Consumer IQ

The Pros and Cons of Elite Airline Programs

The Pros and Cons of Elite Airline Programs :: Mint.com/blog

“Elite status” sounds like what Aziz Ansari’s character Tom Haverford is always after on Parks and Recreation: the finest fabrics, fragrances, and gourmet foods.

To an airline and its frequent flyers, however, elite status has a specific meaning: you’ve shown the airline that you’re one of its best customers, and the airline rewards your loyalty with special perks.

These elite programs have been around for a long time, but the qualifications and perks change regularly.

Nearly all the programs require you to fly 25,000 miles in a year to qualify for the lowest level of elite status; most people don’t travel nearly enough to qualify.

Keep in mind that those are actual butt-in-seat miles. The miles you earn with your credit card or through other bonus programs don’t count toward elite status.

Once you’re within reach of elite status, though, you face a dilemma.

Do you stay loyal to one airline (or its alliance) to achieve or maintain elite status, or shop around for the best ticket prices and itineraries?

“Loyalty is exactly that: the willingness to pay more or endure less convenient schedules,” says Scott Mackenzie, a travel expert who blogs at HackMyTrip.com.

“However, the idea is that the benefits of loyalty in the form of elite status (upgrades, fee waivers, bonus miles, etc.) provide a net gain,” he adds.

So what are those elite status perks, and when are they worth spending an extra $200 for a ticket here and there—money that adds up quickly?

Or, worse, taking a brutal eight-hour layover in East Nowheresville airport?

What’s elite?

This is of particular interest to me because I, quite accidentally, qualified for elite status last year.

I write about food and travel, and I love to visit Asia.

Although cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong appear to be just on the other side of a big lake from Seattle, they’re actually pretty far away.

Two round trips from Seattle took me over 25,000 miles and onto United’s Premier Silver list.

I’ve flown a couple of times since then, and here’s what I got:

  • A free checked bag (I didn’t use it)
  • The right to board early (and therefore not have to fight for overhead space)
  • The fast security line
  • A silver luggage tag with my name printed on it

This is all very nice, but it didn’t actually save me any money, and like Mackenzie says, the point is not saving money: it’s getting nice perks for being a loyal (that is, valuable) customer.

Higher tiers of elite status get more interesting. You can compare them for all the major airlines at Mackenzie’s site.

At the top tier, which requires traveling 75,000 to 100,000 miles (plus other requirements), you’ll fly first or business class on most domestic flights, check three bags for free, and upgrade your friends, too.

You can also make last-minute changes to your flights at no charge.

(Also, I can’t let this go by: United’s top elite program is called Premier 1K. It’s for people who fly more than 100,000 miles a year. Why isn’t it called 100K? Thank you.)

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? Like being George Clooney in Up in the Air, minus the crushing loneliness?

Well, it’s probably not worth it.

Be elite without even trying

“The lowest tier of elite status is rarely worth the costs of loyalty,” says Mackenzie. “This is not because the benefits are meaningless but because they can more often be obtained through less expensive means.”

He’s talking about getting an airline-branded credit card, which offer most of the same benefits as Silver status.

Christopher Elliott, former MintLife columnist and author of the new book How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler, agrees.

I asked Elliott whether I should be sure to book my next trip on United (or its Star Alliance partners) in order to maintain my elite status.

“The answer to your question is easy: If you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t spend the extra money,” says Elliott. “Only big-spending frequent fliers on an expense account can really benefit in a meaningful way from a loyalty program.”

How should I shop for my ticket, then?

“Instead, choose the least expensive flight with the most convenient routing,” says Elliott. “If you collect points, make them a byproduct of the purchase, not the reason for the booking.”

In other words, use common sense.

When to go elite

If you live in a hub city, it might make sense to make an occasional compromise to stick with your hub carrier if you’re close to making elite status.

That’s because you’re going to be flying with your hub carrier often, whether you like it or not.

Let me be the first to admit: this stuff works. I’ve received nothing of any monetary value from United beyond a ten-cent plastic luggage tag.

I haven’t reclined 180 degrees in a first class bed-seat or relaxed with a martini in an airport lounge.

Still, the thought of booking a flight on another carrier makes me feel like (a) I’m being disloyal, and (b) I might be missing out on some amazing benefits if I just spend a few more hours and dollars flying the Friendly Skies™.

And this is a warning, to me and everyone. Loyalty programs are everywhere.

They’re designed to make us change our spending habits to benefit the company offering the program, and often they don’t have to do much more than make us feel special.

If the company is really clever, they’ll make us pay to join the loyalty program.

Like I said, I love to travel. Maybe someday I’ll hit the big time and earn gold or platinum status.

If I do, it’ll be the same way I did last year: by blundering into it.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.