The problems with airline loyalty

Golden ChainsPhoto courtesy of Santiago Cabezas

So by now, I’ve talked about the problems inherent in certain retail loyalty programs. Programs like Starbucks Rewards and Amazon Prime seem like a good deal, but can often force you in making decisions based on the idea that you’ve “already paid for it”, rather than any good financial decisions.

But, as you know, one of my hobbies is traveling. I’m very fortunate to have had the ability to do this, both because of intentionality on my part and a lot of fortuitous situations, such as having worked jobs that see fit to fly me places.

And due to my relatively frequent traveler ways, I’ve developed a certain affinity for certain perks.

This is dangerous. I’ve helped to get people upgraded to first class before, and always warn them that all of their other flying experiences are going to suck a little worse from now on. It’s hard to taste comfort (if not real luxury) and then go back.

When you fly enough with a particular airline, you get what is know as “Elite Status” with them. This can net you perks, such as expedited check-in and boarding, as well as financial benefits too, such as checked bags.

On Alaska Airlines, where I have “MVP Gold” status, I can cancel or change any ticket without penalty at any time, even “nonrefundable” tickets, even on the day of travel. The ability to make “speculative” bookings is worth a lot to me, as I suspect it would be to you.

But the loyalty comes at a cost. The desire to qualify (and requalify) for these benefits can alter the decision making process, and can cause one to spend more money. Which is of course, exactly what the airlines want.

I’m not immune to this. As I found out when I went to book a flight to Chicago.

Let’s meet up in Chicago

My dad, brother, and I are meeting up in Chicago this summer. We all live in different places in the US, so a major airport hub like Chicago seemed like the “least worst” option for all of us.

Chicago is a major airport hub, so one would expect that getting there would be a cinch, easier than, say, getting to Hays, Kansas or Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Altoona

No offense to Altoona, of course.

However, I forgot that with airline consolidation having run rampant, there are fewer airlines and less competition, so less imperative for lower prices. And with this trip planned for the summer, this means that even in a well-connected city like Chicago, the increased demand meant that flights were selling at a premium.

And this was where the trouble began.

The golden handcuffs of elite status

In order to maintain my elite status with Alaska, I need to fly a certain amount of miles on their planes, 40,000 for MVP Gold. That’s a lot of flying for me, and induces me to wants to prioritize buying Alaska tickets.

Alaska elite status

That’s a lot of miles.

But an Alaska roundtrip to Chicago was running over $600. I love my family, but that’s a lot of coin.

I searched around, and found that other airlines were cheaper, some significantly so. But if I booked with them, the flight “wouldn’t count” toward my elite status.

Take for example, Spirit Airlines. Spirit is known for being a bare-bones airline, charging for everything including water, offering the most uncomfortable seats, and having perennially off-color advertising.

But boy are they cheap. I could get a round trip ticket for around $300 on Spirit, as long as I didn’t mind a red-eye, and of course the lack-of-amenities.

How much was that $300 worth to me?

How much is $300 worth?

Years ago, it would be easy. I would take the cheapest flight possible. (Actually, years ago, I wouldn’t have had the money to go at all, but you know what I mean.) But having more money doesn’t simplify things. If anything, it makes decisions more complex. Instead of price being the only factor, there are a whole host of secondary factors, such as comfort and timing.

In addition, which it is easy to compare mere prices on things, it is much harder to assign a value to experiences. And it is even harder to assign a value to the potentiality of an experience.

For example, having elite status allows me to get periodic upgrades to First Class when I fly. It’s hard enough to say what I would value an actual upgrade at (especially because I wouldn’t pay for it any other way, so technically its value is $0), but it’s all but impossible for me to put a value on how much a potential upgrade would be.

And what’s worse is because this flight doesn’t guarantee that I’ll make my elite status qualification threshold, we’re actually talking about the potentiality of the potentiality of an experience.

Maybe I should just take a Greyhound.

Don’t try this at home

Most people shouldn’t chase elite status, because most don’t fly enough to earn it. But most people can eventually earn enough frequent flyer miles to earn free flights, so determining which airline to fly with is still relevant to everyone, even if you only fly once a year.

If you’re an infrequent flyer, I’d recommend sticking with a maximum of three airlines to fly with. That way you’re likely to find some good possibilities in one of those three, and you’re not spreading yourself so thin that you’ll never earn anything anywhere.

But would I recommend an infrequent flyer to fly a no-frills airline like Spirit? Well, I’ve never flown Spirit, so I can’t say for certain, but I would advise to look at the whole picture, as extra costs can mean that the price is higher than you might anticipate.

Also, how much do you value your comfort? How much is flying during a reasonable time worth to you? How much is being able to recline your seat worth to you? Unfortunately, only you can know for sure.

Find the middle ground

In general, I find the best way to proceed when you have a plethora of options is to find a middle ground.

I eliminated Spirit and other super-cheap airlines from the running, if for no other reason that the flight times were all red-eyes and bad timing, and I didn’t feel up to having only three hours of sleep before arriving.

This meant that the cheapest option remaining was in the $400s.

I ended up buying my outbound ticket on Alaska and my returning ticket on American. This way, I’d earn my precious elite-qualifying miles on one of the legs, and get a cheaper fare on the return trip. My final price was in the low $500s.

The value of things

Elite status was once described to me as “a way for airlines to thank you spending money on them by giving you more incentive to spend money on them.”

And questions about value and price are complex. I could very easily see someone saying “you spent enough extra on this one flight to give you an Amazon Prime membership for a year.” To which I plead: guilty.

Perhaps two-day shipping is just like First Class upgrades: once you’ve tried it, it’s really hard to go back.

But enough about me: Have you ever paid more for convenience when flying? How much more would you spend?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on May 23, 2016
  • mpinard

    Ah, a middle way! I probably wouldn’t have thought of splitting up the RT flights since my brain is so trained to fear the mishaps involved… and I didn’t know about the elite status no-change fee. A serious perk. I’ve been going with the cheapest option for so long it’s like second nature, but you’ve given me something to think about… 🙂

    • Oh man, splitting up the flights by buying each segment individually is such a good trick. It’s even better if you don’t care what airline(s) you’re flying on. 🙂

      Kayak makes this extra easy by showing you “Hacker Fares”, which are really just tickets booked with multiple carriers shown under a single price. But generally, I just make two separate searches and see what comes up. It can’t hurt to try!