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Should you be loyal to one airline?

Frequent flyers like to complain: My miles are worthless because I can’t find any available award seats. Upgrades are hard to come by. First-class isn’t as nice as it used to be. What happened to customer service?

But if airline loyalty programs have lost as much value as everyone says they have, why are millions of travelers still pledging their business to specific carriers in the hopes of receiving something back? Perhaps they should focus on the lowest fares and best flight times, rather than always booking with the same airline.

The question of loyalty is a tough one, especially with today’s rocky airline industry. Infrequent travelers clearly should not bother to attach themselves to a particular airline, while “road warriors” will almost certainly reap some benefits by staying loyal. But for the travelers in the middle, those who fly several times a year, it’s not obvious whether loyalty will help or hinder. That’s why it’s time to take a hard look at the real benefits and drawbacks of being a devoted frequent flyer.

Benefits of loyalty

The biggest benefits to loyalty are the perks associated with elite status. Special check-in and security lines, complimentary upgrades, and free or discounted airport lounge access make a frequent traveler’s flight experience much more comfortable and productive.

But even elite status isn’t as valuable as it used to be now that upgrades are less frequent. “First-class seats are harder to come by,” explains columnist Tim Winship, coauthor of Mileage Pro: The Insider’s Guide to Frequent Flyer Programs, “because airlines have instituted simplified pricing (creating a smaller price spread between economy and first), cut back on domestic capacity (most upgrades are on domestic routes), and downsized from larger planes to smaller aircraft without first-class cabins.”

Still, many loyal travelers do get their complimentary upgrades. And more than the stated benefits of elite status, it’s the intangible perks that make loyalty worthwhile. “There are a lot of tacit awards that are not always spoken of or are official,” says Joel Widzer, author of The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel. On a recent flight, he requested that no one sit next to him if possible, and although business class was otherwise full, the seat beside him remained free and he was able to stretch out. “I could get that because I was an elite member.” And he spoke with a fellow traveler in the airport lounge who unexpectedly got upgraded to business class because coach was oversold; the airline moved him first because he had silver elite status. Other intangible perks may include being accommodated on another flight when yours is canceled, while less frequent travelers are forced to wait.

Adds Winship, “If you travel a lot, the soft benefits are more meaningful because there are so many opportunities to be inconvenienced and for the airline to make it up to you.”

Of course, the airlines claim that the other benefit of loyalty is free flights purchased with frequent flyer miles. But with award seats harder to come by and the prices of flights so low, this perk has been seriously devalued. “The programs have absolutely lost value,” says Winship. “And travelers need to be realistic and recalibrate their expectations.” That means expecting to pay 50,000 (not 25,000) for a free domestic round-trip, despite the airlines encouraging travelers to believe that you can easily find awards at the cheapest prices. Or, to get the most value from your miles, you should use them for upgrades instead of free flights.

If you’re in it for free flights but aren’t a road warrior, Widzer recommends supplementing your flying with an airline-affiliated credit card, so you can combine your earnings. But he cautions that “credit card programs affiliated with airline programs are often not a good deal because of high interest rates and annual fees.”

Drawbacks of loyalty

The major drawback of loyalty is inconvenience. In order to fly on your preferred carrier, you may have to pay a slightly higher fare or book a connecting flight rather than a direct one. Whether these inconveniences outweigh the future perks of elite status depends on how often you fly.

Another drawback is being too loyal. Widzer has more than two million miles on Delta and is upgraded all the time. If he were to fly on another airline, he would not receive the superior treatment to which he has become accustomed. So he’s locked into flying Delta because he’s so loyal, and it would be very hard for him to bring his business to another airline. However, because airlines will often give complimentary elite status to their competitors’ top flyers, a complete change in loyalty might be easier to accomplish than a few flights on another airline.

Who should be loyal?

“The benefits of loyalty are in proportion to the amount you travel,” says Winship. “Frequency dictates both whether you can get elite status and how much value elite status will have to you.” Both he and Widzer agree that if you fly once or twice a year, it is not worth it to be loyal. For the most infrequent travelers, the lowest fares and best travel times will bring far better value than a longshot at a free flight in a few years.

If you travel enough to have a shot at elite status, the unanimous decision is that it’s still worth it to be loyal. Even if you fly only 15,000 miles a year, you still have a chance to earn miles toward upgrades, which will make your travel experiences much more pleasant. And if you fly a lot but haven’t considered aiming for elite status, it’s time to rethink that decision. “Anything you can do to get elite status is worth it,” asserts Widzer. That could mean taking the connecting flight to keep with your preferred airline or even finding a cheap fare and flying round-trip without ever leaving the airport terminals (what insiders call “mileage runs”) in order to get the last thousand miles you need to become elite.

And if you have no hope of elite status but are in it just for the miles? Winship votes in favor of loyalty. “It used to be an unqualified yes—do it just for the free flights,” he says. “Now it’s a qualified yes and soon it will be a qualified no. Some people start trying to book an award seat 330 days in advance and can’t do it. But there are a sprinkling of awards out there to be had.” If you choose to be loyal solely for the free trips, you need to know your goal is a lot harder to achieve than it ever was, regardless of how many miles you’ve racked up in your account.

As Widzer says, “Loyalty is valuable in time savings, comfort, and monetary terms. You’ll get far more than what you pay for if you can build a consistent level of loyalty.” If you’re willing to put some effort in giving your business to an airline, they’ll give something back to you. For now.

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