Lower Fares Trump Loyalty and Elite Benefits

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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?

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  1. My airline is usually competitively priced on my routes, within the realm where my status benefits — like priority boarding, priority seat selection, shot at an upgrade, and extra miles earned — usually cover any price difference.

    But I agree with what you decided here. I’m a Delta flyer and this is why I keep Aegean Star Gold for those times when United/US Airways is oh-so-much cheaper.

  2. I book the cheapest for domestic flights. I don’t care about upgrades for domestic flights, not worth it chasing status. I just suck it up… But I do have priority boarding and free checkin from credit cards. International I use miles always for bus or first.

  3. It really depends on the length of the flight, but I’d pay at least 10% more for a better experience, be it elite status or just a better airline. Above that, then I have to start looking at dollars and cents, but I absolute believe it is worth it to pay more for a nicer flight even if I’m just distinguishing between two paid economy flights.

  4. I live in CVG which has the highest fares in the country. I definitely search for the lowest fare, no matter the airline. I do not hold elite status on any airline, but even if I did, I would probably not pay more than $25 on a flight to fly on that airline. And certainly not $1400 if I could get the same flight for $215. That’s just crazy!

  5. I am a 1K on UA and try to use them when I can – fortunately they are usually the cheapest in the market for non-stops on my main route and not that much more than competitors on one stops. However, I also have the choice of US, AC, LH all within Star Alliance plying the route and they will often be cheaper. About $50 sends me in their direction, where I will also benefit from *Gold, which gives me double miles and lounge access, but not Economy Plus in those other airlines. It would have to be $100 less for me to choose a non Star Alliance flight, where i would lose the lounge access and not earn miles that have value to me.

  6. I always look at the alternative carriers and also search out for alternate airports to fly out of especially if its international (Live in boston but don’t mind flying out of JFK).

    Usually i do a calculation to see how much more i am paying per mile for the EQMs for AA rather than another carrier like Jetblue or Southwest. Sometimes its worth it as i see the increase in fare as the CPM value as i would have to fly somewhere else for those miles and pay extra for it anyway to meet status.

    However, for about a thousand dollars, i rather just fly the cheapest option. Even at 450 (stops) vs 215 (nonstop) i would still pick the cheapest ticket and pick a MR to get those 2800 miles for elite status. You are spending about 8CPM for those 2800 miles because you are spending 235 dollars extra on the United flight.

    If you care more about your free time, consider that if you fly AA you would lose out on 2800 EQM. You would save 235 bucks. However, if you consider getting 2800 EQM for an additional $235 (8CPM) it isn’t so bad. You’re killing two birds with one stone, elite status and travel. You’re spending roughly about $100 extra dollars than you would have if you fly AA nonstop and also picked a 5CPM MR for those 2800 miles.

    The whole argument is pointless if your not gunning for elite status.

  7. Curious as to why you wouldn’t check EWR instead of JFK? A taxi from either to the city is comparable, and if you’re going to the west side it’s almost a no brainer to take NJ Transit from EWR to Penn Station instead of taxi/subway from JFK.

  8. UA’s pricing in due to their stupid 3-day min stay rule out of their hubs (if you search on ExpertFlyer, all the cheap fares are roundtrip only)

    i did a quick search for you …. book 2 one-ways (IAH-EWR-PVD then LGA-IAH-AUS), and you can get $250 a.i. on UA

  9. Flying out of the CLE hublet most of the time, I’m pretty much a UA guy now and will even fly them if they are a bit more expensive than a competitor. That being said, if its that significant of a price difference, most definitely would I be willing to be a kettle on another airline.

  10. Amol, sounds like a good strategy!
    Romsdeals, agree that when using miles for premium cabin internationally status is almost irrelevant (but is super helpful for changes and redeposits!)
    Jamie, I would pay 10% as well – may even a bit more than that.
    LMR, crazy indeed!
    NB, thanks for sharing – very interesting to hear what the thresholds are for others.
    Skwok, the value of time does come into the equation. I hate connections as I usually need to get where I am going and get home as soon as possible with the minimum risk of delays/cancellations as possible so I usually go non-stop. However, I do know that if I decided to book the connection there is a decent likelihood I could do a SDC to a non-stop, but it is still over double the price….
    Seth, I do check all the NYC area airports including EWR, LGA, and JFK. I think the UA fare was either into LGA or EWR (can’t remember off-hand), but the cheapest AA was into JFK.

  11. Jackie, ah throw-aways….:) That opens a whole other can of worms, but I am glad you included it in the discussion as it is an option some take from time to time. 😉
    Trajan81, you and me both!

  12. Not living in a hub, and not owning or chasing elite status with anyone, I may equally well use United, American, Delta or AirTran, I’d say it depends on where I’m going. I do not always pick the lowest fare, but there needs to be a concrete reason not to, such as an itinerary that saves me a lot of time.

  13. Since I earn status only once every two or three years, loyalty can’t really drive my decisions. I therefore usually let flight times and scheduling, along with price, drive my decision more than anything. I get so little time off of work that finding a flight that works schedule-wise is key. I’ll pay a bit more to fly a certain airline where I think the product is better (or where I can utilize some elite benefits on the years I have them), but $50 per ticket is about my max. Of course, if free bags are part of the equation, then that is factored into the price differential as well.

  14. It’s just supply and demand. AA probably cant fill a plane out of Houston if they price at the same point as United
    Business travelers don’t book more than a few weeks out, so United has plenty of time to sell those seats.

  15. I’m based at SFO and have had UA elite status for many years; I’ve been Gold since 2010. I have not had a single upgrade since early 2011 and have a credit card that provides silver benefits. I decided this year to buy tickets strictly based on price and with a preference for non-stops—e.g. next week I’m flying VX SFO-IAD and back on UA, in a few months I’m on the WN SFO-MKE nonstop out and back on UA through ORD. In past years I would have booked a UA roundtrip. Another big thing is that AS, DL and VX have better lounges and consistently have in-flight wifi. The net/net is that UA is getting a much smaller share of my travel budget.

  16. I am not elite with anyone, probably fly 50k miles/year across various airlines. When traveling on leisure i’ll generally stick with the cheapest (definitely willing to pay a premium for non-stop flights, but otherwise only would consider something within ~10% of the cheapest fare for a better product). The major exception is Spirit, which regardless of the price difference, I have yet to stoop to that level.

  17. MP, one option is to wait a little while – but probably not later than 21 days in advance. There’s a good chance UA will introduce much lower IAH-NYC fares not requiring a 3 day minimum stay. (For FTU in New Jersey last year, when I first checked, UA SFO-NYC was $600 round trip. A few days later fare had dropped to $280, which I booked.)

    I weigh elite status benefits along with other factors. I’m lifetime gold with UA. Domestically, I usually book UA if my plans are firm, or if I want same day change flexibility. I book Southwest if I want the flexibility to cancel without penalty, or if I want to use my Companion Pass. I sometimes book other airlines to get nonstop service, or if the fares are significantly lower than UA/WN.

  18. i don’t mind flying any decent airline on the cheap, and will pay more when i need to, just as long as it’s not china air or one of those possible quick tickets to the grave.

  19. One other suggestion: Nested tickets. For example, if you need to fly to New York June 17/18, and to Washington July 2/3, you can book:

    Res 1 – IAH-NYC Jun 17; WAS-IAH July 3
    Res 2 – NYC-IAH Jun 18; IAH-Was July 2

    This trick used to be very common (when most reasonable domestic fares required a Saturday night stay), and it is against the rules on most airlines, so airlines may be looking for it. The workaround is to put two different freq flyer #’s in the two reservations (for example UA in res 1, US in res 2), and maybe make the addresses/phones in the two reservations slightly different.

    Also note that many of the lowest domestic fares require a max stay of 30 days.

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