A Year of Airline Loyalty – Is it Worth it to Earn Elite Status

There is no question that having elite airline status has value–first class upgrades, free checked bags, priority boarding, the list goes on. For business travelers earning status through airline loyalty is a right of passage. It’s also simple to achieve airline status while traveling on someone else’s dime.

But here’s the question:

Is achieving airline elite status worth it for personal travel?

Taking a look back at my travels from 2015 I flew over 50,000 miles! That’s enough to earn mid-tier elite status on almost any airline. But as someone who travels mostly for leisure I typically pick the flights that best fit my budget, schedule preferences, and point balances. That means that my 50,000 miles were flown on about 6 different airlines–eliminating my chances for becoming an elite.

So as 2016 approached, I resolved to fly on only one airline to the best of my ability to see if loyalty does actually pay off. I tracked each flight I took, along with the flight I would have flown if I wasn’t so loyal. I then tallied the results to see if consolidating my personal travel to a single airline created value.

As I compared flights I also document the itinerary I would have taken based on schedule and price. If the best flight is on my chosen carrier it had a net result of zero. Flights on other carriers could either create or destroy value based on their cost, baggage fees, and duration. This means that value will be assigned to both the cost of travel as well as the time spent traveling.

That last component, time traveling, is a tricky one. Everyone will value that differently. For the purpose of my analysis I will use the presence of a layover as the proxy for time traveling. If the flight I would have picked was non-stop, but the loyalty option required a layover, I valued that at $50.

Other loyalty perks like upgrades to first class or premium economy are also subjective. For this analysis I valued them at $50 and $15 respectively.

Choosing a carrier

Choosing a carrier to be loyal to is the hardest part. We all have our preferences when it comes to airlines, but the in-air experience is only one component. It’s also important to consider which airline has a large presence near you, who services the destinations you travel to most often, and what type of non-flying perks do they provide (i.e. credit card miles).

A good portion of my travel has been on Delta over the past few years. They service all of the destinations I will visit in 2016 and I have family that lives near their major hubs.

More importantly though, Delta is one of the few airlines that has good options for earning elite status without actually flying. Since loyalty often means adding a co-branded credit card into the mix, I’m including the benefits I receive from my Delta Platinum AMEX card. Not the signup bonus, but ongoing perks like free checked bags, companion tickets, and MQMs from spending thresholds. To make things fair, I’ll include the credit card’s annual fee in the analysis along with the benefits it provides.

So here goes. A year of loyal traveling:

Destination / Description Cost of Delta Flight Cost of Best Flight Other Fees Gain or Loss Running Total
Credit Card Fee ($200) ($200) ($200)
Tampa, FL $248 $282 $68 ($132)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($107)
Layover ($50) ($50) ($157)
Denver, CO $425 $440 $15 ($142)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($117)
Layover ($50) ($50) ($167)
Delta Silver Status Earned with Credit Card Spend & Flights
Atlanta, GA $347 $347 $0 ($167)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($142)
Upgrade to Comfort+ $15 $15 ($127)
Charlotte, NC $294 $274 ($20) ($147)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($122)
Layover ($50) ($50) ($172)
Upgrade to Comfort+ (2x) $30 $30 ($142)
Raleigh, NC $205 $167 ($38) ($180)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($155)
Upgrade to First Class (2x) $100 $100 ($55)
Cancun, Mexico $280 $280 $0 ($55)
Checked Bag Fee $25 $25 ($30)
Upgrade to First Class (2x) $100 $100 $70
Total $1,799 $1,790 $45 $70 $70
Bonus: Award Ticket to Tokyo, Japan

 

Was it worth it?

Looking at just the flight cost it turned out that I only spent $9 more than I would have if I simply picked the best option. Although this is based on a sample set of only six flights, it does suggest that loyalty isn’t necessarily more expensive. It does carry a hidden cost of time. Avoiding a layover can add significant value to a flight.

Adding a co-branded credit card to the mix added significant value to my loyalty. Not only did it help me earn status after only a few segments, but it also contributed to the frequent flier miles needed for a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo.

So at the end of the day, was my airline loyalty worth it? To me, yes. But your mileage may vary. I would much prefer to suffer through a few layovers for the chance to ride up front more often and travel halfway across the world in the comfort of business class. That being said, if your airline of choice doesn’t provide status earning potential with their co-branded cards the math becomes a little harder to justify. At the time of writing this the only major US carriers that do so are Delta and American Airlines.

It’s generally accepted that if you fly ten times or more in a year that loyalty to an airline will pay off. I would argue that the threshold is really closer to five. Especially if you can compound your value with a credit card or if you have a destination in mind that you would like to redeem miles to visit.

What’s your experience with airline loyalty? Has it paid off for you?

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