The Wall Street Journal on End of Year Mileage Running and Elite Status Buy Ups

Pizzaman points to Scott McCartney’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on mileage running for (and straight-up buying) elite status.

Do it for the Points wonders if all of this exposure — in the Wall Street Journal! — will wind up killing the golden goose of earning status cheap and leveraging it for huge benefit in the coming year.

But the Journal piece begins with a headline cost of ‘$4000 to $7000’ which I think will scare most folks away. And indeed I wouldn’t spend that much to earn status, either.

Indeed, if you have to start from scratch and fly a ton at that price point just to earn status, you probably aren’t doing enough flying otherwise where that status is going to be meaningfully worth it, and you can likely use that cash and invest it more wisely. If you’re going to spend it on travel you can spend it on the flights you want or on miles to book the awards you want, without the hours in the sky.

Plus the piece itself is a bit of an evergreen, something that’s published in one sort or another in major media every year and has been for at least as long as I’ve been involved in the hobby which is over a decade.

That said, I think status is hugely valuable:

  • If you’re going to fly enough miles to earn status, concentrate the flying on a single airline or within an alliance (or among partners) to earn status.
  • If you’re close to earning status, an incremental trip or maybe even two — especially that you’re leveraging for additional business or pleasure can be worthwhile.
  • It can even make sense to pay incrementally more to stay on your favorite carrier for a given trip.

That’s because the benefits are real. Or at least with full planes and so few perks bundled in with flying, status can be a lifesaver in terms of comfort, cost, and convenience.

  • Upgrades. These flow mostly to top tier members of a program, with 100,000 mile status I’m mostly upgraded domestically and can upgrade internationally. I find that the best job is probably done by US Airways in delivering upgrades at the bottom tiers, though carriers with extra legroom coach seats can offer a meaningful upgrade of sorts to status members.
  • Just confirming seats in advance, and not middles. With so many coach seats blocked for elites or payments, getting an exit row or an aisle has benefits.
  • Boarding early means not having to gate check a bag, giving up your possessions, dealing with hassle at your destination.
  • Free checked bags matter for vacation or for small business travel to conferences, so status can be a cost savings.
  • Assistance during irregular operations. If you have status you aren’t at the bottom of the waitlist to be reaccommodated, it can be the difference between getting where you’re going and being stranded for an overnight.
  • Bonus miles from your flying, which get you closer to those valuable redemptions, these are like a rebate that help cover the incremental cost.

That names just a few benefits and there are others, like not having interminable hold times when calling the airline and that many airline workers are just nicer to customers with status. On those occasions where I’m in domestic coach on American I’m pretty much always thanked for my business and as a matter of policy I’m comped a cocktail and buy on board snack.

Status matters, but I’m not sure it matters enough to earn it from scratch. Trips at the margin are useful, but coming coming out of pocket an extra ‘$4000 to $7000’.

Although if you are going to fly, I think that US Airways’ Buy Up to Preferred program is quite innovative. It does generate a bit of a seedy feeling amongst frequent flyers, since someone with even one status mile in their account can rocket to Chairmans Preferred for $2999 (and if they use their Chairman upgrade certificates on an international flight can recoup that value in a single trip, if they’d otherwise pay for business class). That’ll yield domestic upgrades almost all of the time, and it’s great not to have change fees on award bookings so you can keep tweaking your trip up until departure.

US Airways was probably the first airline not to just realize that end of year mileage runners were crowding the front cabins but to offer folks a way to do something about it without spending their holidays in the air, letting them just pay for status. Six years ago they offered the Everything Counts promo where even miles from sending flowers yielded status miles. That hasn’t been repeated but the buy up program offers a similar path. And no doubt coverage of it in the Journal will increase its popularity — but that’s something the airline would like to see, not something they’ll take away.

The bigger threat to status is the continued rumblings and ruminations over revenue-based programs, the belief that programs should be rewarding the highest total spenders and biggest spenders on a given trip rather than folks where the program itself moves the needle spending decisions. There’s certainly a trend towards this thinking, and we’ll have to see how it unfolds and adjust.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ve flown a lot in the past and had elite state before, but with as little as I fly now it makes no sense for me to try to mileage run my way to elite state. Using strategic credit cards for some benefits pays for itself in my case and if I flew more I’d certainly look at ways to hit elite status. In my past life I’d usually hit status by segments, which also seems to be a method that casual flyers don’t think of.

    Elite status is nice and useful but for the majority of flyers it just doesn’t make much sense to buy your way up to.

  2. This is an old chestnut to be sure and the truth is that mileage running is no longer a particularly cheap or easy pastime relative to what it was 5 or 10 years ago.

    The real story right now, as Gary notes, is the growing trend of airlines selling many of the trappings of elite status as add-ons. Want free checked bags, early boarding, waived change and standby fees? Want to buy first class at the gate or pay a discounted rate for it in advance?

    I think the real story is whether, in the not too distant future, any of the “perks” of elite status will still be exclusive or reserved for elite level travelers, rendering the status itself obsolete?

  3. @marty dee correct — if you have zero miles. but what i posted is correct, if you have one qualifying mile for the year in your account the buy up is $2999. (and for that one mile a mileage run would be worthwhile – hah!)

  4. Last year I did perhaps the world’s shortest run: RT CLD to LAX, $125, 1000 miles earned, 160 total miles flown, 12/30. Left at 6 am, back at 8 am. And I stayed United Silver (I was at 24,500). I fly a little, so the cost-benefit is insanely beneficial. This year I did 30k and about 40 segments. Even though I am only silver, every single flight I took with Economy Plus seats was a flight I could work on (i.e. I got a nice seat. every. single. time.). In fact, I flew second exit row pretty much exclusively (the gold and 1ks who pick those seats always get upgraded; and that way I can use my laptop without the guy in front of me reclining). I got upgraded to first three times, and every single flight I took was minimum 500 miles plus bonus. I haven’t flown much international the past few years, so I’m not missing the club (I try to show up as the flight is boarding; too busy to waste my time in the lounge).

    Anyway, I don’t believe there is a credit card that gets you that: 40 economy plus and a few upgrades; thousands of dollars in benefits, plus more miles (LAX-SFO? 625 versus 338 – we’re talking a 2x difference).

    Of course, if I didn’t fly 25k and 40 segments, well, it’d be worthless. For the occasional flyer it’s worth nothing; use the card. But the benefits for actual travelers are real and add up fast. Try as they might to make even low-level status not worth much, it is the difference between working and not.

  5. Remember that in non-USA programmes status also gives you lounge access when you reach the appropriate tier, which outside North America tend to be fairly decent with a pretty good food and drink (incl alcoholic!) selection 😉

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