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As airlines continue to strip away the benefits that come with having status we’re hearing more and more people say that they’re giving up on the idea of airline loyalty. For those who only fly once or twice a year the idea of always booking the cheapest flights or the most convenient flights seems like the logical thing to do but it’s only in more recent times that we’ve started seeing miles & points fans coming around to that point of view.
This gradual change is understandable and entirely logical. When you take a look at what airline status looked like just 5 or 6 years ago and compare it to what that same status looks like now you’ll generally find that earning status has got harder while the benefits have been diluted and mileage earnings have been decimated.
In this kind of landscape it’s only natural to wonder if there’s any point in having airline status and jumping through all the hoops that earning status requires.
As I’ve been planning my trips for 2019 I’ve been taking a long hard look at the options available to me and I’ve been looking to reduce the amount of money I’m spending on my flights.
Right now I hold top-tier status with both American Airlines (expires January 2019) and British Airways (expires January 2020) but, as I already know that I’m unlikely to re-qualify for top-tier status past next year and as I hold lifetime mid-tier status with American Airlines, I’m keen to look into the cheapest travel options available to me rather than the travel options that earn me credits towards airline status.
Looking at flights in this way has highlighted a couple of things that I think are worth mentioning.
You Don’t Really Need Airline Status If You’re Flying in Business Class/First Class
Most of the benefits that come with airline status are open to you if you buy a Business Class or First Class ticket. You have access to international airline lounges, you earn miles at an enhanced rate, you get to be one of the first to board the aircraft and airline staff are less likely to treat you like something they just found on the sole of their shoe.
If you primarily fly in the pointy end of the plane airline status isn’t something that’s likely to make an incredible amount of difference to your travels so you’re probably better off focusing on cost, comfort and convenience rather than how much credit towards airline status any given ticket will give you.
Note: Yes, some airline statues will grant you access to First Class lounges even if you’re not flying in First Class and you’ll probably get better service during irregular operations if you have status with the airline you’re flying but, overall, I still think that airline status shouldn’t be a primary consideration if you’re usually paying to fly upfront.
Having Airlines Status Can Make a Big Difference If You’re Flying In Economy Class
The experience of flying in Economy Class has gradually got worse over the years and as airlines cut back on what they offer onboard and squeeze yet more seats into already cramped cabins it’s easy to wonder if animals get treated better on their way to slaughter.
Avoiding uncomfortable seats in Economy Class has been one of my primary travel aims for well over a decade and it’s thanks to airline status that I’ve (mostly) been able to meet that objective…and it’s this that’s making it hard for me to simply pick the cheapest/most convenient flight options going forward.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
Next June I need to fly back to LA from London and I’ve been looking at options from the point of view of someone who’d like to save some cash. I’m not massively restricted by the dates I can fly and a simple Google Flights search shows that the cheapest 10-day trip involves flying out on June 7th:
The $388/£297 roundtrip fare is on offer through United Airlines, involves a combination of SWISS and United Airlines flights and requires a stopover in either direction.
For a slight increase in fare I can fly direct from London to LA and just have a stopover on the way back:
The prices are great and the early start and stopovers don’t really bother me….but there is an issue here.
I don’t have status with United Airlines (or with any other Star Alliance airline) so I don’t get to select extra legroom seats for free.
The prices quoted above would see me seated in a regular Economy Class seat with just 31″ of legroom and that goes against my stated aim of avoiding uncomfortable seats in Economy Class.
If I try to choose a seat with a little bit more legroom (Economy Plus) United will charge over $190 more in each direction (the price varies on seat location and length of flight)…..
…and this increases to over $225 more in each direction if I try to choose an exit row seat with acres of legroom:
Suddenly the cheap flight isn’t looking cheap any more.
A quick look at the United MileagePlus benefits page shows that I would only need to have Premier Gold status to choose extra legroom seats at the time of booking and that even having the lowest status level of all gives me a chance of an extra legroom seat at check-in:
In my case my oneworld status (both my current top-tier status and my lifetime mid-tier status) offers me free seat selection at the time of booking and I can use that to fly non-stop between London and LA (in both directions) in relative comfort for $627/£482:
While doing the original Google Flights search the oneworld fare looked considerably more expensive than the options available through United but, upon closer inspection, things are clearly not that simple.
For someone in my position, having airline status makes it more convenient and economical to book the higher base fare and having mid-tier United Airlines status would have made it possible for me to book the considerably cheaper base fare.
There are a number of benefits that I haven’t gone into that make airline status a very useful thing to have (like boarding early on domestic flights where overhead bin space can be limited) but the biggest benefit to me is the one that allows me to fly in relative comfort when I’m not flying in a premium cabin.
If you’re happy paying to sit upfront then by all means choose the cheapest and most convenient options open to you but, if you’re a traveler that mostly books Economy Class fares, don’t dismiss the value of airline status – the benefits may not be a good as they once were but some of them can still save you money and make travel a lot more comfortable.