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Why United’s Frequent Flyer Program Change Is Good

Last month, United changed their frequent flyer program to reward flyers based on how much money they spent. It was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to most of its loyal customers.

Participating in frequent flyer programs can be worth it if you fly enough to justify it. But most of the time, they’re just a series of headaches for everyone involved with a system of complicated and opaque rules. By changing their program, United has alienated almost everyone but business travelers. Not only does that improve the experience of its remaining elite flyers, what it’s also done is effectively free their other elite fliers so they no longer have to participate in a silly, ridiculous game.

For as long as I can remember, Continental was our airline of choice. It was the most convenient program for our family and it was that way because my mother decided so. She ruled the roost and, as an 11-year-old preteen, you’re generally more concerned with pressing things like the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys than the mileage you’re earning. It didn’t matter all that much to me, not until I began flying enough for it to actually affect me.

Life was good for a while. I eventually hit Premier Gold and started reaping the benefits, doubling the amount of miles I earned every time I flew. Most of the great benefits didn’t last long; the airline decided its most loyal customers were getting too much and cut down the bonuses to 50%. Nevertheless, it didn’t bother me too much, as long as I got my generous checked baggage limit and the occasional first-class upgrade. For a while, most of the cuts were trivial, but it wasn’t until the airline decided to experiment with its boarding procedures that it was clear that something was up.

Despite all the flack they get, North American frequent flyer programs are actually more generous than their foreign counterparts out there. But if you’re cutting the bloat from a major merger, how do you choose to treat a customer who flies every other week but only pays $250 per flight? Does this change the way you treat a passenger who paid $900—and is sitting next to the passenger who paid $250—at the last minute? Do you ignore the ridiculous profit margins that you get from co-branded credit cards?

When United began grouping its elite fliers, some of whom who fly up to 74,999 miles a year, together with United credit-card owners together in the same boarding group before a flight, I knew that the writing was on the wall. Frequent flyer programs are practically elitist caste systems and, ultimately, there’s no easier way to see this than in the way the airline decides to board its passengers. The message was clear. But after more than 10 years and some dedicated 50,000 miles up in the air annually with United, I didn’t appreciate the direction things were heading in.

Don’t underestimate the type of stamina that’s needed to fly that actual mileage. I can tell you from personal experience, it makes binge-watching Netflix for three straight weeks while you sit in your sweats and make repetitive roundtrips from the bed to the kitchen fridge while your soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend stares at your uncombed hair look attractive. (I no longer track my total travel expenditures for the year; it once made me wince in physical pain. Still, it’s not enough to make me an important customer in United’s eyes.)

So I decided to make a change: I would ditch the 400,000 miles sitting in my account and transfer to another airline program. I began giving miles away to family and friends, cashing them in for trips to Fiji. I’d begin the hard process of requalifying on another Star Alliance airline with no status than be shackled with the golden handcuffs again.

In the end, I decided on Asiana for their generous status qualification periods. Their program gives travelers two years to qualify for Star Alliance Gold and, on top of that, give two full years of status once you reach the goal. So if you play your cards right, you could end up with three or four years of status before ever having to worry about going through the entire process again. I have never been happier.

It has nothing to do with Asiana’s frequent flyer program. But I no longer sit there obsessively plugging all of my planned trips into a mileage calculator to realize I’ll be 3,045 miles short of status. I don’t care if I’m getting shitty wine in first class. I can book direct flights without flying out of the way just to maximize mileage. I can fly decent airlines like JetBlue or Virgin America without guilt. I no longer rush people to get to the airport early just so I can enjoy the lounge. (Okay, depends on the lounge.)

For better or worse, it’s taken the stress out of flying by removing any expectations. Chances are if you actually spend that much time up in the air, it’s no longer about accumulating free flights but about actually being more comfortable while you’re traveling. It’s such a sad state of affairs, then, that one of the best perks is a silly upgrade to domestic first-class, which mostly consists of free food and wine. Chances are, you can still buy a rather significantly tastier $10 sandwich for the trip than what’s served there.

But the best part is that I now have more time to focus on something that should have been every traveler’s priority all along: the destination.



[United MileagePlus]

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