or transfer miles to whomever needs them for a particular trip, which is always nice.

  8. I think a good rule of thumb is to sign up with one airline from each of the three alliances. That way most of your bases will be covered because you will be able to travel with any of the partners within an alliance.

  9. I travel twice a week for work so being loyal to one airline (US Airways) is my best bet – I get upgraded 90% of the time and LOVE all the additional perks and miles that come with it. When I travel for personal reasons I also try my best to fly US Airways… You just can’t beat the perks. But I agree, if you are a casual traveller, go with what airline is cheapest – not with what airline you have “loyalty” to.

    • NomadicMatt

      I believe you are the only person in the world who loves US Airways. I only use them because they offer great mileage deals and then I use the miles on their better partners like Air NZ.

  10. marcia

    Hey NomadicMatt, that’s a really great article. I think the important point is, what’s your prefer. If you are travelling casual, take the Airline you like, I think the most will take the cheapest. And if you are flying for business, I think you have no choice 😉

  11. Talk about how things can change in the middle of your plans…

    My wife and I recently got the Chase Visa card and got 100,000 free air miles with British Airways, enough–we thought–for two round trip coach tickets from California to Europe. But, now they are in the midst of becoming Avios points and even the airline doesn’t know how that will effect our plans.

  12. George

    I should not that there are cards for even those with troubled credit. There are US banks that do secured cards for AeroMexico, Korean, Avianca, amoung others. This is not a bad thing for many people, you put a deposit, that earns interest and build credit at the same time.

  13. gresu

    this year i will be making (dont laugh) four international flights (us to eu), in your opinion, is it worth it to sign up to FF or is that just not enough travel ?

    • NomadicMatt

      It always worth signing up. 4 flights on one alliance might get you some status depending on how many miles each flight is.

  14. Dave B

    I really like Emirates for service level and reasonable prices so exclusively fly with them now. Their FF programme is a bit weird as you earn 2 sets of miles- one that goes towards status and 1 that goes to free stuff.

    Status- very hard to gain levels

    Free flights- pretty easy to acheive

    • NomadicMatt

      I’d fly them more but they don’t really codeshare with anyone I fly so I never get any good miles.