Choosing An Airline Program For 2015

As you may (or may not) know, I also have a points consulting service, whereby we help people redeem their airline miles. I have several colleagues working with me, and they’re some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I know in this hobby. During my dad’s round the world surprise birthday trip they offered to step in and help with some guest posts. Thanks to the positive feedback, they’re back with more. This post is from my friend Tiffany, whom you’ve heard from before.


The past year or so has been a bit of a roller coaster for the domestic landscape in the United States. We’ve got mergers, spending requirements for elite status, bifurcated award charts, changes to partner earnings rates — the works. And there isn’t really a “sure bet” for a domestic airline program going forward, at least not that I can see.

Generally Ben’s blog focuses on him answering reader questions and providing advice, but I’d love to flip that around today.

So this might be a bit presumptuous, given we’ve really just met, but I need help.

Actually, my very patient husband needs help choosing an airline program for 2015. His travel patterns are wildly different than mine, but are probably very familiar-sounding to many of you.

Hopefully walking through the options and thought process will be helpful for others facing this same dilemma, as I can’t imagine I’m the only one struggling with finding the best frequent flyer program for next year.

The Background

Our life is weird, but effectively I mileage run on American to earn SWUs, which he then uses on international business trips. He doesn’t have time to mileage run other than the occasional extra segment, I get the perks of elite status for the trips I have to take, and then we are able to get more out of the redeemable miles.

This works for us.

But I’m not recommending this approach for others, no way.

He generally has to fly Delta or United domestically. Corporate contracts favor Delta, but it’s really a destination issue, and despite being the largest airline in the world, there are some places American and US Airways just don’t fly, particularly in the upper mid-west.

Olive-Garden
Students be warned: this is what a “job that requires travel” generally looks like in reality

In the past we’ve credited all his miles to Alaska. Sure, that means he’s only received one domestic upgrade ever on a Delta flight, but it’s been a nice “catch all” for his work trips, flights with me on American, etc.

He’s easily maintained MVP 75K status, so we are talking about a quantity of flying here, which is a bit different than if he were a more casual traveler. Let’s assume he’ll achieve top-tier status in whatever program we end up with.

The Priorities

When determining a frequent flyer program, I think it’s super important to decide what matters to you. And there are a few things to consider:

  • The domestic experience (wifi, general operational awesomeness, etc)
  • Elite benefits (upgrades, treatment during IRROPS, and so forth)
  • Redeemable miles (or the “this is a crummy airline, but I love my miles” approach)

For him, and for this year, the domestic experience is going to be the top priority. Rather than last-minute international trips, he’ll be doing bi-weekly transcons, with occasional hops to domestic airports that only have TSA four hours a day.

It’s a glamorous life.

I’m not too concerned about redeemable miles, because we already accrue so many miles through other methods. He’d rather have a guaranteed aisle seat with WiFi than an upgraded window without.

The Options

Given all that, here are my thoughts on the four main contenders, and what I see as the pros and cons.

American/US Airways

Both programs have shortcuts to elite status, and the US Airways challenge is particularly lucrative. Given that American is my primary airline, this could make a lot of sense.

Pros: He already has ~13k miles ticketed on American in the next month, so completing a challenge with either airline would be relatively easy. If we’re flying together he can leverage my sticker upgrades in the meantime, and it would be nice to not be relinquishing all my SWUs every year.

Cons: There are two cities we know he’ll have to visit next year that are not served by American, US Airways, or even Alaska. So he’ll be flying United or Delta on those trips. It’s not a huge number of miles — maybe 2500 for the roundtrip, but is something to consider.

I also personally have more American and US Airways miles than the two of us could hope to redeem in the next two years, so accruing more AAdvantage miles isn’t really a perk, necessarily.

United

Ah, United. They’re technically not a “preferred partner” for his corporate travel department, but as long as fares are reasonably similar he can make an argument here.

Pros: He already has Premier Silver based on his Marriott status (yay?), and United does fly many of the places he needs to go. I also like United miles for award redemptions, given the lack of fuel surcharges and the relative ease of accumulating miles through Ultimate Rewards.

Cons: I’ve only flown United once in the past ten years, and that was a wholly underwhelming experience on an award ticket. I’ve heard horror stories of endless upgrade lists and lousy operations, so that’s a concern as well.

Delta

Delta is currently a strong contender, which is potentially bad news for my credibility around here 😉

Pros: Domestically, this is probably the most pleasant experience to be had, and Delta is operationally solid. They seem to fly everywhere he’s going to need to go, and it’s pretty easy to earn a higher status through strategic credit card spend.

Cons: It’s already embarrassing having a secret love of SkyMiles in this hobby, but I guess I can’t really think of any negatives otherwise? No one in their right mind who cared about the value of their earned butt-in-seat miles would fly Delta, but we have many other sources of redeemable miles, so we won’t be without options here. Delta flyers: what do you hate? Is this a crazy choice?

Alaska

This would be the status quo choice.

Pros: It means an easy “catch-all” for miles, given whether he’s traveling for work or doing “fun” trips with me he can credit to a single program. The Alaska program has also been great to us in terms of elite benefits, and those companion certificates sure go further when you factor in elite upgrades.

Cons: The earnings rates aren’t great for travel on Delta, the upgrades on partners are non-existent for the most part, and the domestic experience just isn’t amazing for an Alaska elite flying Delta or American.

Something else?

I honestly feel like these are all “meh” options, though truly there’s no frequent flyer program that’s perfect for anyone.

Is there another choice I’m missing here? What would you recommend in this situation?

He travels enough that it doesn’t make sense to be loyalty agnostic (particularly when his employer is paying for the bulk of his travel). We’re not terribly concerned about the redeemable miles. But the day-to-day travel experience is pretty darn important for him.

What about you? How are you picking your frequent flyer program for next year?

Comments

  1. United might be the best overall if you want the most upgrades internationally in lie-flat business class as all their intercontinental flights feature lie-flats: as a 1k you get six certificates (some fare restrictions), and if you use them smartly, they’ll almost always clear and can be phenomenal value; there’s also a miles + cash upgrade system which is not cheap but works, so between the two I can upgrade almost all my tickets, and don’t spend that much extra.
    Delta doesn’t really do upgrades with miles, but they give upgrade certificates for diamonds. Those are very good (no fare restrictions), but they only get 4 I think vs 6? Also, many of their planes don’t have lie-flat seats yet. I’d never waste a certificate on a recliner seat.
    Occasionally, Delta does give operational upgrades (overbooked coach or stuff like that). United almost never does this as their upgrade waiting list is packed, so if you want to chance it, you could occasionally score an upgrade on Delta international flights. When I was Delta Gold I was upgraded for free even on partners like Alitalia & KLM once in a while.
    American is the most generous with upgrade certificates (to their Executive Platinums) and they can be used without fare restrictions, but they don’t have all that many international flights to use them on and the waitlisting system is a pain, from what I hear. Most of their planes don’t have lie-flat seats yet, so it’ll be exra hard to score an upgrade for one of the lie-flat flights. But some of my friends swear by AA.
    This is only for international upgrades, which is the no. 1 priority for me. If you care mostly about domestic flying, then there are many other factors to look at and Delta can be a wonderful solution if you travel mostly domestically.

  2. Pick an airline already. There is no perfect answer, so pick the airline based on your best calculations and estimates for what will work best for what matters to you. This isn’t rocket science.

  3. Delta. As a DM I am beginning to dislike it until I look around. As you mention the product is solid but the perks of being an elite are starting to crumble. That said at least we have a consistently bad miles program. And C+ coming soon so when I don’t get upgrades at gate I have a somewhat decent home for the flight with free drinks that I should be getting anyhow via HOOU that seem to have been “enhanced”.

  4. I think the wild card is how much his company spends for his travel. If he’s buying last minute transcons, those are going to bbe pretty pricey and that makes Delta look pretty good since thier hard product is great and he’d earn a boatload of miles.

  5. As pedestrian as it sounds, my “loyal” airline for 2015 will be Southwest – just like it was for 2013 and 2104. I’ll likely wrack up my usual 65-75 flights next year – all domestic running in a general circle of CMH to DEN, then DEN to PHL, the PHL to BWI (via Amtrak), then BWI to CMH (or the reverse order) with some trips straight trip from CMH to BNA, OKC, and BWI. And I have heard PVD may get added into the mix. No “medallions”, “chairmans”, “SWU’s”, etc. for me – just “A-List Preferred” status, and renewal of the Companion Pass perk. The choice of Southwest is largely driven by the above itineraries. Given I have close to 700K in Southwest points and no real need to spend them (the Companion Pass takes care of my wife), most of my credit card spend will be credited to AA (combo of 550K AA and USAir miles), and hotel stays will remain the usual 3 – Hyatt (Diamond), IHG (Platinum), and Hilton (Gold), for my 100-120 hotels nights.

    The irony of all this is that I actually “retired” 7 years ago – but they just won’t let me go.

  6. How expensive are his tickets? If he’s going to end up ahead in the new Delta mileage system (which could happen if he’s flying expensive short hops to small cities), that would be a further advantage for Delta, even if their miles are not as exciting as some other airlines’.

  7. I just “left” Delta and I wasn’t there just for the miles as you’ve pointed out. They’re great domestically and served the regions I needed to get to with frequency. And I second the above, when I lapsed to DL gold I’ve also gotten international upgrades both on paid and award tickets. Tried to branch out to UA several times but they were horrible every single time in my experience. Suck it up and go with Delta.

  8. @ augias — Good thoughts, and thank you! I won’t be switching from AA myself, so between my SWUs and the redeemable miles we’re probably set internationally. Domestic is the big concern this year, I think.

  9. @ Graydon — Hah, on the plus side, as an AS elite on DL he wasn’t getting the HOOU vouchers anyways, so he won’t know the difference!

  10. @ Andy — That’s a really good point. I don’t know that they’ve ever purchased a ticket outside of 14 days in the entire time he’s been working there.

  11. @ Kahunna Travel — Doesn’t sound pedestrian at all, and if you’re able to leverage the Companion Pass then Southwest is a steal!

  12. @Tiffany – it’s not only the itineraries and the Companion Pass that drive me to Southwest, it’s also the lack of change fees. Over those 65-75 flights I will rack up next year probably half will involve some manner of itinerary change after initial ticketing. Just did 1 today for example to blend a “we need you in X on Y” work request with an already ticketed vacay with my wife. Total cost for the 2 of us – $18.50. Even though all of my air $ gets reimbursed, it still grates me to pay those change fees (I’m a “retired” budget/fiscal officer so it’s in my DNA). If status on some other domestic carrier completely waived all change fees (and still served my destination needs), I’d probably switch “loyalty” to that carrier. But that’s not the case.

  13. Delta is potentially interesting. Before moving to Australia I was based in Pittsburgh and was a PM with delta mainly due to their connectivity to Europe through Detroit and Atlanta. What kept me loyal was their IRROPS recovery. United let me down badly twice but I find delta to be super proactive. Also IRROPS often led to business elite upgrades which was a nice bonus and often had me booking tight connections just in case. Out of Pittsburgh I had my upgrades clear a good proportion of the time.

    As far as redeemable miles go, I’ve found delta miles to be a good fill in. I just got back from a trip from Melbourne to London. Avios are my main currency but getting out of Australia on Avios can be tricky and all the options were horrible at relatively last minute. Delta miles gave me a few options – Virgin to Bali or LAX, China Southern to CAN and China Eastern to Shanghai. All of laces where I could pick up onward availability with Avios in Business. I ended up picking China Eastern as I got to spend a day in Shanghai and I was pleasantly surprised by the MU business class experience. 110000 sky miles seemed pretty reasonable for a last minute business class flight of over 8 hours in either direction.

    I’m in a similar situation now. After a while of not travelling I’m about to start a new job with a lot of travel. Since I’m based in Melbourne most will be long haul. I’ve not seen the travel policy yet, however, pending that, my priorities are to maintain minimum lounge access status across all three major alliances (*Gold, Sapphire, Elite Plus) as I believe it helps during IRROPS but not be so scattered as to not have meaningful redeemable miles.

    I’m still working out what to do but this post is too long to try and work it out here.

  14. Sounds like your own analysis is telling you that Delta is the right answer but you’re resisting for reasons that don’t have much to do with your stated objectives. What you’re looking for is what Delta is good at (decent product, reliable operations), and you don’t really need more of what they’re bad at (award tickets). So Delta looks like the obvious answer. And for that matter, there’s not necessarily any shame in splitting between Delta and AS if he’s flying enough to maintain worthwhile status on both.

  15. I am enjoying your posts Tiffany and I hope you’ll keep posting them. The way you and your husband deal with travel and awards programs mirrors my wife and I. Except you have a lot more experience then me. I just finished my first year of significant business travel, about 50k miles, so I learn something new from most posts.

    I like that this blog offers lots of perspectives and doesn’t insist on catering only to the snobbiest of the Elites.

  16. First of all, I loved this post. I like how it was this important and this is not. That helps to get to an answer. No one flies Delta for the Skymiles and the upgrade % is going down. In 2011 69% of the first class seats were awards or upgrades. In 2014 it is 55% available and next year Delta says it should be less than 50%.

    Now if you value getting to your meetings on time or getting home than Delta (or Alaska if an option) are the best. Since that is what I value the most there is not even another major airline that currently comes close. Delta has been absolutely amazing at getting me where I need to go.

    I hope the AA starts closing the gap so I have a choice.

  17. I’m going through the same decision process.

    I won’t hit Diamond with Delta anymore even though my travel is still weekly. Since I rarely ever buy last minute (less than 21 dyas) due to company policy my tickets are generally low cost.

    Alaska I like but probably won’t get many upgrades from the sounds of it on domestic routes. I need to research them more.

    AA I sounds good too because I can rack up miles better with mileage than by spend but not sure about their domestic upgrades.

    I don’t think I’ll pursue United. Same deal as Delta with their revenue based program although their miles are worth much more to me for redeeming on partners on international tickets. Since I can usually xfer miles for a trip from SPG or Ultimate Rewards I think United is out for me.

    IDK Delta seems better for domestic travel but still annoyed by the devaluation of the program. It’s sort of like the best of the worst.

  18. @ KahunnaTravel — That totally makes sense! Alaska does a nice job of waiving fees for their elites, but they have such a small footprint they could never compete in terms of destinations.

  19. @ Ed — Indeed, there’s a lot to consider, and wonderful that you’ve found some good uses of SkyMiles from abroad!

  20. @ WrightHI — Yep, you’re right. We left Delta because they were so terrible (for us) for international travel, but it seems like they might be the best choice domestically in this case.

  21. @ David — Are you able to waive the MQD through credit card spend? That’s what we’d be looking to do…

  22. @Tiffany

    I feel like sky miles may be a better programme outside the US and not flying on Delta than it is inside the US. In my research, I’ve not found a better sky team programme for Australia mainly due to the rather good earnings rates you get with Virgin Australia. As I mentioned above I feel like some of the best deals with sky miles are out of Australia.

    For oneworld I’m looking at Qantas and AirBerlin. You pretty much get qantas points for breathing in Australia although this makes them hard to redeem. I’m trying for a Status match on Air Berlin and they offer the interesting prospect of being able to earn miles on both qantas and Virgin Australia.

    For Star I have no idea and I reckon this is probably the least useful alliance to me but I guess we will have to see where exactly I’ll be travelling to.

  23. To echo Deltasegmentflyer: my company ‘prefers’ United, but the reliability has been so bad over the last several years that 80% of the sales and management teams fly Delta, at least on outbound flights – “Delta on-time; United sometime”.

    They take GREAT care of me as a Diamond Medallion – I’ve been proactively rerouted around weather delays, gotten irop-upgrades, etc., and the free SkyClub membership, while not exciting, is a thoroughly acceptable place to work on long layovers or during delays.

  24. KahunnaTravel – another advantage of Southwest is that the highest walk-up one way fare is under $600, even when the legacies are charging $800-$1000. (One strange aspect of booking Southwest for business travel – it appears their lowest fares are not offered through corporate travel agencies. I recently traveled SJC-DAL with lots of advance notice; I could get fares under $150 buying on Southwest’s Web site, but their lowest fare on our corporate portal was $300. Possibly a side effect of their “we sell only through our own channels” policy.)

    For business travel, one place the legacies have an advantage over Southwest is same day changes. Most of the legacies allow them for a modest fee (or free if you are elite – for example UA Gold and higher can make same day changes at no charge), but Southwest requires you to buy up to full fare.

  25. Delta is the worst for upgrades. I have sat in a middle seat after being “asked” to give up my isle seat in economy. The worst part was having to look at a half full business class. I have Gold status and when I asked about an upgrade they told me not even Diamonds would get an int’l upgrade.

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