For me, coming up as a young traveler, the concept of airline loyalty was always a practical one: Whichever airline could get me to my destinations cheapest and in the least amount of time was the one I would choose. I’d in turn give my loyalty not only to that particular airline but to the alliance, or global confederation of airlines, to which it belonged.
These days, I do keep price and travel time in mind, but as individual airlines (particularly U.S. ones) slash benefits in a race for the bottom, alliance loyalty has become more complicated than it once was. It’s basically too late to qualify for elite status in time for 2017, but if you’re deciding where you should place your chips next year for 2018 elite status qualification—or if you should at all—this article is for you.
The “Big 3” Airline Alliances
Although certain airlines (U.A.E.-based airline Etihad, for example) are attempting to create their only global confederations, three serious international airline alliances currently exist: Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam, which correspond to U.S. carriers United, American and Delta, respectively.
If you travel mostly in a certain country or region, your loyalty will generally go to the alliance to which your national or regional airline of choice belong. For example, if you live in Scandinavia and tend to fly Finnair, any elite status you gain will be valid on airlines across the oneworld alliance, such as Japan’s JAL, South America’s LATAM and Australia’s Qantas.
(Hint: Only Two of Them Matter)
SkyTeam has some very good airlines, first among them Korean Air and after that, I guess, Air France/KLM. Unfortunately, most of the airlines in SkyTeam are secondary and tertiary player in countries and regions (think Africa and China) where even first-rate carriers are third-world. Plus they’re the alliance of Delta, the U.S. carrier that has probably the best reputation among occasional flyers, but started the aforementioned “race to the bottom” RE: mileage program devaluation, onboard benefits (or lack thereof) and in almost every other sense.
The only two serious airline alliances are Star Alliance and oneworld, in that order. Both are home to truly world-class carriers—oneworld’s best, in fact, are arguably the very best on the planet—but Star’s global connectivity is simply unmatched. Unless you absolutely need to fly a SkyTeam airline for convenience (for example, you live in Atlanta or Paris, where two of that alliance’s mega-hubs are located), your choice for 2017 airline alliance should be between Star Alliance and oneworld.
Of course, no matter which alliance you give your loyalty to, the benefits you receive during your flying experience are largely the same, including priority check-in, increased baggage allowance, expedited boarding and, depending on your tier, lounge access for international travel.
The Temptation to Go Commando
To be sure, since many of the very best perks of alliance loyalty (so-called “ground services” at major hub airports, for instance) are available only to paying premium-class customers, it’s logical to ask whether the basic VIP benefits are available some other way. The answer is “yes,” although the finer points of it are a bit more nuanced than that.
In general, choosing the right travel credit card will allow you to have an elite-status experience without elite status. For example, the American Express Platinum Card affords you access not only to AMEX’s own Centurion lounges, but to the massive global Priority Pass lounge network. Likewise, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a $300 annual airline fee credit, which can offset some of the baggage fees you pay as a non-elite flyer.
The best part about “going commando,” as it were, is that it allows you to return, mostly without consequence, to the simple strategy I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Buying tickets based on price and convenience, instead of with a certain airline or alliance in mind. True travel freedom, the feeling of which is only otherwise achievable by not wearing underwear.
The elite qualifying period for 2018 will begin in a few weeks, which means you need to start strategizing how you’ll fly in 2017 now. In general, if you want to become an elite during the next 12 months, you should do so with Star Alliance or oneworld—the inferior SkyTeam alliance is only a good choice for a small subset of travelers. However, as individual airlines around the world continue to slash benefits and increase qualification thresholds, it’s both tempting and lucrative to use alternative means (namely credit cards) to enjoy the benefits of elite status without actually achieving it.
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