Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Airline Frequent Flier Programs:
Why Bother Any More?

I'm still on the North Carolina Outer Banks with my family this week enjoying our summer vacation, so this will be a short post. What I have to say about the current state of FF programs, though, is necessarily brief even if getting back to my kids on the beach were not a priority.

My title this week is, admittedly, a phony come-on. There are, in fact, many good reasons for maintaining one's elite status in as many airline frequent flier programs as possible. But it's not really because of the free travel any longer.

So-called "award travel" tickets are increasingly hard to come by, and they've never been more expensive. Though this has been especially true for first and business class awards for some years, even getting a "free" (of course, they were never "free") coach ticket for less than double miles is nigh impossible these days.

Much has been written about the spiraling devaluation of award travel, including these sad facts:

  • Double miles are the only award travel available in most markets now, so airlines have effectively doubled the mileage rates they "charge" for award tickets.
  • That's on top of the fact that airlines have continuously raised the mileage required for all awards at the so-called "saver" levels.
  • Even after paying twice the mileage, new fees have been added for cashing in mileage for award tickets at some airlines, and all are expected to follow.
  • Delta announced last December that it has placed capacity controls on some double mileage awards, meaning it's eliminating "last seat availability" for double mileage travel awards; their action makes even double mileage awards harder to get, further eroding the value of FF programs.
  • The recent well-publicized capacity cuts of 10-20%, of course, make award seats even more scarce, especially when one considers that the number of people competing for awards is growing, not shrinking.
So what's an elite traveler to do? The carrot of "free" seats continues to move away from us even as we reach ever higher levels of elitism and millions of banked miles.

(Oh, and banking miles is a subject that requires a lengthy treatise by itself. Suffice it to say that it's bad policy, and that you should use your miles up annually. I believe my friend, Joe Brancatelli, has some very sound advice on this matter that he intends to share at in the near future, so watch for it there.)

I don't fret over the decreasing value of my miles. I use the miles up quickly (as best I can), and I focus instead on what I consider to be the greater benefits that come with attaining Gold, Platinum, or above with Northwest, Continental, American, and Delta. (No offense to anybody who still loves them, but I long ago gave up on US Airways and United.) Those program values are:

  • Access to so-called "premium" seats in the coach cabin when booking -- I can almost always snag an aisle seat near the front of the economy section, which makes flying in coach a lot more tolerable than a center seat or window seat or sitting way in the back.
  • Access to elite TSA security lines (at airports that have them) -- This is a huge benefit which saves wear and tear on my psyche.
  • Boarding ahead of other coach passengers -- After first class is seated, they call the Platinums and Golds to board, and what a great relief it is to stow my carry-on bags in the empty overheads before the masses fill them up!
  • Elite telephone lines -- Being able to phone an elite agent during times of crisis such as weather delays (snow in the winter, thunderstorms in the summer) and ATC delays gives Platinums and Golds a head-start on rebooking.
  • More subtle elite favors -- Platinums, and even Golds, are often forgiven the onerous fees airlines are adding for everything; these include "first bag" charges, award travel fees, change fees, and so on. It never hurts to ask an elite agent to forgive such a fee, and the request is often rewarded if you are one of their best customers, even if the rules say otherwise. (Some fees are specifically excluded from elite customers anyway.)
  • Upgrades -- This is the ultimate benefit, in my opinion. I won't get into the complex upgrade rules of each airline, and I'm not going to proselytize about which is best or worst. Each of the four carriers I normally use (DL, NW, AA, CO) has its own way of rewarding elite customers through upgrades to first class, and staying a Platinum gives me the best chance to sit up front.
That's it in a nutshell. I maintain that those are darn good reasons to keep making Platinum (or at least Gold) on as many carriers as you can, even if the mileage-based travel awards, which were the original FF program inducements, are not worth a plug nickel any more.

And I've probably forgotten a thing or two of value beyond the list I made above. After all, I've had more than one piƱa colada this evening, and they
have a way of fogging my brain here at the beach. So help me out. Maybe you can suggest additional benefits.

Cheers from Topsail Island, North Carolina!


Blogger Steve said...

I entirely agree that elite status still offers several benefits - and that "free" flights is no longer one of them.

However, as our buddy Joe Brancatelli would remind us, the "more subtle elite favors" you mention don't really count as benefits. They merely make elite travel "suck less" than non-elite travel. I don't consider it a benefit that I don't need to pay to check a bag on those few occasions I don't carry it on. It's only a partial (and probably temporary) reprieve from the latest usurious airline charges.

Despite that, I do appreciate the column. Now get back to your vacation!

7/12/2008 7:29 PM  

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