United Mileage Plus does another copy-paste from Delta.

Now that the economy is booming again, air travel demand is up, but the capacity cuts made during the recession have not been restored. Prices are up, fees are up, benefits are being slashed, elite thresholds keep getting moved higher as airlines look for ways to extract more profit from their customers.

Delta led the pack by doing two major things over the past year and a half: 
  • changing how you earn elite status by basing it on dollars spent instead of miles flown, and 
  • rewarding points for each flight based on how much the flight cost instead of the distance 
To some extent this makes sense: if I paid $8000 for a seat, I'd want more points than the person who paid $1400 for an identical seat on a super-discount promo. Likewise, it's irked me that people make Gold who've spent half as many dollars with the airline as I did and I only made Silver.

The part I find amusing about all of this is that United's management has essentially been copy-pasting Delta's mileage plan changes since the merger. Do they seriously have no vision at all? Just last week the copy/paste happened again: Delta raised their tier dollar levels for 2016 and United matched not long after.

Delta's 2016 requirements

Look familiar?

American hasn't yet followed suit with the revenue-based points/tiers, I think, because they've been too busy digesting US Airways. It's been cute watching all of the travel bloggers not-so-subtly shift all of their praise and loyalty onto American now that it's the last of the big US carriers where miles matter more than dollars. (Most travel bloggers use broad knowledge of the airline industry and a flexible schedule to get on premium flights at deeply-discounted rates). I predict that once they get through the merger IT rough patch, American will do the same. Maybe then we'll finally start seeing reports from travel bloggers on carriers like JetBlue and Virgin America.

People like my brother have been thrilled with these changes. His work pays for last-minute flights to Asia and Europe over a dozen times a year and he'd love to see the elite ranks culled so he has a better shot at free upgrades. 

On the other hand, I have tons of friends who, like me, are paying out of their own pockets, but manage to exploit their good credit scores, credit card signup bonuses, and the occasional fare sale to stay in the Silver or Gold range. We're screwed in this new economy. And this, right here, is why I decided 2014 was the year I gave up on status. The writing was on the wall: with a strong economy and more mergers happening, air travel is going to stay expensive and freebies are going to dry up.

The bottom line: plan far ahead or absolute last minute if you want to travel up front on miles. Flexibility and advance planning are your two biggest assets.  

The two times when your odds are best to find an empty award seat are less than 7 days before departure, or one year in advance. For example, I planned my trip to Europe with my parents starting 13 months out, whereas this trip to Prague for Thanksgiving will likely happen only if I can find a reward seat at the last minute. I've also taken advantage of occasional fare sales (like summer discount Business Class to Europe) but those only work with the cheap dates work well with our work schedules. 


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