Friday, November 14, 2014

On not chasing elite status

For people like me who fly entirely for vacations on their own dime, I'm convinced that chasing airline elite status is a lot like going to Vegas: "the house always wins". Yes, you get a couple of thrilling payouts along the way but ultimately you lose because you'll spend heaps more money to make sure you stay in the high rollers club.

This last trip we took (JFK > SFO > JFK > YUL > JFK > SJU > JFK) was one of those times when "the house" got to rub my nose in my decision :) My husband has to fly ≈8 transcons a year for work (work pays), so he's usually United Platinum and I'm still a lowly Silver (though with their new Delta-style rules, he'll drop to Gold and I'll drop to nothing next year). We both bought economy tickets on United's PS service and then immediately submitted a request to upgrade our flights with miles to their Fancy Domestic First class (called BusinessFirst) for 20,000 miles per person, per segment.

On the way to SFO, neither of our upgrades cleared. *sad trombone* But given all of the top-tier 1k and Global Services members on that run, it's not surprising. Luckily, because we have status, we were both able to choose EconomyPlus seats for free *hooray! the status "slot machine" paid out!* so we had ample legroom and were able to sit together. Once I lose status, I'm going to have to pay for those extra 4 inches. To make matters worse, on the way back, his points upgrade cleared and mine didn't. *How you like your silver status now?!*
A quick note on angst here: elite status is sold to you as "making travel easier and less stressful" but it's often entirely the opposite. People who are waiting for mileage seat upgrades or the ever-elusive "complimentary upgrade" end up spending untold extra hours stressing out about whether or not their upgrade has cleared. Flyertalk forums have thousands of posts where people speculate about the algorithms that determine the order of the waitlist. Is any of this making your trip less stressful? I didn't think so. (Yes, it's not lost on me that I'm posting this on a blog about points travel!)
But whenever I get that weird non-buyers-remorse kind of feeling about things, I reflexively remind myself to look at the math of the situation. As I've discussed before, United routinely prices their flights vastly higher than identical/superior flights, so loyalty to United on just one flight (our annual JFK > PVR run) would cost me $500 more than flying Delta. Or even when United's prices are the same, I'd prefer to be on nearly any other airline because they have friendlier staff and fleet-wide Wi-Fi.

The price of loyalty...

Complicating all this math is the fact that my hubby has United Gold, and I wouldn't have flown United if he hadn't been flying on work's dime. JetBlue's Mint service to SFO launched 4 days after my trip, otherwise I would have happily waved at him from through the window of my $599 First Class suite :) Most importantly, I never would have known how awesome Mint is because even people who make their living reviewing airline service can't bring themselves to "waste" a transcon's worth of elite qualifying miles on one of the big 3 alliances to try JetBlue or Virgin's products. And if they don't have the "willpower" to break the spell of elite qualification, I know I wouldn't, either.

I just have to remember to "do the math" whenever I think about what elite status would cost me versus what it gives me. I still say the general rule is that you should only go for status when someone else is paying, or when you're a "hub captive" and really only have one choice in airlines from your local airport.

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