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I make no apologies for valuing and stretching for elite status. It certainly isn’t for everyone, and wouldn’t be worth it if I didn’t travel as much as I do, but I have found that the benefits outweigh the costs for me and my family. That said, in this case, my “loyalty” can be bought for a price. Or rather, it can be lost with a high enough price. Here’s what I mean…
On 99% of my trips I fly United or one of their Star Alliance partners like US Airways. I live at a United hub, so they have the most non-stop flight options, and for the most part I actually do have a good experience on their flights. I have a personal preference for the pre-merger Continental planes and crews, but I have grown to appreciate much of what United has brought to the table as well (like listening to Channel 9!). As a result, I always give preference to United when I am shopping for flights due to having mostly good experiences with them, wanting to use and earn elite benefits (like priority security, free same day changes, free checked bags, and premium seats), and because they generally have the best flight options for where I am heading.
I have a potential short trip to New York coming up in June. While the trip is not finalized, I started looking at airfare so that I could have an idea of what the trip might cost if it does materialize. As I usually do, I headed to ITA Matrix to get see how fares looked for various days that month. I was happy to see that fares were quite reasonable in the range of $200 – $250 most of the time. Great!
Then I started clicking on some of the dates when the trip was most likely to happen, and things got more interesting. For one date I saw American Airlines with a non-stop flight from Houston to JFK for $215 round trip. It didn’t shock me that they were under-cutting United by a little since it is a pretty new route and they are competing in a United hub, but it turns out they weren’t under-cutting by a little…they were blowing them out of the water!
For the privilege of sticking to “my” airline, utilizing my elite status benefits, and earning more miles toward re-qualifying for elite status, I would need to shell out over $1,400 for a non-stop flight to New York. Only 6.5 times what American was charging! To be fair, if I was willing to take a connection and increase my travel time as a result, I could book with United for just $450 (over double with AA was charging).
I understand that business is business and they are going to charge what they think the customer will be willing to pay, and I actually would pay a little extra to stick with United because that makes sense for my overall travel plan. I just wonder which customers are really paying $1400+ instead of $215 to stay loyal to a particular airline? In this case there is no question that the lower fares trump my loyalty and elite status benefits. If I end up booking the trip on a day where American is substantial cheaper, you can bet I will happily be sitting on their shiny silver planes with a smile on my face.
This is a good reminder (that hopefully none of us need) to not perform searches on just one airline’s website. Do searches on a site like ITA or Hipmunk that shows fares for many different airlines.
What do you do when booking airfare? Always book with whoever is the cheapest, or do you give preference to particular airlines? If so, how much of a price difference is enough for you to ditch your preferences and go with the lower fare?