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 and achieving that status which will place you amongst the aristocracy of travelers.
With that being said, to acquire 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 and before you know it, a lot of money has exchanged hands to accomplish this task. You will also need to repeat the process by reaching both money spent and miles flown in the air (or flying the minimum segments) threshold each year to maintain that status. The high tier status levels will require even more of a financial commitment on your part.
Here at United States Traveler, my goal is to help you travel more while on a budget and to share with you what I’ve learned. Chasing after elite status is going to be an uphill climb and out-of-reach for the budget traveler. Since I travel at most twice per year, I had thought going down this rabbit hole of airline loyalty would be a good idea. Instead, I realized I was just spinning my wheels and spending extra money unnecessarily to achieve a goal that wasn’t designed for a traveler of my frequency.
In this article, I hope to help shed some light on my experiences to help you avoid the allure of airline status which is better suited for the business traveler.
Why Do We Get Sucked Into the Allure of Airline Status?
It seems like a pretty fair question, right? I think for many people the word, “status”, is a trap; meaning we desire to be like those who are in that select group, however, we cannot afford that luxury. The feeling of elite status evokes an emotion of importance. In actuality, the people who earn this level of status are receiving these perks because they’ve spent a lot of money with the respective airline that they fly frequently. They’re not travelers on a budget and in many cases, they’re traveling for work and not for vacations like we’re trying to do. Not to mention, many business travelers are reimbursed for their travel expenses by the company they work for – 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.
Once you overcome the desire to feel appreciated like a business traveler, you’ll want to avoid the temptation of “benefits” that come with airline status. It’s key to note that even at the lowest level of airline status – which we will discuss in the next section where I talk about my experience pursuing Delta elite status – it’s going to be tough to achieve. Not only that but at the lowest tier of elite status, you’re not going to be receiving as much as a traveler at the second or third tier. These levels are reached – or should I say disguised – by miles/segments flown and money spent, but in reality, it’s all about the money! Unless your job is to travel, you’re going to be (more than likely) spending more money than you intended to just to reach the ground floor.
You want to stay focused as a traveler on a budget and one of the goals of traveling more is to not chase elite status.
What Does The Base Level Status Even Get You?
I want to discuss Delta Airlines briefly. It’s the airline I tend to fly the most, but I no longer exclusively tie myself down to them as I’m no longer chasing elite status for good reason. Regardless, I’m sure you’re reading this and you’re at least curious what the base level of elite status would earn you.
On Delta’s website, they list all of the benefits out to you on their Delta Medallion Status Levels page. The first thing you’ll notice on that page is earning a “Choice Benefit” – as they call it – which you’re not eligible for at Silver (entry-level) or Gold (second level) status. The “Choice Benefit” is where the cool stuff is too like Delta Sky Club access or Global Entry application voucher (costs $100). Additionally, while it will seem like you’re getting a lot at the Silver level, if you look closely at the offerings (that mention complimentary), you’ll see that you’re going to be the last to receive that benefit meaning that if someone with a higher level status requests a complimentary upgrade and they’re on the same flight as you – they get priority. The main reason for this is because they spend more money with Delta than you do. It’s always going to come back to that narrative.
When you’re at the airport, everyone always wants to get to their gate quickly, and while having Silver status will get you priority check-in (which is nice if you’re checking in bags which I try to avoid to save the baggage fee cost), 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 are indeed checking-in a bag, but I’ll discuss the easiest and cheapest way to obtain this waiver later in the article.
It’s nice that the entry-level of elite status offers bonus “medallion” miles per flight (compared to being a standard SkyMiles member – Delta’s frequent flier program), but those extra “medallion miles” which are used towards requalifying your elite status for the following year will only be a helpful benefit if you travel a lot.
Finally, the last thing I want to cover in this section is you’re at the mercy of the airline program. What does that mean? These airline loyalty programs are known for constantly changing threshold levels for reaching elite status. It can become quite complicated for the consumer to understand what’s required to achieve such 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
I have always found that the best way to earn elite status with an airline is to buy it? Woah, wait a minute? Doesn’t this seem counter-intuitive when it comes to saving money? Actually, no. It’s quite practical, to be honest. Considering we’re only flying at least twice a year, we’re saving money by “buying” the perks of elite status versus reaching thresholds.
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 an affordable cost to experience first-class in addition to benefits like priority check-in, priority boarding, and free baggage check-in. A bonus of the free baggage check-in is you get a “priority” tag applied to your luggage so that you’re one of the first bags out when picking them up at the baggage claim.
These are benefits that elite level customers experience and 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 than if you were flying to California. 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 for you to get your feet wet without breaking the bank and that’s always going to be our goal as budget travelers. 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 myself with one airline to save money, I’ve come to believe that at the time of writing this article that JetBlue offers the best overall bang for your buck. Delta I’ve come to find is one of the more expensive airlines and I became tired of keeping myself tied to them and paying their prices. It can be irritating to buy directly with an airline that you’ve locked yourself into because you’re chasing an unattainable goal like “Million Miler Status”. It’s so silly looking back that I tied myself into Delta for the idea of what elite status would be when instead I could “buy” it at an affordable price as we talked about earlier.
I had myself so engulfed in the Delta ecosystem that I even had their American Express Delta Platinum Credit Card which carried a $195 annual fee. As you can see I was paying an additional amount of money to get myself towards a goal that was leading to nowhere (and impossible based on my circumstances). All the annual fee gave me was a free yearly companion certificate (a free main cabin ticket), but it’s not entirely free because you still have to pay the taxes on it. Overall, just not worth it.
Also, being able to fly whichever airline you want means that you do not have to book direct and can potentially save money using a third party travel agency like Kayak. That’s whom I have used and prefer. They’re the all-in-one place to compare prices across multiple booking agencies and from my experience when buying through Kayak, I haven’t had to pay a “booking fee” that some of these travel agencies charge for using their site.
With that being said, it’s important to do your homework and not rule out booking directly with an airline because there are benefits to booking direct. Sometimes you will see the price is the same between a travel agency site and directly with the airline; other times one might be cheaper than the other. If you’re diligent and willing to put in the time to find the best price, then your research will pay off for and you’ll have more money for your vacation which is essentially what we all want anyway. It is important to note that the benefit of booking direct can occur if you buy a main cabin ticket, but later decide you want to upgrade. If you book through a third-party travel agency site, you will need to pay an additional fee to upgrade (outside of the ticket upgrade price) which pricing varies based on the airline you choose. This little item alone is why I always look at the airline’s site directly first. I will still compare prices to Kayak, but I always keep in mind whether or not I may choose to upgrade my ticket when choosing where to buy.
Overall, you’re going to have an airline you prefer to use and what you choose is up to you, but I hope some of my insight can aid you in your next buying decision. At the beginning of this section, I recommended JetBlue as the best bang for your buck. The reason I say this is because their main cabin experience is the best in the industry, in my opinion. From unlimited snacks being offered (at least on my flight – round trip JFK > LAS), to free entertainment options (including live TV), and very spacious legroom – I’ve been blown away by the progress of JetBlue.
So now it’s your turn. Go out there and take a trip without dedicating yourself to one airline, because that my friends, is when your money won’t work for you! Trust me, I know 🙂