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Why I Don’t Consider Frequent Flier Programs When Booking Travel (Ask Cranky)

I know I’ve touched on this many times before, but reader Morgan would like to know more about why I don’t consider frequent flier programs when traveling. Seems like a good time for the latest installment of Ask Cranky . . .

I’d be interested in hearing more about why you don’t consider frequent flyer benefits when making your personal travel reservations. I believe you’ve mentioned this as your policy several times, but never (that I have seen) with Ask Crankyelaboration.

With all the turmoil going on with the SkyMiles program and speculation about major changes to Mileage Plus, I’m starting to wonder if all the effort I put into obtaining and maintaining status is worth it. You travel plenty and yet seem to feel that no carrier will compensate you adequately for your loyalty. I’d love to hear why — I’m willing to be convinced.

Morgan

There are actually a lot of things that go into my decision to not care about frequent flier programs, so let’s get started. First of all, I should stress that I’m more than happy to take advantage of frequent flier programs. I belong to many programs and always make sure to earn miles when I fly. I just don’t let those programs impact my decisions.

Part of this is probably because of where I live. From the Los Angeles area, there is no dominant airline. American, Delta, Southwest, and United can get you to most places you want to go from LAX. As a Long Beach resident, however, I often skew toward JetBlue because it’s more convenient. The point is – I have a lot of choices here in Southern California.

For most people, price and schedule end up being the most important decision factors, but for me, it’s more about schedule and product. Yes, I will pay more to fly out of Long Beach than LAX. I will also pay more for an airline that has in-seat video. Legroom might not matter a ton to me since I’m pretty short, but I’d even pay a small premium for that.

For most people, nonstop is a hugely important factor, and that’s true for me as well, but I also look for variety. If I have the chance to fly a new airline, connect in a new city, or ride on a new aircraft type, then I’ll usually jump at the chance as long as there isn’t too big of an inconvenience factor.

That’s why frequent flier programs rarely make sense for me as a decision-driver. If I want new experiences, then sticking with a single frequent flier program will prevent that from happening. It might also make me shy away from more convenient options, since the best option from LA can often be on a different airline for every itinerary.

The flip side is, of course, what I’m giving up. There are a lot of supposed benefits to being elite, so let’s look at them and I’ll show you why I don’t care.

  • Upgrades – This is always the big sell, but honestly I don’t care. People think I travel a lot, but I really don’t. I haven’t taken a real vacation in over 3 years. I either travel for events with friends and family or I travel for work. When I travel for work, it’s usually on the airline’s dime so I won’t earn miles anyway.

    Last year, I traveled 34,202 miles. Had I focused on one airline, I might have reached silver status, but even then, what’s the chance I’d get an upgrade? There are so many silver elites at every airline that it’s almost impossible to get an upgrade at that level. Last time I was elite on anyone was 2005/2006 with US Airways. I got an upgrade once from Vegas to LA and another time from Phoenix to LA. That was it. Who cares?

  • Priority Check-In/Security/Boarding – I almost never check a bag, so I’m always checked in before I get to the airport. I’m sure there are times I could have saved a little time with priority security, but when I fly out of Long Beach, that doesn’t matter. And when I travel, I use a duffel that can, if needed, squeeze under the seat in front of me. I’d prefer to find bin space, and I usually can, but there’s always a back up so I don’t care if I’m on the airplane that early.
  • Free Checked Bags – This has never been an issue for me since I rarely check bags, though that’s about to change with a mini-Cranky on the way. (That’s right, I just dropped that casually into the post.) But it’s still not that much to check a bag.
  • Priority Seating – I’ll admit that I do like having priority seating – if there are only middles left on the airplane, then it would be nice to grab that window up front that’s being held back for elites. But with most airlines these days, you can pay for a better seat if you want it. It’s a nominal fee, and I would only bother with it if I couldn’t get a window in the back anyway. As I said, I like more legroom so having Economy Plus on United is nice, but it’s hardly worth concentrating my business just to get that for free. Besides, if I fly JetBlue from Long Beach, I get more legroom automatically.

In short, the benefits of elite status aren’t enough to make me consider warping my decision-making process when it comes to buying a ticket. It’s far more freeing to just fly who I want and then pay for the extra little benefits if I ever feel that I need them.

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