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What’s your Loyalty Worth? Airline Reward Programs
By: Jason Will
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Do you need just a few more flights to reach Silver, Gold, or Platinum status? The part you should be thinking about is whether or not that’ll actually pay off and if your time/money will be well spent. It sure does feel good bypassing lines and going to the counter to have your loyalty recognized, but this article will help reveal if free checked luggage, seat upgrades, and priority boarding are worth the required effort.

The first step to selecting any reward program is to understand which routes that airline flies and determine if you predominantly will be flying domestically or internationally. Partnerships in the airline industry are crucial and traditionally most reward programs roll up into a group that covers both domestic and international routes, which makes your decision slightly easier. An example of this would be United Airlines being a single airline that belongs to the Star Alliance partnership. Once you’ve researched the routes and are comfortable that you will be covered, start to gather information about utilizing credit cards issued through the airline.

Are you currently using a credit card for most daily purchases? In this day and age, credit cards have almost consumed all of the transactions that used to take place with cash. Since people are incentivized by miles to use credit cards, the value of cash purchases has basically come to a halt. With that being said, bonus miles are earned at an even faster pace on flight purchases. All of the airline-specific credit cards come with an annual fee (~$75 USD) and in most cases the first year’s fee is waived. The credit card comes with a couple of immediate perks: free checked luggage (typically for you and travel companions) and priority boarding. Don’t expect to board with first class passengers, but this will get you on the plane before most boarding groups. Unfortunately, seat upgrades are not a part of owning the airline credit card. 

Depending on your route and day/time of your flight, seat upgrades are more or less likely once you’ve qualified for status (check your airline’s website for specifics). If you will be flying heavily traveled routes during business travel times (Monday morning and Thursday afternoon/evening), then don’t expect any upgrades. There are numerous reward programs that have increased the numbers of flights or dollars spent to earn status. Why are they doing this? The reason is because literally everyone has some form of status and people no longer feel exclusive. Let’s break down the cost/benefit of being loyal to a particular airline.

Please use this model to plug in numbers that are applicable to your situation and calculate your personal benefit:

Flights (# annually) * Cost (average) + Checked bag cost (#, $0-$50 USD each) = Total dollars spent

Total dollars spent * 2 = Miles earned when airline card is used, otherwise this will be 0

An individual will still earn miles based on the distance travel, bearing in mind that domestic flights range from 500–2000 miles and the cost of a round-trip reward ticket usually is 25,000–40,000 miles.

Priority boarding truly has no value since even if your luggage doesn’t fit within the cabin, the bag is checked for free at this point. Always try to get your bag to the gate for this reason and avoid the cost during check-in.

In regards to seat upgrades, you need to assign a personal value to additional leg room (basically any seat besides traditional coach) and more personalized services including free snacks and beverages (only in first class).

One last thing to digest before making up your mind about reward programs. Are you solely focused on the lowest price options or reduction in fees? If so, I will be going over sites in future articles that you can access online that aggregate this information across multiple airlines. By doing this, you can instantly see your lowest cost option and choice accordingly based on your preferences.

In my opinion, there isn’t a single rewards programs in the airline industry that returns the value it costs to become one of their elite members. Let’s be honest; unless you are within the highest status offered, your experience will be no different than someone who is flying for the first time.


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About the Author
Jason Will is an avid traveler and entrepreneur based in San Francisco where he serves as the Co-Founder and CEO of Zipkick, which is the first travel site to completely customize the search results on an individual basis. Zipkick is Netflix for travel and their mission is to make travel search more accessible and mobile. Check out www.zipkick.com and connect with Jason via Twitter or LinkedIn.  
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