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