Updated: 6/29/18 | June 29th, 2018
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 it partnered not only with Oneworld but also a few other airlines I enjoy, like Emirates. 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 it partnered with JAL, and I could use its credit card to get bonus miles and miles from my day-to-day spending.
Now, close to ten years after that 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.
(But if you spread out your flights among too many different carriers, you’ll dilute your mileage balance. It will take you ages to earn enough miles to redeem them for a free flight, and you definitely won’t fly enough on one airline to gain elite status — it takes 25,000 miles on most airlines to get the lowest elite status, and nowadays, they require a certain level of spend with the airline or on their credit card too. Most people don’t fly or spend that much per year.)
That said, 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 — for me.
For the casual flier, I don’t believe loyalty is worth it.
I used to say that if you can fly 50,000 miles or more, it’s worth focusing on one airline and alliance because the perks are worth the extra price (especially the international lounges). But now, the major airlines in the United States do not value your loyalty anymore. They are only rewarding their high-spending clients with deep pockets — not their frequent clients. Travel 100,000 miles a year, but on just a few cheap tickets? Great — that will earn you a pat on the back. Spend $20,000 on a few high-priced tickets? The red carpet is rolled out for you! So with the heightened spending requirements, reduced benefits, and overall “F U” attitude airlines have, it doesn’t make sense to be loyal to an airline if you aren’t a high-spending traveler.
Right now, I have no airline status. Most of my flights for the rest of the year are long-haul international flights — the kind I always use points on, so I can fly for free in business class. Most of my paid, status-earning flights will be cheap domestic flights. I’m simply not going to be able to meet the new spending requirements for status — for any airline.
I’m flying Alaska/Virgin, JetBlue, and Southwest a lot more lately. These airlines don’t have baggage fees; they do have friendlier staff and better in-flight products (hello, free gate-to-gate wi-fi on JetBlue!), and the experience is leagues better than the big three!
So, it makes sense to be loyal when you’re a high-spending road warrior. 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? 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.
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 anyway.
I do 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.
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