July 6, 2022
Despite being a stubborn creature of habit, I learn and adapt to new realities. Flying these days means accepting that airlines now exist for investors, not for me. And that I am never going to be flying enough again to reach top-tier elite levels. In recognition of the changes, I am slowly releasing my grip on forty-plus years of travel routines in favor of an eclectic array of disparate opportunities.
For starters, I’ve been educating myself on modified airline practices afoot or already in place. I pay close attention to my friend and mentor, Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the Joesentme business newsletter and The Brancatelli File. Joe has been beating the drum for several years for us to awaken to the harsh new world of airline indifference.
In column after column, Joe has cataloged the manifold failures of commercial aviation to treat customers with dignity and respect. Airlines have consistently trivialized the customer experience despite having been bailed out time and again since 9/11, the latest giveaway being $54 billion in Covid relief meant to preserve airline employee jobs. This summer’s ongoing air service fiascos exploded that fantasy.
Yet the carriers are never held to account because there were no strings attached. Taxpayers poured those billions straight into Wall Street investors’ pockets. Airlines have long since morphed from customer-focused to investor-focused. They don’t care about us because they don’t have to.
Here’s a YouTube 2021 treatise I thought worthwhile called “How Airlines Quietly Became Banks.”
And here is an illuminating comment made to last week’s post on my quest to find airport lounges, with thanks to Deresky Martin:
“Like many of us living our lives in the reflection of our historical allegiances and contributions, you too have missed the message that our pension funds, IRA managers, Investment Advisors, and such have been delivering to all companies: It matters not what you did in the past; but only what you are going to do in the future. Your millions of miles mean nothing to Delta or to its shareholders.
“In fact, it’s a liability for them that they would like to sell if they could find someone to pay them something, anything to remove that implied obligation. It only matters as to whether you are spending large amounts of money with them AND are likely to continue to do so. My guess is that your travel expenditure is less that $100K p.a., and, as such, you do not rank with the community that is going to make a material difference to their bottom line.
“Thus, the obligation of indefinite stay Lounges and their perquisites is another way that airlines can make cuts that are going to improve their bottom lines. Having paid for, used, and lost my Concierge Status at American over the last 5 years, I too feel the loss, but my connections with Wall St make their policies in this regard both logical and sensible. I do not like it any more than you, but the world has changed, and, in many ways, we asked for this.”
I believe Mr. Martin states the truth.
So here are some of my new simplified travel rules:
I played the frequent flyer bonus game for decades, accepting one bank, airline, or Amex offer after another and always hitting the jackpot on miles or points. In the background, however, the carriers and card issuers were playing a vicious multi-variant depreciation game with the ever-diminishing value of points for award tickets. Just like Las Vegas, the player always loses.
These days I carry the Amex Platinum Card and a Capital One Venture Visa. Though the American Express Platinum has become annoyingly expensive, it still packs in a lot of travel value that I use, including club access. See my post last week, for example. Amex also reimburses me for the cost of keeping up my TSA Pre and Global Entry memberships.
The Capital One Venture Visa gives me many ways to use my points and is comparatively generous in point accumulation. I used the card recently to pay $1400 in accommodation fees to South Africa National Parks, which prompted Capital One to offer to use points to pay my bill when it came. It was super-easy. I am also impressed with their travel booking site—also easy and clear.
Those two cards are all I need for travel, though I do keep a MasterCard, a Discover, and an extra Visa account active just in case. All are no fee.
Again, I cite my post last week for examples. I no longer pay for any airline lounge because it’s no longer worth it.
Loyalty & Elite Programs
As Mr. Martin so rightly pointed out above, “lifetime” this or that, multi-million miler status, and so on is mostly vaporware in today’s flying world. Loyalty to any airline is now one-way, benefiting the carrier, not me. I certainly no longer try to attain the levels now required for airline elite status, which are mainly based on spending.
Really, it’s only the very top elite level that’s worth anything—and sometimes not worth much. For several years before AA added new super tiers, I was an American Airlines Executive Platinum, and yet I could never count on domestic first-class upgrades more than half the time. Platinum and Gold never got upgraded. Once in Charlotte, an AA agent told me that he had nearly twenty Executive Platinums awaiting upgrades ahead of me for one empty first-class seat CLT/RDU.
However, there are a few benefits that make even Silver or Gold elite level worth hanging onto. I’m talking about free seat selection, access to better seats, free bag check, and “early” boarding.
I put “early” in quotes because even a Platinum, depending upon the airline, is now number five or six in the boarding queue. So “early” really means “before the hordes who paid only for basic economy.” And that’s still good because I need to get on board and find a place for my carry-on while overhead space is still available.
In summary, I parse and exploit the lifetime elite benefits that work, such as the ones I mentioned: priority boarding, free checked luggage, free seat selection, sometimes matching benefits for accompanying travelers on the same record, and the general goodwill that now and then comes from being recognized as, say, a five million miler on Delta. That doesn’t get me a free drink, though.
I’ve learned to forget about upgrades because I never get one anymore. I am no longer the tippy-top tier elite of any airline. Instead, if I want to sit up front, I just buy a first or business-class seat.
I started employing that strategy years ago with Qatar, Emirates, and others not affiliated with one of the big three frequent flyer schemes. On Southwest, I pay extra to board as early as I can to get a seat I like. On JetBlue, I don’t mind paying extra for better seats, too.
Shopping for the least expensive premium seats in a market (first when flying domestic, business when flying overseas) makes me immune to loyalty. Last year and early in 2022, for example, I bought three round trips in business class on United to South Africa that were less expensive than Delta’s Premium Economy in the same market. United provided despicable service on all three itineraries, but I did ride in Polaris Class and saved many thousands of dollars.
Before Covid, the rental car companies were poorly managed. Since Covid, I can’t find a car domestically for under $100/day, plus, plus. I often look for discounts through the Costco travel site, which can yield surprising savings. Sometimes, I use Uber, or I try local rental car companies that will come pick me up at the airport and drop me off when I leave.
But these days cars are outrageously expensive, and I have no strategy that routinely works. Rental cars are a black hole until automobile shortages abate.
The accommodation industry is also focused on investors with no care for guests. I shop for the cheapest place that looks clean and safe on third-party booking sites, then compare the prices on the hotel chain’s proprietary site. I go with whichever is the least expensive. Like airlines, gone are the days when I was loyal to Hyatt, Hilton, or Marriott.
I don’t miss the old competitive days of frenetic frequent flyer “mileage runs” at the end of each year to guarantee a better elite level for the coming one. Travel planning has always been complex and full of uncertainties. For me, the best new strategy is the peace of mind of buying a better seat instead of fretting about possible upgrades. The new ways are simpler, and my stress levels are far lower.