Airline Elite Status Isn’t Worth It: An Expansion on Bill’s Piece in the New York Times

Greetings, MileValue readers! You may have noticed that I haven’t posted recently, as I’ve been helping out Scott and Tahsir with our increasingly popular Award Booking Service.

I did want to take a few minutes and explain my stance on airline elite status which was featured in today’s New York Times. [Scott: Everyone should click just to see Bill's photo. The pose is hilarious.]

“I’ve definitely noticed an erosion in benefits since I became elite,” said Bill Wilkes, a Delta SkyMiles Gold member, the second-lowest rank in Delta’s four tiers of elites. “Pretty much anyone who gets approved for a SkyMiles credit card can get priority boarding and a free checked bag.”

Mr. Wilkes, who works for a Major League Baseball team, noticed on a recent Delta flight from Baltimore to Sarasota, Fla., that more than half the passengers lined up when priority boarding was announced.

He estimates that he gets a complimentary upgrade — arguably the most important benefit of elite status — on only 15 to 20 percent of his domestic flights, compared with 40 to 50 percent several years ago.

With the newly announced changes to earning elite status with Delta, I’m officially declaring myself an “airline free agent.” Delta is the first of the legacy carriers to adopt a revenue component to earning elite status, but I’m confident they won’t be the last.

For those new to the frequent flyer game, the legacy carriers like American, Delta, US Airways, and United have typically rewarded elite status based on the number of miles each passenger flies in a calendar year. A flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. (about 2,300 miles) gets you much closer to elite status qualification than a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta (about 574 miles).

Many, including myself, exploited this by purchasing extremely inexpensive transcontinental flights to rack up elite qualifying miles (EQM, or MQM in Delta’s book) very quickly. Several years back, Delta even offered double MQM out of several cities, including Pittsburgh. I purchased several cheap fares from Pittsburgh to Long Beach and was a Platinum Medallion in no time.

The benefits were incredible. I was upgraded to first class on nearly every flight. The first time I missed an upgrade as a Platinum elite was because former president Jimmy Carter (and his bodyguards) were occupying most of the first class cabin. If it takes a former President to bump you from the front of the plane, you should probably take it in stride!

Though I enjoyed the benefits immensely, the process of re-qualifying each year became more and more cumbersome. I was spending discretionary income and precious time on mileage runs, but I wasn’t flying enough to justify the time and money commitment.

Now, Delta is introducing a revenue component to elite status qualification. To reach Gold status, you will still need to earn 50,000 MQM in a calendar year while also spending $5,000 on Delta-operated flights. You can waive the revenue spending requirement by charging $25,000 to a Delta co-branded credit card every year, but my spending is dedicated to clearing credit card sign up bonuses.

Besides, SkyMiles can sometimes be immensely frustrating to redeem, excluding a few specific spots like Australia and French Polynesia.

It’s time to rethink the strategy. I’m an airline free agent now, with loyalty to no carrier in particular. Will I miss first class? Maybe, but I can suck it up in coach for domestic flights. What about checked bags? Airlines co-branded credit cards offer this benefit along with priority boarding. I also avoid checking bags at all costs. How about priority security lanes? I’m signing up for Global Entry and TSA Pre Check, so that won’t be an issue.

I’m looking for the least expensive fares, bottom line.

My travel habits have also shifted. I will be traveling more on international itineraries in the future. The new goal is to accumulate miles for longhaul premium cabin redemptions. Most airlines simply don’t permit complimentary elite upgrades on international itineraries. American Airlines generously gives eight complimentary oneway systemwide upgrades to their top tier Executive Platinum members. I just can’t fly enough to justify reaching that goal!

In the end, I don’t think I will miss elite status. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to mirror most of the perks that come with it, and I can certainly handle domestic economy seats. If not, I will pay for an Economy Comfort or E+ seat with a bit more legroom or maybe fly JetBlue.

Who’s with me? Who’s throwing in the towel on airline elite status?

6 Responses to Airline Elite Status Isn’t Worth It: An Expansion on Bill’s Piece in the New York Times

  1. Wouldn’t the time to “throw in the towel” be when the other airlines actually move to revenue-based model (which I agree, is coming)?

    I have almost the opposite take-away. If something lucrative exists (albeit without Delta now) with strong possibility of future devaluation, taking advantage of it *now* becomes relatively *more* appealing.

    I’m going for both US Chairman’s and United 1K this year – planning for a strong position with both OneWorld and *A after the merger – largely on <3.0 CPM mileage runs. If they switch to a revenue-based program, at least I'll have those in the bag for one more year. Take the benefits while they last. Speaking of which, the *most important* benefit for me is not upgrades and all the other nick-nacks, it's the 2x multiplier on redeemable miles. Spent wisely, that's absolutely enormous benefit, and perpetuates itself through leveraging this year after year.

  2. hey bud its been while since i came here to comment. love the emails sending your posts. I completely agree that elite status may not be as fun if the flights are paid out of pocket. For flight accomodations to be paid by the travelers, I think the best approach is still go after the free.miles from cc.sign ups. Especiallyif its money you would already be spending. I would budget on my spend to see how much.minimum spent i can take on, and if need be, prepay it with prepaid cc’s. If that quarter i feel adventurous, and new method of spending is found, I would go a bit further on the minimum spent. But still keeping in mind of the budget.

    I still think you have the best content out there, keep up the good work bud

  3. Totally agree. Both my wife and I are United 1K’s and have now been upgraded twice out of the last 14 domestic flights – significantly less than in the past. Makes sense – the last domestic flight I booked they offered an upgrade to first class that was so ridiculously inexpensive I almost booked it (probably would have if it wasn’t for the potential free upgrade).

    The reality is that if you are spending money to maintain a specific elite status, you are probably better off using those funds to find the best value available. Consequently this is our last year as 1K (very close to 1 million miles so will continue UA until then), and are looking forward to exploring all airline options.

  4. Just a comment regarding JetBlue. You problem know, but with their “Even More” you get to use the first class security line, board first, and can snag an exit row with 38″ of pitch….. all for only between $15 and $50 per flight (based on distance). It’s as close as you’ll get to first class without being in first class….quite a bargain for domestic flying especially for someone based out of New York or Boston, where they go non-stop almost everywhere.

  5. The value varies greatly by the program and by your flying habits. I fly at least twice a week, and inevitably I make last-minute changes to my flights at least 25% of the time. Being an Ascent member on Frontier allows me to book the cheapest fare of the day, then standby or confirm a same-day alternate flight, even for a same-day booking. It also allows me to book a seat on any flight if I pay their Classic Plus fare, even if the flight is already oversold (they’ll bump someone off the plane for me). This is a valuable benefit when you have to get somewhere, especially because Frontier tends to have lower prices on last minute fares than other carriers. The mileage bonus is nice, but not particularly useful for me.

    For Southwest, as an A-List Preferred flier the free wifi is nice, but even better is the double miles. Southwest miles (points) are flexible to use, and I typically use my miles for low-fare short-hops (where on other airlines I’d spend twice as many miles). With the double miles promo right now, I get about half the fare back in redeemable miles on a business select fare.

    I agree the legacy airline elite status benefits have lost much of their value, but it’s nice to be able to make close-in award bookings without the extra fees. Still, not worth it overall.

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