Should You Stay Loyal to One Airline? The Pros and Cons
Travel perks like free upgrades, airport lounge access, priority check-in, waived fees, and VIP treatment are enticing — and enviable. If you’ve had just one frustrating flying experience, it’s easy to see why so many fliers strive for top-tier status with an airline. But these incentives often come at a cost, like picking a flight more expensive or more inconvenient than a better flight with another airline.
So is airline loyalty worth it? The question has been around for decades, but these days the value is more dependent on your particular travel habits than anything else. The amount you fly most often correlates to the loyalty benefits you can earn and, equally important, just how much value you’ll find in those perks.
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But, aside from travel frequency, there are other factors to consider. With today’s turbulent airline industry, it makes more sense than ever to evaluate the costs and benefits of sticking with one airline. And then there’s the fact that the barrier to entry is quite low with any frequent flier program, as there are no sign-up costs involved with starting an airline account. Anyone can take advantage of airline loyalty programs, and you can begin accumulating points even if you don’t fly with one airline exclusively. Even just a couple of international flights can start you at the airline’s minimum status.
Here, we break down the pros and cons of airline loyalty.
Reasons to Be Loyal
You’re a frequent flier. Airline status, earned through loyalty, is most valuable for frequent fliers. So, if you’re a true jetsetter, flying several times each year, the perks can actually save you money while enhancing your travel experience. You’re the most likely traveler to earn top-tier status, and with it, the upgrades, lounge access, waived fees, etc. that make all that travel more enjoyable. And when you fly so much, those perks become even more valuable.
You live near an airline’s hub. If your city is, for example, a Delta hub, the likelihood of you being inconvenienced by needing to select a different airline is much lower. Remaining loyal to the hub in your city is not as costly when you know there will be plenty of flight options with that airline.
You like deals and perks. Airline loyalty programs often have partnerships with other travel companies, like car rentals, hotels, and retail stores. Airline members can get deals across companies to save money across an entire trip — plus, perks.
You only fly a few times a year. It might seem counterintuitive, but even if you’re an infrequent flier, it might still be worth it to stay loyal to an airline. In this case, free upgrades can be harder to come by, but there are other “unspoken” benefits that you could enjoy. Some examples: You could request an empty seat next to you, or you could be more likely than other travelers to get rebooked on another flight if yours gets canceled. These intangible, elevated customer service experiences can quickly change your overall travel experience for the better.
You don’t fly a lot. Less frequent travelers should consider the cost of booking with a preferred carrier every time. You are likely better served by picking the most convenient and/or least expensive flights available rather than only selecting from a certain airline. For the most infrequent travelers, it’s far better value to select flights with the lowest fares and optimal travel times. This will give you much more satisfaction than a hopeful free flight several years down the road.
You don’t spend a lot of money on flights. The incentives to remain loyal for earning miles have dwindled. In 2015, Delta and United announced revenue-based mileage, and American followed suit shortly after. This meant that the airlines no longer awarded miles based on flight distance, but instead awarded points for money spent per flight. This change benefits travelers who spend larger amounts on tickets and fly shorter distances. But for many travelers, the value earned from the program is lower.
But you still want perks. If you don’t fly enough to justify airline loyalty but still crave the perks that come with it, there are workarounds that don’t require picking the same airline every time. Several travel rewards credit cards offer premium status to their customers upon sign-up, allowing less frequent travelers to enjoy some of the perks that travelers who have earned status through airline loyalty receive. Some popular credit card options that provide travel benefits include the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, the Capital One VentureOne Rewards credit card, the Delta Amex credit cards, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve. A word of caution: Always read the fine print regarding interest rates and annual fees. Those charges could negate any savings or benefits you might receive.
Ultimately, whether you choose to pursue airline loyalty or not will depend on what you value most when you travel and the decision of booking with a single airline for all your travel is very personal. Here’s our final assessment:
These People Should Stay Loyal: The strongest case for airline loyalty comes down to travel frequency. If you’re always on the go, pick an airline that works best for you and reap the rewards of loyalty. The advantages of your airline’s status will far outweigh any disadvantages.
These People Shouldn’t: If finding the lowest price or most convenient flight every time you book is most important, loyalty won’t be as valuable to you. Continue filtering your flight search by time and price, and you’ll be happier in the long run with your travel experience.
Somewhere in Between: Then we think it’s a good idea to sign up for free with the airlines that you fly most frequently and start earning points and benefits slowly but surely.