If you travel at least twice a year, do you tend to fly the same airline? Maybe you’re a member of that respective airline’s frequent flyer program with the hopes that you can achieve elite status. All major airlines have their officially branded names for various tiers of elite status. Achieving that status will place you amongst the aristocracy of travelers. However, I don’t recommend limiting yourself to one airline – even those that may have the best airline loyalty programs.

Moreover, acquiring even the lowest tier of elite status will require brand loyalty to that specific airline. Not only that, but you’ll need to be traveling quite a bit. Before you know it, a lot of money has exchanged hands. You’ll need to repeat the process via the money spent and miles flown (or minimum segments) each year. The high-tier status levels will require even more of a financial commitment on your part. If that isn’t enough, the price fluctuations in the airline industry are unpredictable.

Here at United States Traveler, my goal is to help you travel more while on a budget. Chasing after elite status is going to be an uphill climb and out-of-reach for the budget traveler. Since I travel at least twice a year, I thought covering airline loyalty would be beneficial to my readers.

How Do The Best Airline Loyalty Programs Draw Us In?

It seems like a pretty fair question, right? I think for many people the word, “status”, is a trap. We desire to be like those in a select group, however, we cannot afford the luxury. The feeling of elite status evokes a sense of importance. The people who earn status are receiving these perks because they’ve spent a lot of money with the airline. Overall, they fly frequently. They’re not travelers on a budget. In many cases, they’re traveling for work and not for vacations like we’re trying to do. Additionally, many business travelers receive reimbursement from their employer. So the status they’ve “earned” isn’t costing them money out-of-pocket.

Having this insight in mind should provide the perspective needed as to why you shouldn’t chase down airline status. The best airline loyalty programs are hoping you do the exact opposite.

Overcoming The Temptations of The Airlines

It’s key to note that even the lowest tier of airline status is going to be tough to achieve. At the lowest tier of elite status, you’re not going to be receiving as much as you desire. In reality, it’s all about the money! Unless you travel for work, you’re going to spend more than you intended just to reach the ground floor. You want to stay focused as a traveler on a budget. One of the keys to travel more is to not chase elite status.

What Does The Base Level Status Even Get You?

I want to discuss Delta Airlines briefly. I have flown with them a number of times, but I no longer do so exclusively. Regardless, I’m sure you’re at least curious about what the base level of elite status would earn you.

On Delta’s website, they list something called a “Choice Benefit. You’re not eligible for this at the Silver (entry-level) or Gold (second-level) status. The “Choice Benefit” is where the desired benefits begin. This includes Delta Sky Club access or the Global Entry application voucher (costs $100). Additionally, it may seem like you’re getting a lot at the Silver level. However, if you look closely, you’ll see that you’re going to be the last to receive that benefit. If someone with elevated status requests an upgrade, they get priority. You’ll see this come into play if they’re on the same flight as you. The main reason for this is that they spend more money with Delta than you do. It’s always going to come back to that narrative.

What Are The Desires of A Traveler?

When you’re at the airport, everyone always wants to get to their gate quickly. Having Silver status will get you priority check-in (which is nice if you’re checking in bags). You won’t get to use the priority security line access. As everyone knows, that’s usually the longest wait time at the airport. Having Silver status will have your baggage fee waived if you do intend to check in a bag. However, I’ll discuss the easiest and cheapest way to obtain this waiver later in the article.

It’s nice that the entry-level elite status offers bonus “medallion” miles per flight (compared to being a standard SkyMiles member). The extra “medallion miles” are for requalifying your elite status the following year. You’ll only find this useful if you’re traveling a lot.

Finally, I want you to know that you’re at the mercy of the best airline loyalty programs. What does that mean? Airline loyalty programs can change threshold levels. It can become complicated for the consumer to maintain status. These changes and complications can also devalue the program. A site I trust called The Points Guy discusses this very topic by calculating what elite status is worth. So how can we save money and get some of the desired benefits of elite status?

The Best Way To Overcome Elite Status From The Best Airline Loyalty Programs

I have always found that the best way to earn elite status with an airline is to buy it. Woah, what? Doesn’t this seem counter-intuitive when it comes to saving money? Actually, no. It’s quite practical, to be honest. We’re only flying at least twice a year, so we’re saving money “buying” the perks of elite status.

The first step is buying a first-class plane ticket. Now, I don’t want you to go buy a first-class ticket for a cross-country trip. That’s going to be expensive. I’m talking about starting small like flying out of NY, for example, and heading to Washington D.C. I’ve been able to secure first-class tickets in this manner for less than $300. The flight from NY to D.C. is only 45 minutes, but it’s affordable to experience first-class. You’ll get to receive benefits like priority check-in, priority boarding, and free baggage check-in. At check-in, your luggage will have a “priority” tag attached. In many cases, you’re one of the first bags out when picking them up at baggage claim.

A Slight Hack To Get The Benefits You Desire

These are benefits elite-level customers experience. They’ve paid a lot more to receive the same benefits you’re getting at a hacked price. I say hacked because you’re strategically choosing to fly first class where the ticket price is going to be cheaper. You’re considering the distance traveled when making this strategic decision. You’re also not sacrificing any of the benefits that come along with first-class by taking a shorter flight. It’s a good entry point without breaking the bank. It’s important to note that shorter first-class flights will not contain a meal. These flights will require you to travel a longer distance and thus, more money to spend.

Which Airline Deserves Your Business The Most?

The bottom line: whichever airline gives you the best price in your budget. It’s just that simple. Now that I no longer align with one airline, I believe JetBlue offers the best bang for your buck. Delta I’ve come to find is one of the more expensive airlines. I became tired of keeping myself tied to their prices. It can be irritating to buy directly with an airline that you’ve locked yourself into. Especially if you’re chasing an unattainable goal like “Million Miler Status”. It’s so silly that I tied myself into Delta. Instead, I could “buy” the benefits at an affordable price on a shorter flight.

The Delta ecosystem had me completely consumed. I had their American Express Delta Platinum Credit Card which carried a $195 annual fee. I was paying an additional amount of money to get myself towards a goal leading to nowhere. The annual fee provided a free yearly companion certificate (main cabin), but it’s not entirely free. Keep in mind that you still have to pay the taxes on it. Overall, it’s not worth it.

Booking Third-Party versus Booking Direct

Flying any airline means not booking directly and potentially saving money using a third party like Kayak. That’s who I have used and prefer. They’re the all-in-one place to compare prices across multiple booking agencies. From my experience, I haven’t had to pay the “booking fee” that some of these travel agencies charge.

Furthermore, it’s important to do your homework and not rule out booking directly with an airline. There are benefits to booking directly. Sometimes you will see the price is the same between a travel agency and the airline. Other times one might be cheaper than the other. If you’re diligent and put in the time to find the best price, your research will pay off. You’ll have more money for your vacation which is essentially what we all want.

The Decision Lies With You

Overall, you’re going to have an airline you prefer to use. Whomever you choose is up to you. I hope some of my insight can aid you in your next buying decision. Hopefully, when you make your decision, it doesn’t factor in what the best airline loyalty programs are. At the beginning of this section, I recommended JetBlue as the best bang for your buck. I say this because I feel their main cabin is the best in the industry. From unlimited snacks offered (at least from JFK to LAS), to free entertainment options, and very spacious legroom. I appreciate JetBlue’s amenities.

So now it’s your turn. Go out there and take a trip without dedicating yourself to one airline. That my friends, is when your money won’t work for you!

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