Let's start with the ubiquitous miles hoarders' acronym YMMV — Your Miles May Vary.
What does YMMV mean? well, since there are 7 billion people in this world, there are probably 7 billion different answers (give or take a few) to any miles related question. Especially true for “What do you value most in airline elite status?”.
In the process of describing/arguing my own preferences, you might want to consider your own and perhaps distill in your mind what your 2-3 core benefits are. Maybe it can be the key influence if you find yourself having to decide between different flights. Typical benefits which you'd consistently get with elite status are things like:
- Pre-departure lounge access (sometimes post-arrival too for even higher tiers)
- Extra checked luggage
- Fast-track airport and boarding queues (only where airlines enforce them!)
- Bonus mileage
- Waived ticketing fees or customer service charges
- Confirmed upgrade vouchers
Somewhat less frequently, you might be looking at the following:
- Better chance of upgrades without vouchers. (I use this vague wording to cover operational upgrades and other elite-status based ones you often see in the US)
- Recovery service when there are flight delays or cancellations. A.k.a. “when the shit hits the fan” (The inconsistency is not through airlines helping you out, but through these events occurring)
The thing I like to see in a frequent flyer programme is some tangible benefit for the business I give to a company. It should hopefully be obvious that perks which you wouldn't use shouldn't feature high on your priority list, e.g. if you mostly fly with carry-on luggage only, you should not chase a programme for its extra luggage policy.
As a side note, I also want a company to show that loyalty can be a two way affair and not unilaterally devalue/change parts of its programme without informing its customers first. This can happen to any airline, which American Airlines demonstrated well last week. They had spent spending several years building up a customer friendly image then undoing it all in an instant by eliminating its Oneworld Explorer rates and also the free stopover at a main hub in the USA on international redemptions.
Going by my own travel pattern, here's the run down of my top three priorities in a frequent flyer programme:
1) Mileage earning opportunities.
Looking at my own travel patterns, I fly something like 10-15 short haul and 2-3 long haul trips per year out of Amsterdam/Rotterdam with a fairly even split between work and leisure. On work trips I don't have a choice on airlines so without an efficient strategy, I would end up with a mediocre split of orphaned Avios and Flying Blue miles.
Credit cards are also nearly impossible to use around Netherlands too, so I need all the miles I can get!
2) Lounge access.
Since I usually flying economy class for the short haul trips, 80% of my airport trips will end up with no lounge access granted on the class of service. On my occasional Friday evening flights back to London to see family, it's the difference between having to buy dinner at the airport or not. And being able to rehydrate myself after a long train ride to the airport is an additional bonus.
3) Longevity of elite status, including soft landings.
Given my travel patterns are usually marginal for qualifying with different programmes, I really take advantage of the benefit longer elite status. Though I don't fly Star Alliance much, I can be reassured that my Star Alliance Gold will be safe through a combination of Aegean and Turkish Airlines. I used to have American Airlines Platinum too but now they have dropped their soft landing policy, so my de-facto Oneworld account is now with British Airways.
Once again, this is a YMMV topic, which always sparks some interesting discussion. Once you factor in differences like having kids, having X days holiday compared to Y, or family commitments somewhere, things start to look a whole lot different. It's something with no right answers, but several wrong ones. I'd be interested to hear from you about your priorities and why. Maybe someone will have similar travel patterns as me, but totally different views…leave a comment below, and let's start a good discussion!