The Critical Points: It's the Time of Year for Smart People to Turn Dumb
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At the beginning of each November, the same question comes my way repeatedly and in many varieties. No matter how it is worded, the question is basically the same:
"I'm miles short of re-qualifying for airline status. I am considering undertaking in order to re-qualify. Do you have any tips, and what do you think?"
Yes readers, it is that time of the year when rational, intelligent people all of a sudden turn illogical in the pursuit of airline status. Never mind this status is based on a currency completely fabricated and controlled by airlines; never mind that it's designed precisely to induce you into the irrational behavior of spending more money and time on an airline's brand than you ever would; never mind that it's only good for one year (13-14 months). You're going to talk yourself into doing it all over again next year.
This year, I encourage you to take a step back and re-evaluate your potential plans to spend unnecessary time and money on a status you probably don't need.
Who Should Earn Airline Status?
The traveling professional who must use the airport on a (very) regular basis, with plane tickets bought by a company or client, should earn and enjoy airline status. These are the customers driving large amounts of revenue to the airline. They are the customers who can routinely use airline status perks like upgrades, free same-day changes and increased service during irregular operations (IRROPS). They will pay nothing extra out of pocket in order to earn the benefits and utilize these privileges on a regular basis.
With that group out of the way, here are three types of flyers that do not need status:
— If you travel once a month, you don't need airline status. You need to buy the cheapest plane ticket that gets you from A to B and save your money and time for more worthwhile pursuits.
— If you are trying to qualify for anything but the top two tiers of any airline's program, you don't need status. The benefits offered at the lower tiers of airline programs are not worth any non-organic travel expense and time.
— If you are looking towards a single trip in the future and only want status for that trip (don't laugh, I get asked about it all the time), you don't need status. Instead spend the time now to accumulate the points and miles needed for a premium class ticket or consider opening a cobranded credit card with said airline, at which point status likely won't matter.
If you don't travel or spend enough organically to earn airline status, there's a 99% chance you don't need it. By extension, you don't need to do mileage runs, you don't need to spend unnecessary money on cobranded cards and you don't need to pay for more expensive/less convenient plane trips in the last two months of 2018 in order to (re-)qualify.
Here's my basic rule of thumb:
If you don't fly enough to earn status, you won't fly enough to enjoy the benefits of status.
Be a Free Agent
Let's take this one step further. I've always believed that the majority of TPG readers would benefit most by ignoring the status component of airline loyalty programs entirely. "Become a free agent" has been my standard advice to the majority of people who ask me these end-of-year questions. What are the benefits of being a free agent?
- You can buy the cheaper plane ticket, because you don't care which airline is operating the flight.
- You can pick the nonstop over the connection, because you don't care which airline is operating the flight.
- A program just devalued elite status? You don't care.
- You can allow different airlines to court you as a free agent and target you for matches, shortcuts and temporary promotions.
- You have points and miles across many different programs, allowing maximum flexibility for award trips and award availability.
For the first four years of my points and miles life, I had no airline status. I repeatedly read about the wonders of airlines status, saw the luggage tags, chatted with fellow passengers about their amazing status levels. It was enticing, but those years taught me a couple of important lessons.
First, if you've never had status or if you've gone a few years without status, you don't know what you are missing and life is good. Status for the leisure traveler really isn't necessary, especially for US domestic flights. I have lounge access via credit cards, and I pick my aisle or window seat a few weeks in advance. I have points and miles across all programs, giving me the flexibility to redeem miles for various flights across multiple carriers (and allowing me to step off the plane with a wallet still full of money).
Second, if I save my points and miles for international business or first class, status really doesn't mean anything. I get a great seat, a great flight, lounge access, added checked baggage capacity and a whole array of elite status-like perks. However, I don't pay anything other than taxes and fees. If you travel overseas twice a year or less, you really do not need status.
Finally, being a free agent liberates the mind from a lot of stressors that come with elite status. Premium economy seats, upgrade lists, constant computing of status re-qualification, elite qualifying dollar thresholds, spend waivers, convincing yourself it's logical to buy the more expensive ticket; that's just too much for the person who doesn't fly enough to earn status organically. Consider being a free agent and casting that illogical status pursuit aside.
Given everything I said above, you may find it curious that I am a Delta Platinum Medallion. I achieved this only because one of the few exceptions where it can make sense to put a little bit of effort into achieving status: the shortcut. A few airlines offer straight-up matches, but those are rare. However, all legacy carriers have a published status challenge program where you can achieve high-tier status without the normal flying requirements.
In 2016, I was targeted for a shortcut all the way to top-tier American Executive Platinum status. That status expired in January this year, at which point I undertook a Delta challenge. Given my occupation as a points and miles expert, my organic flying this year was enough to complete the challenge. In fact, with no mileage runs and credit card spend on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card, I'll re-qualify as Delta Platinum. Given the level of benefits you'd receive for only 30% of the usual requirements, a shortcut makes sense to undertake if you're a somewhat regular traveler.
The second time it can make sense to put extra effort into status is if you are only a few thousand miles away from the next tier. I don't mean 10,000 elite-qualifying miles short; I mean perhaps a cheap transcontinental flight away from qualifying. However, this situation is even rarer these days because of the revenue-based requirements that have found their way into the legacy programs. If you still have to spend a few thousand dollars, please do not talk yourself into buying a first or business class ticket solely to earn status. Think of what you could do with a few thousand dollars next year and how many elite benefits it would actually take to recoup that money.
I have no doubt that many of you are going to read this column and disagree, and then you'll ultimately justify to yourself the time and expense to (re-)qualify for status over the next two months. I understand that, and trust me: I know the high regard in which you hold your airline status. However, I at least want you to take a step back and look objectively at your decisions. In 2015, I met Sam from Milenomics, who first used the term "Be Your Own Elite" — a catchphrase that perfectly summarized what I had been trying to tell my audience for a couple years. Make sure to check out his thoughts, which he has continued to build upon over the years.
After six years of watching people justify their mileage runs for illogical reasons, I have only concluded one sound truth: I have to hand it to the airlines. Once a year, they can turn smart travelers into dumb ones, a trick which ultimately results in a better bottom line.