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When I started this blog almost three years ago, I had no airline elite status. I had achieved low tier airline status a couple of times in my life, but hadn’t had any airline status (other than Southwest A-List) for a while when the blog started. However, the further I got into “the travel game”, and the more my work patterns changed, the more airline status I racked up. It has gotten to the point where I have the highest status with United you can achieve without being invited. So, needless to say my family has gotten pretty used to traveling with airline status at this point. Free checked bags, early boarding, priority check-in lines, fee waivers, upgrades, extra legroom seats, Pre-Check, priority customer service numbers, etc. You could argue we are spoiled in a sense, though flying the 100,000 paid miles in a year to earn the status was a task in and of itself.
My husband, who is less enthused about travel for the sake of travel, can’t quite wrap his head around why we would “abandon” those perks and fly on another airline where we have no status. The answer is very simple, “free flights”. I love my elite status, but I love “free flights” even more. I have miles and points in many programs, and I intend to use them to fly other airlines even if that means we have middle seats in the back of the coach cabin. We just got back from a trip to the Bahamas where we used British Airways Avios to fly on American Airlines operated flights. To my husband’s “horror” we have absolutely no status or special perks on American. None. Zero. Zip. Couple that with some bad experiences he had in the past with American with very long mechanical delays, and we were going into the trip with him grumbling a bit about our choice of carriers. To be fair, I wasn’t excited about not having access to our normal elite perks either.
Flying with no status is how the overwhelming majority of folks travel, and to cut to the chase, it isn’t that bad. You do have to go into the experience with slightly different expectations, but once you do that it’s not big deal. Here is how our “normal” trip with no status played out.
Since we were flying American out of IAH in Houston, we had to go to a different terminal than we are used to, Terminal A. The check-in kiosk hated us and so we had to wait in line to get a real person to help us check-in. The online check-in system had hated us as well, and even though I tweeted with American to try and get some help, ultimately we couldn’t check-in online for reasons no one could figure out. So, we encountered a small extra wait for a real person to help use check-in than we would in the elite line, but not a huge difference.
At this point we found out our outbound flight to Miami was delayed due to waiting for another flight attendant to be flown in as the original one had fallen ill. Since Houston is not a hub for American it likely took a bit longer to get a replacement flight attendant than if we were flying United out of Houston. So that issue wasn’t related directly to elite status, but it was somewhat related to not flying the main airline out of our airport. This delay meant we had 10-15 minutes to make our connection in Miami, and the two gates were pretty far apart.
At check-in I expressed that there was no chance we would make the connection since the doors to our next flight close at about the time we would be getting off our first flight. The check-in agent insisted we had a shot, so kept our flights the same, but did move us up to the front of coach at no charge to help us get off the plane in Miami faster. Those seats would have normally cost extra money to secure as a non-elite, but we got them from a nice check-in agent at no charge with no elite status.
When you book American flights with British Airways Avios you are given “Priority Access” on your boarding pass, and as a result get to board after elites, but before general boarding. There weren’t more than a handful of elite travelers on this flight, so we got to board and secure our bags in the overhead compartment very early in the boarding process. My bag fits just fine on most United planes, but barely fit in the overhead of the American 737. Honestly, it probably should have been checked, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay to check it on my “free” flight. We got it jammed in the overhead, but it did take a couple extra seconds, so I’m glad we didn’t have a line behind us while we messed with it.
Our bulkhead seats were totally fine, and while we didn’t get the meal or snack we might have gotten if we were flying United and were upgraded to first class thanks to elite status, we probably saved ourselves some calories and potential tummy issues by simply drinking water on the plane. As we were boarding, the gate agent gave us new boarding passes to a later Miami – Nassau flight as she said we had no shot of making our connection, and she was right. Luckily, Miami is a hub for American so there were multiple flights to Nassau out of Miami each day.
On the Ground in Miami:
We had a little bit of time to kill before our Nassau flight in Miami, so even though we don’t have elite status with American, our Amex Platinum Mercedes card is all it takes to get into the AAdmirals Club when flying American (at least until March 22, 2014). I had never been to that specific lounge in Miami, so the three of us went to check it out for free while our Platinum card still gets us in. The lounge itself is very large, and looks pretty nice.
They sell food in the club, so we went ahead and had a “picnic” in the kid’s play area. The food was totally edible, but otherwise not very good. The lounge itself had very limited complimentary offerings, so while the free internet was nice, I’m not going to miss having access to that lounge once the Platinum card no longer gets us in. There is better food in the terminal, and this particular kid’s play area was probably less interesting than just looking out the windows in the gate area. Though it is nice they at least have a children’s area.
Regional Jet to Nassau:
Elite status doesn’t get you much on regional jets on any airline, so we really had nothing to miss out on here by flying without status. The 25 minute flight from Miami to Nassau was quick, on-time, and had great views of the ocean from all windows.
Overall Impression of Flying Without Status:
On this particular trip, flying without status was no big deal. On our trip home we did have to sit in the back of coach without any extra legroom. That was a bit uncomfortable, but not a huge deal for a 2 1/2 hour flight.
We didn’t get Pre-Check on the return flight for the first time in months. That was no fun at all. We were still able to use the priority screening line in Miami since Priority Access was printed on our boarding pass, but that line was the slowest moving line I had ever seen, so took about 30-40 minutes when the sign said it should be 15 minutes from this point. However, elite status alone wouldn’t have done any better for us since that was the elite line that we accessed without being elite thanks to Avios.
I do think that flying without status will leave you in a bit of a worse position in the event of long delays or irregular operations, but otherwise the biggest issues are just padding some extra time for lines at the airport, being more cramped on the plane, and having to deal with more fees in general (though many can be avoided with some planning or co-branded credit cards).
I prefer to fly with elite status as it does make the trip easier and more comfortable for my family, but flying without status isn’t that big of a deal, and it is absolutely worth it when your miles and points can be leveraged to get you to places like this almost for free!
In the end, even my husband decided that his grumbles were for nothing, though he is glad our next trip family trip is in first class on United. If you have status on one airline, do you cringe at giving it up to fly another airline, or does the awesomeness of “almost free” air travel trump all like it does for us?