When you think about frequent flyer programs, you need to separate the two functions they serve. One part of the program is where you earn points by flying with the airline (or by having a co-brand credit card, transferring miles from a flexible currency partner, using a shopping or dining portal) which you can redeem for things like free flights (and other items like merchandise, upgrades and lounge memberships). Airlines have made earning points from flying more and more difficult while offering large bonuses for credit card sign-ups.
The other part of a frequent flyer program is the ability to earn status with your travels. The more you fly on an airline (or one of their alliance partners), the higher status you achieve. When you get status, you earn perks like free checked bags, upgrades, lounge access as well as a dedicated service line to speak with when you need assistance. The higher the level of status you have, the more points you’ll earn when you fly, tying the two parts of the program together.
While I feel that everyone should pay attention to the points earning side of frequent flyer programs, it just doesn’t make sense for most people to worry about getting status with an airline.
I’ll see people wondering if they should make a mileage run to achieve status with an airline. A mileage run is a trip taken for the sole purpose of earning credits to reach the next level of status. Often these trips are spent entirely on airplanes and in airports.
I can understand people when they ask why someone would do a trip like this. Is it worth it to pay for a flight to nowhere just to earn status? Moreso, does it even make sense to try to earn status in the first place? Here’s why it doesn’t make sense for most travelers to worry about status and the rarer instances where chasing status makes sense:
The requirements to earn status vary with each airline. While the requirements used to be dependent on how many miles you flew with the airline, programs have now also added requirements of spending a certain amount of money for those flights for each category. Programs used to waive those spending requirements if you charged enough money on their co-brand credit cards but even those workarounds have been severely reduced or even eliminated.
In other words, airlines want to reserve status for those who spend the most money. United took this a step further when they announced that in 2020, to earn status for 2021, the number of miles flown will no longer matter and they’ll use the number of flight segments instead.
Here are the requirements and benefits for United MileagePlus for 2020 and 2021:
To help decipher the jargon
- PQM – Premier Qualifying Miles – Based on the number of miles flown and type of fare purchased
- PQS – Premier Qualifying Segments – Based on the number of flight segments flown and type of fare purchased
- PQF – Premier Qualifying Flights – Based on the number of flight segments flown, four of which need to be flown on United or United Express
- PQP – Premier Qualifying Points – Based on the base fare and carrier-imposed surcharge of flight purchases, along with seating purchases and paid upgrades
Having status does have its advantages, particularly at the higher Platinum and Premier 1K levels. Besides getting early access to upgrades, you also get free same-day changes to tickets and waived fees when canceling award tickets, even at the last minute.
Getting to Platinum for 2021 will take 36 flight segments and 12,000 Premier Qualifying Points. That’s spending $12,000 on United tickets and fees for the year.
Silver status is more accessible to the regular traveler, only taking 12 segments (6 round-trip flights) and 4,000 PQP. However, you don’t get much more for that status than you’d get for having the United MileagePlus credit card. Access to Economy Plus seats at check-in is nice and worth something but if you need to spend an extra $600 to reach status, which makes more sense. Spending on a flight you don’t need to take to get status or taking that $600 and using it to pay for the upgraded seats as you need them.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how often you’ll get upgraded as a Silver member, ask the Platinum members how often their upgrades clear. You’ll be two levels below them on the list.
Disadvantages of chasing status
What do you give up when you’re trying to achieve a level of status with an airline? Flexibility, for starters. If you’re trying to get status with United, you’re not pursuing options from other airlines. You could end up paying more for tickets just so you reach the necessary number of segments. You could also be flying at worse times, suffering through added connections and flying to less convenient airports.
Now, I’m using United as an example since they just changed their program but the same could be said for any of the other airlines.
Since we don’t fly often and have plenty of choices of airlines from Orlando, it’s pretty easy for us to not worry about status and just book the most convenient flight at a reasonable price. It’s an advantage of being disloyal.
I do realize that everyone’s situation is different and for some people, chasing status does makes sense.
Who should pay attention to status?
The only people who should look to achieve status are frequent flyers who are captive to a single airline at their home airport.
For example, if you live near Atlanta you are more than likely going to be dependent on Delta for much of your flying. Same for Houston residents with United and those who live in Charlotte being tied to American. If you’re a frequent flyer from those cities, going for status may make sense. After all, there are a whole bunch of people at your home airport in the same position as you are being tied to a single airline and getting a higher level of status is going to give you a better chance of scoring an upgrade. If not, at least you’ll be able to secure a better seat when you reserve your ticket instead of waiting until check-in. If I had no alternatives and had to fly 20 times a year with an airline, I’d want to try and make sure my trips with them as comfortable as possible. Paying $600 for a flight to reach a status level would make sense because I’ll save almost $1000 alone on fees for seat upgrades.
If you’re a frequent flyer but not hub captive, I’d question if it’s worthwhile to stick with only one airline to chase status. Having the flexibility to choose the best schedule and the best fare without being tied to a single airline is worth a great deal in my book. For me, that’s better than getting an occasional upgrade to first class and a free checked bag.
As an occasional traveler, airline status means nothing to me. As it is, airlines keep making it harder and harder for all but the highest revenue passengers to reach the top levels of a program. That’s the only place where having status really makes a difference and even those passengers have problems scoring upgrades on the most popular routes.
For those who are looking at these programs and wishing they could be a Platinum Diamond Executive member, just realize that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Unless you’re flying all the time, it often makes more sense just to buy the ticket that makes the most sense for you and pay for the occasional upgrade if you want to spoil yourself now and again. It will be cheaper and easier than paying $1,500 for a ticket to Singapore and back just to rack up some extra miles to reach that next level of a program.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary