Lose Your Elite Status, Gain Your Self-Respect — and Launch Your Own Frequent Flier Loyalty Program?

Play your frequent flier loyalty program cards right and you could indulge in a premium experience during a flight which includes taking a shower — but could you be losing your self-respect in the process? Photograph by FlyerTalk member EK_Flyer. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by EK_Flyer.

A FlyerTalk member sent a private message to me alerting me of the following essay — “one of the most thought-provoking threads I’ve read” in the TravelBuzz forum, he wrote — posted by FlyerTalk member barbarony62, which has been posted below in its entirety:

“For the longest time I have been an avid collector of Status Points. The more I had the better I felt. Cut the queues, get a free drink, an upgraded room, a better seat; It was all about status, and being recognized for who I am. I am is an international traveler, terribly predictable and awfully repetitive. George Clooney, in his movie ‘Up In The Air’ was my mascot. I had lots of Status, and zero self respect.

“Do not misunderstand me. It was fun. It is indeed better to sleep in a larger room in a hotel, and get that free drink at check-in. It is more comfortable to use the Gold VIP queue at airport check-in. It is nicer to drive a larger, stronger car. It is definitely easier to fly business class than economy. And while it was all ‘free’, it came at a cost. I had become a beggar, and I had been wasting time on ‘the points race’

“Over the last few years, I have seen frequent flyer clubs increase the number of miles needed to earn benefits. The memberships have become so hard to maintain that I started loosing one status after another. The business atmosphere also changed. Business travel was looking at cheaper alternatives for hotels, and a smaller entertainment budget. Both meant less points on my hotel memberships, and credit card status points.

“As a knee jerk reaction to these new membership criteria, I quickly adopted a new philosophy, and a bad one if I say so myself. I started focusing on a single airline, so at least I could keep a Gold status with one company. I made it a point to sleep in the same hotel chain, so I could collect the points, and I always rented cars from the same company. This turned out to be the worst decision I could make.

“I ended up paying more for flights, as I had lost the competitive nature of the business. I also found myself making connections in airports that did not really make sense to my travel plans, and lost countless hours detouring just to get those extra points. With points value going down, what points I did end up collecting were pretty much useless. And do not for a minute forget that I had to beg at airports. ‘Can I get a free upgrade?’; ‘Can I get a better seat?’ I must have asked this a thousand times, just because as a Status flyer I hoped I deserved it. I think begging took a bigger toll on my well-being than anything else.

“I did not fare much better with hotels. Staying with a single chain meant I did not always choose the best hotel or the best price, or even the most convenient location. Once more I was loosing time and money. And yes…. the begging for an upgrade never stopped. Sure, when I asked at check-in I did not ‘beg’, I more or less demanded my rights, but inside, I knew I was begging.

“I could go on an on about membership clubs and how they got me to plan my trips incorrectly, and had me begging for a freebie, but you get the point.

“And then, about a year ago, I established my own frequent flyer program. It fits my needs to perfection, and since I am the owner of the program, I do not have to beg; I get all I want when I want it. So now I plan my flights to meet my schedules, and I do not take extra connections if not needed. I also find cheaper flights. True, I do not get as many upgrades as before, but I was not getting them anyways. And since I know I do not deserve them, I stopped asking for them. I feel much better not having to beg. With the time and money I save, I allow myself to go to a good restaurant before or after I land; I find its much better than the free peanuts and stale sandwiches in the lounges.

“I also choose hotels that are better suited for my trip. I take a room that fits my needs, and ignore the possibility for upgrade. If I really needed a larger room, I would have booked it. Since I save money on hotels and taxis now (location, location), I can afford a nicer, upgraded room once in a while, without begging. I simply book it. Its much nicer to check into a suite without having to ‘ask’ for it.

“So there. I have established my own frequent flyer program. From day one I have given myself the highest status of ‘Golden President and Ambassador’. Under this program I am allowed to book flights on any airline, sleep in any hotel, take any room I want, and with the time I save, I write blogs. With the money I save, by the way, I buy my ‘free’ tickets to anywhere I want, and I have no blackout periods. Begging is not allowed under the terms of this membership.

“Self Respect.”

I can relate.

There was a time where I was known on FlyerTalk for flying as a passenger on some of the most convoluted routes in order to achieve elite level status and earn as many frequent travel loyalty program miles and points as possible. There was the time I traveled from Atlanta to attend a meeting in Phoenix via Honolulu three times; Washington, D.C. twice; and Los Angeles once. There was also the time where I traveled from Atlanta to San Diego through London each way because it was less expensive than traveling directly between Atlanta and San Diego. I have traveled between Atlanta and Santa Ana through Watertown twice, Pittsburgh four times, and San Francisco once for fewer than $75.00 total while earning approximately 16,000 frequent flier loyalty program miles and earning elite level status during that itinerary, which resulted in a much-appreciated upgrade for me on an overnight transcontinental flight. I would even choose a destination which was several hours away, rent a car and drive the rest of the way, saving money and yet benefiting from a frequent flier loyalty program.

Some people would criticize me, telling me how I was foolishly squandering time and opportunity costs while putting myself through unnecessary stress and trouble as my exposure to the unknown increased significantly: unexpected weather, mechanical issues, overbooked flights, and irregular operations; while others would marvel at my tenacity — sometimes with a tinge of jealousy…

…and then there are those FlyerTalk members who simply called me crazy.

I enjoyed that the most. If a fellow FlyerTalk member — someone who is avid about travel, the earning of elite level status, and the collection of frequent travel miles and points — calls me crazy, well…I must be doing something right.

Let’s just say that I would not have considered those aforementioned convoluted itineraries if I did not simply enjoy traveling on an airplane in general. I have even revealed that I have a special collection of songs to which I enjoy listening specifically for when I travel — some of which were published by The Wall Street Journal in this article by Scott McCartney pertaining to the superstitions of travelers.

The first 25 years of my life were spent in a neighborhood in New York near a major international airport — and if you know my FlyerTalk name, you know exactly where I grew up — and I used to watch the airplanes fly over my home, one after another. There were airlines of which I never heard before in livery schemes I never saw before carrying people to or from some far-off corner of the world — and then there were also airplanes operated by the likes of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa, and a collection of airlines which no longer exist. I would watch them fly over — whether they had just departed or were preparing to land — and dream of all of the places to which I could travel one day.

In fact, the smell of jet fuel still excites me whenever I am at an airport. There is something about the environment of an airport which holds the promise of being a gateway to the discovery of a part of the world to which I have never been before in my life.

This was, of course, before the advent of frequent travel loyalty programs which have attracted more people to travel over the years. Some people can get so caught up in what has been known as the “game” that I asked if you have forgotten the simple wonders of travel.

In my opinion, if you must have a premium experience of indulgence and luxury whenever you travel — whether or not aided by elite level status and the earning and redemption of frequent travel loyalty program miles and points — I might suggest that perhaps you are missing the whole point of what the travel experience is all about.

Have frequent travel loyalty programs tainted the travel experience? Can the bright spot of the spate of perceived devaluations by loyalty programs of airlines and lodging companies be that people will travel again for the sake of traveling and not be caught up in the distractions of earning elite level status and miles and points? When I asked if you have become irrelevant to travel companies, can that possibility actually be a blessing in disguise?

I expressed my point of view on the best and worst use of frequent flier loyalty program miles greater than two years ago; and although my point of view can shift from time to time — and does — there has to be a value proposition involved to be worth it in the first place. One thing is for certain with me: I do not typically like to pay for an upgraded experience with money unless I am getting what I believe is a return on my investment — meaning that the experience had better be memorable and worth the extra cost. In most scenarios, I could use the several hundred — or thousand, if on an international flight — dollars spent on that wider seat, more drinks and a meal or two towards a finer dining experience on the ground…

…or perhaps towards something else which I need or could use altogether.

For me, the challenge of achieving elite level status and earning as many frequent travel loyalty program miles and points is not completely over altogether — even though I asked you last year if it was time to give up on earning miles, points and elite level status. Rather, I must agree with most of what barbarony62 posted — and, apparently, other FlyerTalk members seem to agree as well.

Among them is FlyerTalk member SpartanTraveler, who posted the following thoughtful response:

“I really like your outlook and have done a similar thing myself.

“Up until a few years ago I spent several years traveling internationally for work about two weeks per month. Mostly long haul flights to Asia and then hopping between different cities in the region. My company always paid for first class and top hotels. I became obsessed with my status on various airline and hotel programs.

“After being promoted to a new role with very little travel I started to finally cash-in on all those frequent flyer miles for my own personal travel, same with hotel points. It was nice but given the increased point requirements they also tended to go pretty fast, especially when buying multiple international first class tickets for me and my girlfriend, and some times several family members.

“Now I still travel quite a bit but mostly for leisure (e.g. a monthly cross-country flight at least). But I just look for the cheapest and most convenient ticket. I have access to airline lounges sometimes with my AMEX or if I get an upgrade but for the most part I have found them to suck. After spending so much time in airline lounges in Asia, visiting even the better ones in the US feels like hanging out in a hospital waiting room. I have come to find much more enjoyment in just packing light and roaming around, maybe having a meal and drinks at an airport restaurant or pub if time permits.

“I have also found a large reduction in value given to status. I do everything online so the dedicated lines at the airport don’t matter. I can ease through security with TSA PreCheck, and for example my usual airline nowadays (USAir) will sell you PriorityAccess for only $10 per flight. I board early because of my status but even without the status I could simply play $10 to get the same early boarding and priority security line.

“Upgrades have become so few and far between on the routes I fly that I do not even consider that a real benefit any more. Frankly, the benefits status gives us now are basically things everyone should get anyway. It has come down to having status to be treated somewhat normally or don’t have status and be treated like cattle.”

However, I do not believe I ever lost my self-respect during the heart of my frenzy of earning elite level status and frequent travel loyalty program miles and points, as I maintained my perspective and expectations. I had fun. I enjoyed the ride — even when it was challenging. The adventures which awaited me were not always welcomed — but they were part of the experience nonetheless…

…and I will continue to enjoy traveling with an adjusted balance of participating in frequent travel loyalty programs, earning elite level status, saving money wherever I can but not to the point where it ruins the travel experience for me, and being even more sensible about my priorities and time than before.

In other words: perhaps it is time that frequent fliers take back some — if not all — of the control of our travel experience away from the compulsion of the frequent travel loyalty program “game” and better customize it to our preferences by creating our own frequent travel loyalty program, as suggested by barbarony62.

What are your thoughts?

Comments (Showing 20 of 24)

  • PTHAKUR at 1:00pm April 11, 2014

    quite thoughtful ..

  • SgtRyan at 5:37pm April 11, 2014

    Clearly having a FFP be it airline or hotel is slowing getting to the stage where it is not worth it anymore. For me that is certainly the case. Although I do not travel as much, I will simply look for the cheapest option rather then pay the extra to fly one specific airline. The value is slowly, bit by bit going away….

    My question is:

    Do you think airlines/hotels will lose out over time? This I don’t know.

  • gardenlover at 8:02pm April 11, 2014

    Barbarony, you took the words right out of my mouth! I spent several years as a Platinum on Continental, loved the upgrades etc. All that has been devalued now, and my goal is to spend down my award miles as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I choose airlines by price and convenience; living in Austin means no nonstops on United, not that I really want to fly them anyway. Even the first class meals are a joke.

    Brian, your description of the excitement of living near an airport, and loving the smell of jet fuel was spot on! For me it’s the blue runway lights at night and looking out the window at the fantastic geography below. In spite of the security hassles, flying will always be magical for me, but it’ll be on my terms, not an airline’s.

    • Brian Cohen at 8:29pm April 11, 2014

      I enjoy the window views as well, gardenlover. Unless I am in a hurry, I prefer the window seat over an aisle seat — and I am a little kid all over again.

      Here is something I created on which you might enjoy testing yourself, which could emulate the view from a window seat — and, in fact, the idea was derived from the experience of looking out from a window seat:

      http://first2board.com/whatsyourpoint/2013/09/12/american-cities-from-the-air-how-well-can-your-recognize-them/

      By the way, one of my favorite views of all time was when I was on an airplane traveling from Philadelphia to Boston on a clear night. The five boroughs of New York City looked like a map all lit up brightly. I could clearly see every street. I wish I had a photograph of that…

  • LionTamer at 10:11pm April 11, 2014

    Thank you. That was a very enlightening read. It resonated deeply with me.

    I was enticed into this points/status game eight months ago when I applied for my first credit card. Ever since, I’ve been unduly obsessed with playing this Game…

    I shall try my best to heed the advice of those who have come before me.

  • diburning at 10:43pm April 11, 2014

    I cringed every time I came across the word “loosing.”

  • not2017 at 11:42pm April 11, 2014

    My perspective was vastly different than bloggers or readers here, but evolved to what your story is all about. 30 years ago, I started working for a company that is an airline, but not one which you would ever fly. Since I had been selling travel since I was in high school, I took that title “travel agent” as a very lucrative part-time job. Yes, I traveled the world. Most times for free or greatly reduced cost. And I paid for trips to places on my “bucket-list”. I earned miles and points, not for free travel, but mostly so I could help my clients. I closed my travel business in 2001. The internet made it impossible for me to make money. I could rebate every cent of my commission and still not match the prices clients were finding on the web. Sept. 11, didn’t help either, as my full-time employer greatly reduced personal travel privileges. Believe me, I miss sitting in a jump seat behind the Captain and 1st Officer. The view and experience of flying from the flightdeck is very different than the experience that anyone else on the plane has….When the front wheel leaves the pavement, the miracle of flight is incredibly intoxicating.
    I have had status many times on different airlines and hotels. I didn’t chase it. I earned it from real paid bis miles, body in bed travel. I applied for credit cards for miles. Mostly to top an account so I could get that specific award ticket, that I needed. But to apply for a dozen credit cards for couple 100,000 miles or points, that then had to have a certain amount of manufactured spend,…Nope not me. It isn’t worth that kind of grief. To juggle that spending and debt, and make a mistake that can ruin your credit. Not me.
    No doubt the mergers have totally changed the frequent flyer experience. And there will probably be more change. But one should not forget that a downturn in the economy will turn this airline business on its collective head. And sellers market that the airlines have had for the last 4 years, could easily turn into the buyers market that existed in 2008-2010.

  • diver858 at 11:11am April 12, 2014

    While we are all disappointed by the recent business decisions made by airlines and hotels, I still find value in being loyal, particularly if it earns elite status.

    AA deserves most of the recent bad press it has earned, but they still take good care of me during IRROPS, or when attempting to stand by on a different flight – no fees, priority status. While we now have PreCheck on all carriers, thanks to Global Entry, elite security lines can also be a BIG time saver, particularly at busy airports during peak travel periods.

    Same can be said for Hilton. While Diamond status no longer guarantees upgrades and other bennies, it has allowed me to book a room in otherwise sold out properties several times while traveling on business; sure, I had to pay full price, but it is MUCH better than the alternatives. Same goes for award redemption at desirable properties during peak seasons.

    Finally, credit card churning provides us with more than enough miles / points to meet our leisure travel requirements, and we do so frequently, outside of the US. So while not happy with redemption devaluations, there are still PLENTY of options available to those who are creative, flexible.

    When life deals you lemons, make lemonade…

  • TravellingBeard at 1:22pm April 12, 2014

    I’m starting to drift towards this way of thinking as well. I decided to get Amex Platinum as my main card, as it provides me elevated membership to multiple hotel chains, an annual travel credit (which I just redeemed), and the ability to transfer as necessary to airline loyalty programs as necessary. I’m actually about to drop my Amex gold, and all but 1 of my other credit cards (the last one standing will be tied to a loyalty program). I’m okay with not having to be in lounges all the time. I’m flexible where I want to travel, as that’s my new goal in life to travel to a new location at least once a year (I’m starting to make use of the Kayak Explore feature for example to find deals to locations I’ve never been to). Granted, I’m not a high-powered executive, so my focus is not Elite Status any more.

  • dliesse at 3:12pm April 12, 2014

    I’ve reached this same point, but for a distinctly different reason. At the end of 2008 I was laid off from my job, and my income still hasn’t recovered. I used to travel from Chicago to the UK up to 4 times a year for pleasure, but except for the trip that had already been scheduled and paid for my travel has come to a temporary halt (aside from some short-distance trips on Amtrak).

    During my hiatus, I’ve done some thinking and have come to the conclusion that there is no airline out there that deserves my loyalty (with the possible exceptions of my new hometown airline, Alaska, and Southwest, which I like as an investment but not for the travel experience — these two are excluded from the following comments). They all seem to treat their passengers as dirt and run their businesses as if they’re airborne buses. Barbarony62 hit it on the head when he said you need to have status to be treated as any customer should be treated; in any other industry, companies treating their customers the way the airlines do would have been relegated to the scrap heap long ago.

    I haven’t seen the degradation in hotel service that there has been in the airlines, but I was never overly worried about maintaining status in those programs; I could never qualify for a high enough status to be worth chasing. There were many reasons it wasn’t convenient to concentrate on just one program, though I admittedly did try to concentrate on Hilton to the extent possible because of the double dipping (airline and hotel miles). Still, my tastes run toward the mid-range properties that don’t charge you if you so much as look at the bottle of water in the room!

    I’ve made the decision that when I’m able to start traveling again I’ll be looking out for what’s best for me, meaning whatever I happen to consider is the best value (which is not the same thing as the lowest price — see Ryanair or Spirit for extreme examples).

  • not2017 at 5:04pm April 12, 2014

    dliesse,

    You hit it right on the head. Is what you are doing a “value” proposition for you. Applying for XYZ card, because it gives the miles needed for a certain award ticket. Whether you fly that airline or not, you maybe trying to rescue “orphan” miles, from an airline that you don’t use anymore, because your company doesn’t allow you to fly that airline. One has to make a quantitative value decision as to what they need. If you company has you travel between two cities and one airline does that better than all the others, easy choice!
    Many people have just followed the lead of the bloggers who said apply for a dozen credit cards and you will have all this free travel. And, that still works for now….but what if AA, UA, or DL said you must have status to reserve a 1st class award ticket? Don’t write that off as impossible.

  • GregWTravels at 3:27am April 13, 2014

    I stopped being loyal to specific airlines and hotels after I switched jobs, stopped travelling the consulting Mon-Fri grind and having everything expensed.

    The lack of status isn’t too much of a concern for me now, and I’d much rather find tickets that meet my requirements for cost, time and location when I travel for rare work or business trips.

    Now I am burning through my accumulated points, and finding it is becoming harder and harder to use them cost effectively. Business class tickets are hard to get on key routes unless you book well in advance, and I often can’t plan holidays until a month or so before. It’s not worth booking on economy free flights, because the taxes and charges end up costing as much as a ticket.

  • paulwuk at 5:19am April 13, 2014

    I really hope that airlines limit first/business class seats to their frequent flyers

    I have 2 “top tier” status (VS and BA), which gives plenty of long haul choice from the uk, especially as emirates don’t bother with a premium economy cabin.

  • kokonutz at 9:19am April 13, 2014

    Good post.

    It’s true that the golden days of FFPs are behind us. Frankly the old system never made much business sense in the first place.

    The trick going forward is to figure out what was important about the olde tyme FFPs and figure out how to emulate that and then whether it’s worth it.

    FFPs will still play a role in the lives of us frequent flyers. But the days of it being the end-all and be-all are gone, just like, as not2017 points out, the travel agent business.

  • nsx at 10:28am April 13, 2014

    The purpose of travel is to collect fond memories and fun stories, especially when they are shared with loved ones. Everyone should have one or two experiences in international first class but after that, who cares? Then it becomes all about having a good time at your destination.

    My funniest travel story has nothing to do with FF status. I was in an aisle seat in coach on a Continental DC-10 leaving Newark. When the aircraft rotated a beverage cart broke free in the galley and a can of soda escaped. It rolled down the aisle like it was on rails, spraying a thin stream of soda wildly, all the way to the back of the plane. Absolutely hilarious.

    My second funniest story is the time I listened to a female flight attendant hit on a male passenger for more than five minutes straight. After shooing away another female flight attendant she did eventually get his phone number. Later I saw the lady who picked him up at the curb and I realized the FA had never had a chance!

    These experiences were completely unavailable to anyone sitting in first class.

    You can find the fun in travel everywhere, mostly with other people. People are fun. You might even meet your future spouse while traveling, and that will never happen in a lie-flat seat.

  • tampa2euro at 10:44am April 13, 2014

    Great article!
    My thoughts are a carbon copy of SpartanTraveler:

    “…and I will continue to enjoy traveling with an adjusted balance of participating in frequent travel loyalty programs, earning elite level status, saving money wherever I can but not to the point where it ruins the travel experience for me, and being even more sensible about my priorities and time than before.”

  • PDX Duck at 1:00pm April 13, 2014

    I completely understand and respect people who decide not to play the frequent flyer game. Go for the credit cards that offer the most cash back and use the cash to buy a ticket on the airline of their choice (i.e., the least expensive.) For me, the rewards of participating in hotel and airline programs have been good and I think of it as a hobby more than drudgery. Other people may not be interested in putting in the effort, and I think they are better off not participating, especially in light of recent devaluations in many of the airline and hotel programs.

  • Artpen100 at 7:21am April 14, 2014

    Once I learned how the points game worked, I started keeping one eye on my status on a couple of airlines, but it was only one factor. Taking direct flights at the most convenient times was always more important to me, so I was always spread out among several programs. I found that with the airline credit cards, paid club memberships, Amex Platinum and Chase Sapphire Preferred, and knowing the ins and outs of the various airlines (thank you, FT), you could pretty much get upgrades or award tickets plus lounge access and create your own elite status for most airlines. One of my main behvioral changes has been how much more I charge to a credit card and immediately pay off rather than pay cash, and on what card, to maximize points.

  • JCell at 8:11am April 14, 2014

    I can almost here that old Queen Song playing…

    Bump bump bump

    Another one bites the dust… Bump Bump Bump

    Another one bites the dust… and another one gone, another one gone, another one bites the dust.

    Sorry I smile when I hear the newly found freedom of an automaton. It’s all good broseph, have a great year.

  • JCell at 8:11am April 14, 2014

    obviously it’s hear not here… always love the no “edit” forumangiuovariums. lol

  • […] is a must read. “Lose Your Elite Status, Gain Your Self Respect –and Launch Your Own Frequent Flier Loyalty Pro…” at The Gate. I became a free agent on January 1, 2013. I do not care about domestic flight […]

  • shoelessj at 5:37am April 15, 2014

    I adapted the writer’s thought process some years ago. While I enjoy guaranteed upgrades on hotels, cars, and planes I will not grovel for them. I have reached relative travel peace by focusing on single suppliers who supply value in their loyalty programs. WN has 90% of my travel covered with the most convenient airport (for me MDW)and the best bang for buck (IMHO) airline program. I can find Marriotts everywhere, maintain Plat status and their program also offers reasonable value (recently abandoned Hilton Diamond because of points deval). Finally National Executive aisle service gives me great cars and has offered good customer service.
    Ultimately my goal is not status but good service, value, and convenience with trusted supplier(s). The bonus is the ability to use my points to expand my personal travel options for me and my family.

  • barbarony62 at 11:18pm April 18, 2014

    Thanks for reposting my post…. and sorry for confusing loosing with losing…. I have learned to trust Auto-correct too much, and since English is a second language, I sometimes miss the finer details…

    As for the heated discussion, just having it is a sign that we are not just “Membership Zombies”

    BarbaRony62

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