A 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. 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. But 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. I’ve stuck with American this year because I knew I would fly at least 20,000 miles and at least make their “Gold” status. 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— and it takes 50,000 miles to get to Platinum, the status above 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.