Strategies for Travel Without Airline Elite Status

Nov 3, 2014

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I get alot of value from both airline and hotel elite status, but I recognize that for many travelers, the benefits of elite status don’t justify the extra cost and effort required to earn it. Today TPG Contributor Jason Steele discusses how you can enjoy elite benefits when you fly, even without elite status.

Despite how often I fly, I don’t hold elite status with any airline. Surprisingly, however, I don’t miss out on many benefits, as I’ve found other ways to piece together nearly all of the elements of airline elite status. In this post I’ll explain why I don’t have elite status, and share my strategies for getting those same perks without having to qualify in any loyalty program.

My no-status manifesto:

I’m proud to not hold elite status. The way I see it, airlines want me to ignore the competition and spend more money with them each year to qualify as an elite. Lately, they’ve been making qualification more difficult by adding minimum revenue requirements, all while taking away benefits and making upgrades more scarce.

Enough is enough! I often see travelers wasting money and blindly chasing status by paying more for tickets on carriers they prefer, or by taking mileage runs. Instead, I decided to focus on award travel, and when I must purchase a revenue ticket, I base my purchase solely on the price and value, not the potential to earn elite status.

If you’re a hub captive, or if your travel is reimbursed by your employer or clients, then I can understand why chasing elite status makes sense for you. But you can obtain most of the same benefits through other means; read on to find out how.

Airline Credit Cards
Airline co-branded Credit Cards offer many of the same benefits as elite status.

Have the right credit cards:

With a strong portfolio of co-branded airline credit cards, you can now realize many of the benefits of elite status, including:

1. Waived checked baggage fees. One of the biggest benefits of holding elite status is receiving a checked baggage fee waiver. Fortunately, this is also one of the easiest benefits to replicate without status. All four (soon to be three) major legacy carriers offer this benefit to nearly all of their credit card holders (there is a basic Delta SkyMiles card that doesn’t have this feature; see Entry Level Airline Credit Cards and Why They’re Generally Not Worth It).

2. Other fee waivers. In addition, you can use reward miles to pay for any airline fees with cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Cards or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. The US Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa also offers a $25 airline allowance with award redemptions that can be used for checked baggage fees. The United Club card from Chase allows travelers to waive close in award booking fees.

3. Priority check-in.  As with checked bags, most airline credit cards now offer priority check-in, so who needs status when you have the right card?

4. Priority security. The Citi AAdvantage Executive and United Club cards both offer access to the priority line for standard security screening.

5. Lounge access. Mid-level and top tier elites gain access to airline business lounges on international flights (Delta Diamonds get domestic access as well), but holders of premium airline credit cards also receive lounge access. I received a Citi American AAdvantage Executive card with the 100,000 mile offer, and I use it all the time to access Admiral’s Club lounges, even when I’m not flying on American Airlines.

In addition, The Platinum Card from American Express offers access to Delta SkyClubs, Priority Pass lounges, and their growing collection of Centurion lounges. The Citi Prestige card and the two new Diners Club cards offer access to private lounge networks. Finally, the Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold each offer two free annual passes to lounges in the Priority Pass network.

You will no longer be able to SDC from a non-stop to a connecting flight.
Business and First Class passengers get many elite benefits regardless of whether they have earned status.

Travel on awards in business and first class:

Whether you book an award trip in premium classes, or later purchase an upgrade (with dollars, miles, or a combination of the two), premium passengers receive many of the benefits of elite status, such as:

1. A larger allowance for free checked bags. Award travel enthusiasts recognize that awards in first or international business class are practically a bargain compared to economy class awards, and the increased baggage allowance can be a key benefit.  If you need to check a substantial amount of luggage, paying for an upgrade can cost less than the baggage fees! This is especially true if you need to check three bags, or if your bags weigh between 50 and 70 pounds, since those traveling in premium classes are often allowed three checked bags at up to 70 pounds each.

2. Access to priority check-in, security, and boarding. Elite status is pretty meaningless between check-in and departure if you travel in premium classes, even on an award flight.

3. Entry to business lounges on international flights. An award ticket in business or international first class gives you access to the same lounges as those who have mid- or high-tier elite status.

Another option is to transfer your points to 70,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards.
Some airlines (like Southwest) make elite benefits unnecessary by eliminating fees.

Pick the right airline:

Remember, what qualifies as an elite perk on some airlines is complimentary when traveling on others, such as:

1. Free checked bags. Book revenue and award flights with airlines that don’t charge for checked bags, such as Southwest (2 free bags per person), and JetBlue (1 free bag per person). When flying internationally, most airlines will offer passengers one free checked bag, but some do better. I haven’t traveled internationally on a revenue ticket in a long time, but I would certainly scrutinize their baggage policies before buying a ticket, especially between airlines offering similarly priced tickets.

2. No change fees. One of the reasons I book awards on Southwest is that they have no change or cancellation fees. Some airlines have more reasonable change fees than others, and I try to use other techniques to avoid paying them, like booking awards on American.

You can earn reciprocal status from hotel/airline partners like Marriott/United or SPG/Delta.

Use good travel skills and clever travel hacks:

If you have an advanced understanding of how air travel works, you can replicate many of the benefits of elite status:

1. Use travel hacks to get free checked bags. Two of my favorite travel hacks for avoiding luggage fees are gate checking bags, and checking a child’s car seat (and a little more) in a duffel bag. These techniques won’t work 100% of the time, but I’ve never had a problem.

2. Use the Sky Cap. I often see massive lines for a check in agent, sometimes even at the priority desks. Yet outside, the Sky Caps are often twiddling their thumbs waiting to help you. Sure, you should tip them a few dollars, but that’s far less expensive than earning status.

3. Just check-in online. Forget airport check-in altogether; in most cases you can check in online, and then use a much shorter line for baggage drops only (or the Sky Cap). Even when flying internationally, many airlines will print you a pass through security rather than a boarding pass, which you receive at the gate after you show your passport. In addition, checking in online exactly 24 hours in advance often allows me to select a really good seat, just like those with elite status.

4. Pay for upgrades. On longer flights in economy, I occasionally pay with dollars, miles, or both to be upgraded to premium economy or domestic first class. The cost of doing so is often far less than what people pay to maintain their elite status, and these fees are eligible for reimbursement from cards that offer credit for airline incidentals. I try to call and ask about upgrades, as many airline web sites won’t correctly offer them at check-in.

5. Get Pre-Check. Airports offer priority security lines to travelers with any airline status, but not the security itself. Ironically, someone with elite status who uses these priority lines will still have to take off their shoes and jackets, and unpack their laptops and liquids along with everyone else. In contrast, I speed through the TSA Precheck line by nature of having Global Entry. It costs $100 to apply for Global Entry, but you may be able to get that fee reimbursed.

6. Get reciprocal status from hotels. Delta and United both have agreements with hotel partners that offer entry level airline status to those with hotel status. With Delta’s Crossover Rewards, SPG Platinum members receive priority check-in, priority boarding, a single free checked bag, and unlimited complimentary upgrades on paid tickets. With United, Marriott Platinum Elite members receive MileagePlus Premier Silver status. Thankfully, hotel elite status is fairly easy to obtain.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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