Some travelers are beginning to question whether chasing elite status with airlines is worth the effort.
Airlines, hotels and other travel providers initially made it easier to secure and maintain status in their loyalty programs in the wake of the pandemic. They granted free extensions to people who had high levels of status, with the number of fliers in elite tiers ballooning as a result.
Now, those extensions have largely come to an end. At the same time, many status perks—such as first-class upgrades or cashing in miles to book luxurious vacations—have become harder to secure.
The double whammy has many travelers re-evaluating whether status with an airline is worth the potentially higher cost of booking flights with a single carrier rather than playing the field. The result is that some are choosing to ditch their status altogether and become travel free agents.
The first quarter of this year marked the “downgrade apocalypse,” says Mark Ross-Smith, chief executive of StatusMatch.com, a company that designs and implements loyalty promotions for travel companies.
About 20 million U.S. travel loyalty program members had their status downgraded, he says. That figure includes people who were members of two or more programs, including ones with hotels and other travel providers.
“People are a bit more open to other brands because they’ve been unchained from those golden handcuffs or platinum handcuffs,” Ross-Smith says.
Some airlines are making changes to boost their loyalty programs to be more competitive with other airlines. An American Airlines spokesman said that starting June 9, booking an award ticket on select flights through the carrier’s AAdvantage program will result in a complimentary upgrade at all status levels.
Kyle Stewart, director of Pittsburgh-based travel agency Scott & Thomas, previously had top-tier status with United Airlines, American Airlines and Spirit Airlines. Today, he only maintains that level of status with Spirit.
Earning and maintaining status with Spirit, Stewart says, was easier than with larger carriers. Spirit also gives a bigger return on money spent on perks such as seat selection or checked luggage.
Meanwhile, he found that with the major carriers, taking advantage of perks such as upgrades to better seats had become increasingly difficult, an issue he says he doesn’t face with Spirit.
One big loyalty benefit that industry analysts say has shifted recently at many airlines is the cost of using the miles or points accrued from spending on travel or using a co-branded credit card to book flights. Much in the way that it costs more to pay out of pocket for airfare, it now takes more miles or points to book those dream overseas vacations.
Delta Air Lines and United have ushered in steep hikes for booking award trips to destinations in Europe, Asia and Australia—in some cases doubling the number of miles needed, says Kyle Potter, executive editor of travel industry blog Thrifty Traveler.
These changes are driven by dynamic pricing models that many airlines now use for rewards flights, which change based on travel demand.
“We are trying to strike the right balance between delivering value and savings for our customers, while also reflecting the broader economic factors such as what the revenue ticket pricing is, what inflation impact is and what market demand is,” says Michael Covey, managing director of the MileagePlus loyalty program at United.
A lower ROI
Jeff Bauer, a financial controller who lives outside Minneapolis, used to travel frequently to Asia for work and had Diamond Medallion Status with Delta. He now travels far less, but Bauer says he is sitting on roughly 2.5 million Delta miles that he accrued before the pandemic.
He says those miles don’t go as far as they once did. Bauer says he used to regularly find deals from Delta whereby he could fly as far as Tokyo for just 100,000 miles. A recent search for flights to Norway in August suggested he would need to spend around 600,000 miles per round-trip business-class ticket if he wanted to book the flights with rewards for him and his wife.
“I could burn half my bank account of miles on one trip,” Bauer says. “I get that’s what they’re for—but holy cow, that’s a lot.”
A Delta spokesman said in an email that the airline evaluates its award travel pricing regularly. Delta still offers deals for SkyMiles members: A recent award fare between Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand, cost less than 40,000 miles round trip. A main economy round-trip fare for that route can cost more than $2,000.
Other elements of frequent-flier perks are often harder to access these days, travelers and industry analysts say, because these programs have reached record membership levels. Fuller flights and more people with status mean that getting an upgrade to first or business class can present challenges, particularly on popular routes.
Also, lounges at airports can be packed enough that jet-setters must wait in lengthy lines for a chance to grab free drinks and a spot to relax before a trip.
“Increasingly, the juice is not worth the squeeze anymore,” Potter says. “The average traveler is much better off as a free agent.”
Consider these tips before booking a ticket:
- Always sign up for the rewards program. Even if you don’t plan on climbing an airline’s status ladder, not being a member of the frequent-flier program means leaving money on the table.
- Don’t ignore less-flashy benefits. If a storm causes canceled flights at an airline’s hub, the regular customer-service phone lines can be jammed for hours, while the dedicated line for elites might have only a 10- to 20-minute wait, says Jamie Larounis, a travel industry analyst with loyalty and rewards website UpgradedPoints.com.
- Evaluate credit-card offers carefully. Research your options on airline-branded credit cards. Some won’t help travelers earn status with an airline, warns Danielle Brown, chief marketing officer at Plusgrade, a company that develops products and experiences with loyalty programs and travel companies.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2023, and written by Jacob Passy. Image courtesy of Getty/WSJ.
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