Silver. Gold. Mosaic. Platinum. Titanium. Plutonium. (Okay, some of those might be made up.) We’re told that membership has its privileges — or at least it used to. But what about flying? Does airline loyalty count for shit anymore? What do you even get when you stick with one airline nowadays, and does it outweigh the convenience of being able to shop around for cheaper deals elsewhere? Alongside airline expert Seth Kaplan, transportation analyst for NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now — a man who once flew from JFK to Fort Lauderdale via LAX just so he could re-qualify for elite status — we’re seeing if airline monogamy is ever worth the work.
So, is airline membership what it used to be?
Mmm, not so much, according to Kaplan. For one thing, he points out, times have changed. Specifically, consolidation happened — there are simply fewer airlines nowadays than there were 10 years ago. “The industry’s competitive, but it’s less competitive than it once was, so they just don’t have to do all the same things that they used to have to do,” Kaplan says. Of course, there’s also the small detail that half these airlines went bankrupt in the past decade from the Great Recession, so something had to give.
But airlines nowadays are like many other industries, Kaplan continues: Whereas before, depending on where you were flying, you had seven or eight choices, now you have maybe three or four choices — just like you have three or four cell phone companies, three or four supermarkets and three or four cable/satellite companies from which to choose these days. Which is to say that we can no longer reap “the outsize benefits of airlines scratching and clawing for your business,” Kaplan says.
There’s another reality, too: Customers are flying more than ever based on price, and airlines are simply adjusting to it. Unfortunately, that means trimming the fat.
What’s the biggest supposed benefit of membership?
Come on, be honest: We all think of airline membership not only as a chance to earn free or discounted tickets, but mainly the occasional upgrade to the plush leather upholstery, lightly trafficked bathroom, ample legroom, free booze and priority boarding provided to those in the confines of the first-class cabin. It’s all about getting on the other side of that privacy curtain the flight attendant draws right before takeoff.
And you don’t really get upgraded anymore?
It happens a lot less often. Delta is leading the way on this. For a while, a first-class ticket came with an absurd price tag that nobody actually bought, and that section was populated mainly with member upgrades. Lately, though, airlines have been pricing first class lower. “Their philosophy has been to try to have an airline that people would simply want to fly so that you don’t have to bribe them with a generous loyalty program, then also price the premium product in a way that people can actually consider buying it,” Kaplan says. This means that the first-class cabin is full of paying customers now, and there’s just no more room for upgrades.
But also, if an airline is being generous with its loyalty program nowadays (free Gold status!), it’s a sign that things aren’t going well, Kaplan says, as is currently the case with American Airlines.
What do you get out of elite status today?
Well, your miles, which are the coin of the airline-status realm, can still earn you free or discounted flights. There’s the occasional upgrade you might qualify for (it’s not like the old days, but it’s also not gone forever), depending on which level of status you have. There are waived bag fees, there’s priority boarding. There is, depending on the airline and your destination, access to the airline’s airport lounge. There’s also more flexibility for flying on a same-day standby: Say you want to get home on an earlier flight than you’d planned, with status, you might avoid the $75 charge for it.
Kaplan also stresses one of the biggest benefits to elite status, yet an unsung one: higher priority in standing by for flights when things go sideways. If you’ve got status, you’re put right at the top of the standby list. Depending on how bad the snowstorm or whatever it is that’s keeping planes on the ground at the moment, you can get home much earlier than everyone else. “I’ve benefited from it a few times in my life, and sometimes you’re actually really happy to be sitting in the middle seat of the last row of the plane next to the bathroom — if it means you’re getting home two days earlier than you would have,” Kaplan says.
What does it take to get elite status?
There’s usually no fee involved, Kaplan says. Basically, just fly your ass off on a single airline a lot throughout the year. For U.S. airlines, the lowest status often requires flying 25,000 miles, or around 30 segments (in other words, 15 round-trip flights). Another joy of consolidation, however, is that airlines have also added a dollar-value component, so you not only have to fly a lot, you have to spend a lot doing so.
But there are shortcuts to getting status — signing up for airline’s credit cards, or even what’s called an elite status challenge, which is kind of like cramming: You pay a fee, then agree to fly a certain amount (a lot) within an accelerated time frame — say, 90 days.
How do you make the miles count in the first place?
Make sure you get an account with the airline to log the miles you fly with them. Kaplan says that around half of all flyers aren’t in an airline’s programs, so they aren’t making their miles count. That’s just silly! Signing up for their loyalty program, even if you don’t fly nearly enough to earn even silver status, can eventually score you some perks, like allowing you to waive baggage fees, or maybe just score a free drink.
Is it worth it to try to get status, then?
A lot depends on your situation. Say you live near a place like Chicago, and you can fly American or United pretty much anywhere you go. “If you fly just enough that you might be able to notch some kind of elite status with one of the airlines, and if the fares are usually similar and schedules are usually similar, then sure — pick an airline,” Kaplan says. “If you can get that silver status and use that maybe not to go around flying first-class everywhere, but to get treated a little better by the airline, then, sure, that can be worth it.”
If you live near a smaller airport, which might just have one airline there (as with Alaska/Horizon throughout the Northwest), choosing that airline to tally your miles, and perhaps, aim for elite status, is a no-brainer.
But here’s where it can get tricky: a place like Minneapolis or Charlotte, Kaplan says, where one airline is dominant. “Very often you’re going to have a situation where you’re choosing between an expensive nonstop flight and maybe less expensive connecting options on other airlines,” he says. “Here, it’s just a question of whether you want to make those decisions based partly on loyalty, or whether you just want to do whatever makes the most sense at that moment, like choosing an airline based on price or schedule (or you just like the airline).”
And you have to keep flying to keep your status, right?
Yes, although with most airlines’ credit cards, you can earn miles toward earning or maintaining elite status in all sorts of ways — eating at restaurants, staying at hotels, etc. So spending money with your airline credit card is another shortcut to earning elite status.
How far out of your way should you go to maintain your status?
As stated earlier, Kaplan flew across the country one time to re-qualify for status on American Airlines back in 2003, because it was December and he needed the miles. (He did, however, use his miles to upgrade his economy ticket to first class both ways, enjoying two nice meals and getting a lot of reading done). How far out of your way you go to earn elite status all depends on whether the perks are worth it for you. You may not get the golden ticket to first class as much anymore, but if you fly on one airline a lot, or — gasp — actually like a certain airline, then elite status, as long as it’s worth something, is probably worth it to you.