An Elite-Status Declaration of Independence

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Five rules to guide your thinking about a relationship that is great for the airlines, but exploits you.

“You gotta stop watering dead plants.”

When I was seeking inspiration for this installment of High & Inside, a subject I’ve written about many times over the last 20+ years, I confess that I went to the Internet to find quotes about bad relationships.

Boy, I wish I had come up with this one.

Because in six words, it tells you why you’re in a bad relationship if you’re still an airline loyalist. You’re watering the airline with your loyalty, your dollars, your belief (you, Delta guys, don’t you think the carrier is trying to play on that with Medallion status, as if you’d won a medal?).

And the airline?

It’s cheating on you. In effect, the airlines have removed the First Class velvet rope.

While airlines sweet-talk you about being a valued customer, it’s actually selling the benefits of being an elite—not out from under you, but before your very eyes.

So open them.

Once airlines tried to hide their extra-loyalty affairs. Now, they’re out in the open. For instance, by pushing non-elites into domestic First Class seats through cheap upgrades.

But that’s your seat, your free upgrade. That’s why you spent so much to become an elite. You have first dibs—or you had. Your loyalty was a down payment on that seat, and it was supposed to get you some respect in return. Money talks—you have to spend to become an elite, more and more now—but the return was that loyalty walked.

Walked up to the counter, got separate check-in, walked through security faster, boarded first, got a First Class seat, and walked off the plane in better shape because loyalty had been catered to you on domestic flights.

You got what you paid for. But now you don’t. All you’re getting, if you don’t open your eyes, is what you deserve. (And it’s hard for me to put it so bluntly.) A relationship reneged.

So, now I’m your divorce lawyer. I’m telling you to make a clean break. Forget about all of the effort you put into the relationship. Don’t fall for the sunk-cost syndrome: All this money, time, and effort and you’re telling me to walk away?

Yes I am.

I am offering you freedom. A way to turn your credit cards—if they’re the right ones—into a kind of Bitcoin, a currency that will allow you to travel on any carrier you want, a way to play the field; for the cheapest price or the most convenient routing—sorry to say but the two don’t often coincide. But you have a choice. You’re free—and way ahead of those chasing elite status.

Let’s face it: The major reason people still go after elite status is the allure of getting bumped up to a premium cabin, but how often do low- and mid-tier elites get an upgrade these days, given the sharp drop in First Class domestic fares and other low-cost upgrade opportunities? Now that those fares are available to everyone willing to pay a bit more, elite is just an ego boost of dangled promises.

My Five Rules For 2017

Rule 1: Live with your elite program if you must, but don’t overlook Multi-Currency Credit Card (MACs) as your new spouse. These cards allow you to transfer points to numerous mileage programs. (More on which card is right for the loyalty-free traveler.)

Rule 2: No more free lunch. Free unlimited upgrades for elites are nearly extinct. The airlines are making the line ever longer by selling upgrades. Delta and United no longer offer upgrades on their transcons or to Hawaii, routes on which it still made sense to pursue an elite upgrade. Next step in the near future: Having to bid on a First Class seat. If I’m right, everyone, even elites, will be getting an e-mail sometime soon asking for an upgrade bid. You’re part of the crowd instead of being at the head of the line.

Rule 3: Think of Premium Economy as your upgrade. The airlines are getting you accustomed to seeing a little more leg-room as Business Class. Delta now has a separate booking class (W) for these seats, and American has introduced a new Premium Economy product on international flights. Want more than Premium Economy, however, and elite status will deliver increasingly less, and distract you from much better opportunities.

Rule 4: Upgrades will be downgraded, even though loyalists still have to maintain status.

Rule 5: Make this new world work for you. This often means just paying the fare difference between coach and First, at time of ticketing, given that the difference on domestic flights is at an all-time low. On many routes paying cash can also be a much better value than mileage upgrades. Short of premium transcon flights, save your miles for international travel, where they still count.

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