Skift Take

Budget travelers have fewer options for earning elite status this year.

Last weekend, just short of earning “1K” status on United Airlines, I took an overnight flight from San Francisco to New York City for the sole purpose of picking up a few elite qualifying miles.

“Mileage running,” or the act of taking useless flights simply to fulfill elite status requirements, has been around since the beginning of travel loyalty programs, but this year the calculus for earning elite status on many carriers changed, requiring passengers to accrue a minimum spend along with a requisite number of flown miles. For many budget travelers, those new rules are making it difficult to earn elite status as the year comes to a close.

An average $350 round-trip sale fare between New York and San Francisco, for example, would have earned 5,160 miles in 2014. In 2015, it earns 5,160 miles and $350 qualifying dollars. Projecting that up to the minimum 25,000 miles formerly needed for low-level elite status, a passenger taking five of those trips in 2014 would earn 25,800 miles — enough to jump into the elite ranks. In this year’s programs though, the $1,750 spent on those five flights wouldn’t be enough to reach the minimum $3,000 spend requirement for low-level status.

Jonathan Khoo, an independent software developer and budget traveler based out of SFO, gave up on his annual quest for elite status altogether this year.

“After years as a loyal United customer, I started winding down my flights with them this year,” Mr. Khoo said. “They’ve made it clear they don’t value me, so why should I value them?”

Over at The Points Guy, a blog dedicated to points industry, many in the community have similar concerns. Several international travelers crediting their status to United Airlines complained that while their partner Star Alliance flights earned qualifying miles, they didn’t earn qualifying dollars. Others who met the mileage requirements for status but who couldn’t reach the revenue goals, seemed desperate for a solution.

Despite the distress within the budget-focused community, the airlines appear to be intent on holding on to their revenue requirements. Both Delta Air Lines and United kept their revenue requirements for the 2016 travel year while American Airlines just introduced a revenue component to their mileage earning (not elite qualifying) formula for their 2016 program.

For passengers that can meet the revenue requirements, the new approach to loyalty programs may actually be a bit of good news. Starting in March of 2016 when benefits from the 2015 year expire, fewer budget travelers will be competing for upgrades and preferred seating, leaving more space for ultra-business travelers to collect their perks.

As for the budget travelers, the only remaining solution for earning elite perks on a legacy carrier may be through American Airlines, which through 2016 will still calculate status through miles flown. As the industry continues to change and as 2017 approaches though, all bets are off.

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Tags: budget travel, delta air lines, elite status, frequent flyer miles, loyalty, united airlines

Photo credit: United Airlines' app on an iPhone. United Airlines

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