Airlines have traditionally structured their frequent flier programs to reward their most frequent fliers, of course. But at the same time, their co-branded credit card users seem to have become more valuable to the airlines than those who actually purchase tickets. And when you combine this fact with other recent airline industry trends, it becomes clear that having elite status in an airline’s frequent flier program may be worth little, and might cost a lot.
What happened to status?
The idea behind elite status was that the most frequent travelers would earn perks such as priority boarding, free checked bags, and upgrades to first class. Yet today, every major airline offers most of these perks to holders of its co-branded credit cards. The one major exception has always been first class upgrades.
Several years ago, travelers with elite status could depend on getting regular upgrades to first class, but those days seem to have gone away. Today, airlines are infatuated with the idea of “first class monitization.” This means that first class tickets are being offered for less money, or being sold to all travelers as an upgrade. For example, travelers who purchase coach tickets often see an offer to upgrade to first class for under $100 when they check in online. The result is that enough first class tickets and upgrades are being sold that airlines have few seats left to give away for free to travelers with elite status.
How I enjoy the benefits of elite status without earning it
First, I choose all my flights based on the best price, schedule, and quality without regards to the airline’s frequent flier program. This alone allows me to save hundreds of dollars compared to those who remain loyal to one carrier, regardless of the price.
Next, I use credit cards to earn as many miles as possible so that I can enjoy first class awards on my longest trips. Besides, when traveling internationally, most carriers won’t even upgrade those with elite status. On shorter domestic trips, I can rely on the perks from my credit cards to receive priority service and sit in coach next to elite travelers. And when all else fails, I often travel on Southwests Airlines which has open seating, no change fees, and offers two free checked bags to all travelers. Better still, when I use points to make bookings on Southwest, my points are fully refundable when I have to make a change or a cancellation. (Jetblue has similar policies.)
And finally, when I travel based on price, I save enough money that I can sometimes afford to buy those inexpensive upgrades that their airlines are always trying to sell. By understanding how to use credit cards to enjoy the perks of status, travelers can purchase the best tickets for the lowest price, and still have a pleasant travel experience.