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.


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

  1. Bob K. says:

    Congrats, Brett!

    • Hovig A says:

      CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!
      OK, I’m totally cheating and “replying” to this message so my post is up high lol. But wow, this is awesome news!

      You started this blog the same time I started med school and reading your blog was my daily dose of relaxation!!! :)

      And now, I’m a Pediatric resident, so if you ever find yourself in Fresno…lol. Although I figure you have your brother for that down in LA anyway.

      Congrats again!

  2. Kim says:

    I agree with you – I don’t consider frequent flyer programs either as usually the price (major differentiating factor in my market) differential will not be compensated for by loyalty to a single airline. As a previous business traveler I did manage to achieve “status”, but apart from the extra baggage allowance (20kg to 30kg in non US markets) they really didn’t add to much.

  3. Fred says:

    Congrats! And another (quick) question:
    Have expiring miles ever been a problem for you? Delta skymiles don’t expire any more, but all others do afaik.

    This hasn’t really been a problem for me since I fly probably 60K/year on several different alliances, but if one or two airlines are consistently more expensive, you might avoid them for a bit.

    • CF says:

      Never been a problem except in those programs with a hard expiration date (like Southwest’s old program). Almost all programs have rolling expirations so you need to have some sort of activity to keep them active. I’ll either buy some flowers or even get an insurance quote to keep them active if needed.

  4. Chris says:

    Congrats on you future Mini-Cranky!

  5. Ted says:

    Congratulations on the impending new arrival. Though I think you will need to change your site to the crankierflier, as if you’re cranky now, just wait until you don’t sleep for 3 months straight.

  6. Dan says:

    Brett,

    For the four years I lived in LA, I was an elite of various sorts with Northwest. It’s funny; I have had similar experiences to yours, differences to yours, and then there’s the old “we have differences in our opinions.”

    You are right, no single carrier dominates LA. IOW, there’s no carrier with “non stops to everywhere.” My travels mainly took me to the east and mid-west, with very little west coast flying. Because of the scheduling issue, Skyteam became an interesting alliance to work with. There were *three* carriers where I could use my elite benefits, although most of the time I flew and credited my miles to NW.

    The difference between you and me is that I’m 6’1″ and way over 200 lbs. The seat matters. If I can’t get an upgrade, it was awesome to book a bulkhead or exit row seat at time of booking. I flew coach from DTW-FRA, and honestly, the bulkhead was great. I wasn’t “dying” for business/first class. But for the two years I was Platinum (was silver for the first and last) my upgrades cleared left and right. I even got a few good ones as a silver. I could count on the front cabin, and it made a difference.

    Because I am 6’1″, I loved priority boarding. It meant I could get the bulkhead and shove my crap in the overhead bin. I did not want to share leg space with my carry-ons. So that was an important benefit. I never checked bags then, so the premium check-in line wasn’t much of a bennie, although I appreciated the shorter security line when it was available. Often it wasn’t.

    These days, I travel rarely, so I’m glad the airlines have gotten in on the elite-for-a-day thing where you can buy the extras you want.

    The real difference between silver and Platinum was the upgrades and free changes to award tickets. The later can add up if you travel on a lot of awards. When I knew my travel patterns were changing, I burned all of my miles on various international biz tickets. Booking far in advance, or on suboptimal routings, changes are inevitable. My last trip, I had lost platinum, and ended up spending $500 on changes.

    But if things were the way they used to be, and I still lived in LA, I’d make a point to be NW silver. There’s enough there to make it worth my while; with the increasing elite levels, not so much.

  7. Jason H says:

    I agree with Brett. I did like the upgrades when I was elite with DL, but they were never really all THAT great. Now I’m much like you. Flying for the experience. I put together a crazy routing to get on a KLM MD-11 earlier this year and I have a plan to get on something much more exciting later this year.

    When security and airports are such a hassle I think having a near aircraft or on-board experience to look forward to adds a bit of the allure of travel back in.

    Congrats on the pending little one Brett. I keep hearing it’s a whole new world when you first hold them.

  8. DJ D says:

    I was sad that I was going to lose status this year but then looked at the money I’m saving by freelancing with different airlines and decided it was worthwhile. I like to be loyal because it’s based on receiving consistent service and product, and that’s about the same with all the airlines, so it generally comes back to price and convenience.

    Congratulations, too!

  9. PVDtoDEL says:

    As a few people may know from my postings on the Other European FFP forum and Star Alliance forum on FlyerTalk, I am a massive proponent for infrequent fliers like yourself (in the alliance) to sign up for Aegean Airlines Miles and Bonus. It is the FFP of Aegean Airlines (a greek *A airline) that gives you status (star silver and star gold) for 3k and 20k miles respectively. The advantages aren’t incredible, but having status is a massive advantage over not having status when it comes to IRROPS and seating when the flights are full (agents often rearrange seats, even for *A elites when only middle seats are available, and if space is available, a upgrade to E+ (on UA) or bulkhead/exit (on other airlines) is a likely chance. Also, lounge access is nice :) )
    It doesn’t completely drive the decision of which airline I will fly like some people, but if I have a reasonable choice between *A and another carrier, *A always wins. It’s nice to have the comfort of knowing that if your flight gets delayed or cancelled, you will be at a massive advantage in terms of being accommodated. After being stuck in DEL for 3 days on KLM once, I try my best to never have that experience repeat itself. And status is a great place to start.

    • CF says:

      I can see this being worthwhile if you could get upgrades to E+ on United, but that’s not a benefit. Maybe you’ll get some sympathy from time to time, but that’s luck of the draw and not a published benefit. I think Star Silver really doesn’t mean much, but Star Gold would be nice. For only 20k, it’s not a bad deal at all!

  10. I’ve always gone by time of departure or arrival more then anything else. For a long time I didn’t even know there was more then one fare in a cabin. I would just tell them (before the internet) which of the airlines times I wanted that they would offer and whatever the price was I just thought that’s what everyone paid. Must have been those brain washing timetables I collected as a kid that showed prices and there was always only one price for each route.

    For the most part, the only people who fly by mileage I think are business travelers who’s company pays for the ticket. If they had to pay out of their pocket they would be buying the lowest coach fare on any airline.

    Baby? What baby, what did I miss…..well besides a conseption!

  11. Ron says:

    Congratulations!

    I was a low and mid tier Northwest (then Delta) flier for several years, and while miles and status never figured heavily in my decisions, they did affect them somewhat. Only recently did I decide to ignore miles altogether, and the feeling is liberating indeed — the conscious decision to disregard frequent flier considerations makes me a lot happier with my decisions.

  12. Congratulations! Do you know if the new arrival is a Cranky or a Crankette?

    • By the way, I enjoyed reading your remembrance of 9/11 on the Dallas Morning News aviation blog. I attended an interfaith prayer service in downtown Phoenix in the aftermath of 9/11 and was also struck by the silence brought about by the lack of flights. As you know, downtown Phoenix is just north of the Sky Harbor flight path. As the service was concluding, an America West aircraft flew by to the south and everyone was encouraged.

    • CF says:

      He is a Cranky, not a Crankette.

  13. Curiouz Jorge says:

    I am with you too. I currently have elite status in the 3 alliances (CO, AA & DL), but i am about to loose those next February on 2 (CO & DL), because I decided not to go out of my way, or spend more than I have to, to maintain elite status anymore. I think is worthless in many cases, depending on your priorities or needs. I love Delta and will miss not being elite with them since they (almost) always treated me well. I felt I needed Star Alliance status because I live in the DC area, but I normally don’t end up flying Star Alliance anyway because of pricing. I am million-miler with AA so I have Gold status for life with them, and I appreciate the benefits. But even if i wasn’t elite with AA, you can now buy the benefits if needed, like priority seating and boarding, lounge access, etc. If I calculate all that I spend to maintain elite status, I think it is a lot cheaper to just pay for those benefits only when needed on certain flights. I don’t care about the domestic first class upgrades because the so called “first class” on US airlines suck big time and the don’t offer anything special, except a bigger seat (WITHOUT FOOT REST!..what a joke). USAirways is now even charging elites for preferred seats..bigger joke!. My first choice now is convenience + price, then airline alliance comes 2nd. I do love my miles because I use them to travel around the world, a reason why I don’t fly Southwest.

  14. LT_DT says:

    I have been a Silver Medallion for several years now and have made some effort to keep the status. The main reason I do so is that I have two young kids (2 and 5) and all of our family is on a coast that’s not the one we live on. So, the baggage allowance is handy, as is the ability to have a greater selection of seats to choose from when booking tickets, which makes it more likely that we can all sit together. As an added bonus, most of my medallion benefits transfer to Alaska, which has non-stops from where we live (Seattle) to our family clusters (DC, ATL, STL, DEN) in addition to the options afforded by Delta (especially to ATL)

  15. Congrats on the impending arrival! We’ve got one on the way, too, and my wife was kind enough to let me decorate the nursery in an airplane motif. It’s kind of hard to find airplane-themed baby items that are realistic to my airline geek standards!

    • CF says:

      Congrats, Eric! I’ve lost the airplane motif battle – but there will be plenty of airplane-related things around.

  16. andrew b says:

    sorry to threadjack, but i can get *silver for just 3k miles by crediting to Aegean? I am GM on DL, and rarely, but occasionally fly United, as I am DC based. Almost always DL out of DCA, but once or twice a year i end up on United out of IAD…one cross country RT on United out of IAD, credited to Aegean, and I’d be *silver??

    • The Aegean deal does seem like a good one. You don’t get the domestic upgrades that M+ elites get, but should get premium seating in economy (+). I may try that next year, but I”m already in line for low-level eliteness with UA for next year.

      Congrats Brett, on the little one. I have a vision of painted aircraft murals and floating airplane mobiles in baby’s room.

    • Sanjeev M says:

      Yes. The Aegean deal is true. They give you 1000 miles on sign up so 4k silver becomes 3k and gold is 20k.

      Cranky, congrats!

    • PVDtoDEL says:

      While it is true, it is worth noting that the really nice benifits (lounge access, priority bags, etc.) come with *G, not *S

  17. David says:

    Congrats on Mini-Cranky!

  18. Sheila says:

    Congratulations on the little ‘Cranky’. And thanks for your detailed explanation re: frequent flier credits. Much appreciated.

  19. Bernhard from VIE says:

    There is another rather general thing: Most companies earn their money with regular customers, not with new ones. Usually, an airline does not have the intention to spoil the passenger – they want to earn money. If the loyalty program would not be financially attractive for them they would not offer it – and if it is financially attractvie for the airline, it hardly can be attractive for the customer because ultimately he is paying all the ‘free’ stuff…

  20. Paul says:

    Congrats!!! My wife and I are expecting twins in February and I too am going to push for an aviation themed room. Shouldn’t be hard to convince her since she works for an airline!

  21. ancdude says:

    Unlike LAX, we here in ANC don’t have much airline choice, what with AS flying 20 roundtrips a day to SEA and several more to PDX, and beyond. So, frequency is the driver here. I am about to go to MVP Gold – have been MVP since 2007. I do like the upgrades (1st class from HNL-PDX-ANC), and the free bags as we often travel to see family Outside. Would that we had more airline flexibility, but it is what it is, so we make the best of it.

  22. DAB says:

    The first two years I was in my fairly high travel job, I was all over the board. Then I decided to concentrate on * in 2010. That was mainly to see if status made any difference, and then my travel picked up enough that I just made gold. This year I am almost plat… The main benefit I see is irregular ops/ other schedule changes. At least at gold I usually talk to someone competent and us based when I have a problem.

  23. malbarda says:

    I totally follow your logic. For me, as a business traveler who is on the road internationally over 50% of my time, collecting miles and ensuring top tier makes a lot more sense. It pays back through holiday trips and/or upgrades!

    Fantastic news about Cranky Jr. I am thinking that once that event has happened we can look forward to a whole new raft of posts related to the traveling parent. Might I recommend this site, which a friend of mine launched on the back of a children’s book he wrote about traveling parents: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=51233370635&ref=ts#!/group.php?gid=51233370635

    And also, be aware of this :-) :
    http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/post/2011/06/malaysia-airlines-baby-ban/175760/1

    Congrats again!

  24. Brett! That’s fantastic! Congratulations…being a parent is awesome! I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love my baby! Just don’t find yourself in Portugal and your wife stateside when she goes into labor. That was my predicament…I made it home before she was born but it was a stressful flight back. ;-) Of course, that story is on my blog…but that’s not why I’m writing this…just saying congratulations!!

  25. Elizabeth says:

    Congratulations on the mini-cranky!

    And thanks for your insight about frequent flyer programs.

  26. Andrew says:

    Congrats on the mini cranky!

    The one thing that drives me to make 95% of my ticket booking decisions based on carrier is the ability to accrue miles for the purpose of award travel redemption.

    Sticking to one alliance allows me to build miles/bonus miles much faster as a result of that status than I would if I bounced around all the time. Not flying Star Alliance three or four times a year could cost me 20-30,000 miles in a year that very well could make the difference between having enough miles for a business class award redemption for my wife and I, vs. being short on those miles otherwise.

  27. Congrats on the impending little one – things will never be the same again!

  28. Chris says:

    “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.)”

    First of all, shame on you for dropping that casually into the post : mini-Cranky deserves better than that !… :-)
    Second, congratulations, and good luck !… Get some sleep while you can, … you’ll need it (but don’t worry, lost nights don’t last too long) !

    Having travelled a lot with babies, i can tell you it’s not the bag allowance that you need (you often get a 10 kg free allowance and strollers and car seats travel for free !), but the ability to choose your seats and pre-board !…

  29. Ed Kelty says:

    Washington,DC, is our home port. UAL is dominant at IAD, while SW is the big one at BWI. If you play with schedules, the fares usually aren’t too different. Having had status on UAL, I can’t imagine that I would want to fly in the back of the coach cabin. The extra legroom is really worthwhile, and if going overseas for a few weeks, I don’t want to have to carry my bag up and down and around to get to the plane at IAD–so I check it. The security lines can be long, so priority check-in is a definite advantage. Have even been upgraded on occasion. The best was the return from Buenos Aires, a 14 hour flight in Business instead of Coach. For us, it has made a difference.

    • Fred says:

      True.
      On the flip side of “I compare schedules and prices and don’t worry about alliances” is “Schedules and prices are similar (or schedules don’t matter) so I might as well choose an alliance”. For someone who flies 25K a year, it might not matter as you might not get status anyways, but if you fly a bit more and you often get to choose which airline you fly, I usually go with United, which I also have status with.

    • TMK says:

      Consider using the security facilities on the lower baggage claim area at IAD. Usually faster then the one accessed from the departures lobby. Signs indicate for frequent flyers, but some families with children hold up the screening procedures especially during the holidays and vacation time.

  30. Ken says:

    Congrats on the mini-cranky. Here’s hoping for a smooth flight and on-time arrival.

  31. docjames says:

    Congratulations.

    And from first hand experience – luggage allowance is about to become really important.

  32. Shane says:

    Congratulations on the news Brett. Hopefully you gave Mrs. Cranky a chance to announce online BEFORE this post. Otherwise you’d end up caring more about airline status because you’d permanently be in a lower-tier status at home!

  33. CF says:

    Thanks everyone for the congratulations. I’ll go through and respond to specific questions in line.

  34. Xnuiem says:

    Congrats. Welcome to the club.

  35. Stephen says:

    Congratulations, Brett. I won’t feel so bad about you tracking my international flights during the night, as you won’t be getting much sleep anyway :)

    On the FFP issue, I appreciate that although it is not important to you, you do consider your clients’ situations when advising them. Your advice about taking the AA Challenge has paid off in being able to get exit seats for those RDU-LHR flights – well worth the effort to get the status in my case.

  36. According to a Colloquy study “2011 Forecast of Consumer Loyalty Programs Points Value” which Published the following stats:
    $48B Amount accumulated by Americans yearly in rewards.
    $16B Value of unredeemed loyalty points annually.
    $622 the amount the avg. household earns per year.
    $205 dollar amount that goes unredeemed per household annually.
    Makes a case for a broader range of redemption items to inspire redemption from the average flyer.

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