After years of chasing status (I still do), sometimes being a Free Agent when it comes to choosing your travel product is the most liberating of all. While I still hold elite status, on a recent trip my family used four different carriers for four different flight segments, three hotel chains over five nights and got tremendous value for money.
I Still Hold Status, I Am Just Less Loyal
I have talked about leaving American Airlines in the past after being exclusively loyal to them since 2002 (in terms of concentrating my loyalty) and Hyatt after a decade. I switched to United which has been mostly better so far, and grabbed a ton of different hotel statuses (Hilton, IHG, Marriott/SPG) and that has opened up the world for us. But if United doesn’t deliver on upgrades, or their experience is inferior (their soft product is better, their long-haul hard product is so much worse than American) I will leave them too.
At the end of the day, you can buy the benefits you want on the flag carriers just like you can on the ULCCs. If you want priority boarding ensuring you space for your carry-on, United will sell it for $9. If you want an upgrade to first class, $45-150 upgrades are available on many domestic flights from most of the airlines where the space is available for sale. United’s first class breakfast catering has been a problem from Pittsburgh, but on the last flight it was actually loaded they offered a bowl of cheerios and a fruit cup – I opted for the cheese snack pack for sale in the back as it was more food.
I have status with SPG, but I won’t be at their properties exclusively due to lack of footprint and price concerns, and while IHG has the footprint in spades, they don’t have a luxury line outside of a few dozen Kimpton properties that only became redeemable a few months ago.
It feels liberating to be able to choose any place as opposed to just what’s available with my airline and my hotel chain.
They Made Me This Way
Standing in the bathroom of a Hyatt in Cartagena, my wife and I discussed how used to ride or die with American and Hyatt. We would choose our trips and destinations based on the following two criteria:
- Can we get there on American or one of their partners?
- Is there a Hyatt we want to stay in?
If either of the previous two were a no, we didn’t go. And while I loathe Hyatt’s limited footprint, I still have yet to visit all of the places that fall inside of this loyalty Venn Diagram. Places like Buenos Aires, the Maldives, Maui, and spending so much more time in Tokyo are reasons why we could have been very happy to stay with the two of them.
But they had other plans.
American not only gutted their program but they made eVIPs so impossible to use and saver space, a newsworthy event that I decided to walk out on them after half a decade as an Executive Platinum based purely on leisure travel. Hyatt made some nice changes to their program (space available suite upgrades or elites, free stay coupons) but also increased their top-tier status requirement by as much as 140% (from 25 stays to 60 nights minimum). Hyatt also made those coupons explode after a strange 120 days and incentivized their top-tier guests to stay less due to their new odd expiry dates (as Gary Leff aptly put) and premature requalification makes it so the guest may not be able to use their benefits as they wish.
I’m not even mad anymore about the switch from awarding flights based on distance rather than dollars spent because I think businesses should get a fair deal from their customers too. When their customers are flying a partner 10,000 miles for $400 and getting almost a free domestic ticket with status bonuses, that payout really wasn’t fair to the carrier. The revenue requirement should include anything I pay the airline in exchange for the ticket (including taxes, fees, changes, and upgrades). I think it’s fine to say that your top-tier customers should be valuable ones.
But when American made their miles impossible to use, and Hyatt increased their requirements by 140% without increasing their property portfolio the same amount, they gave me (and everyone else) plenty of reasons to shop around. Delta and United are no better, even JetBlue added change fees and Southwest increased the cost of their ancillary products along with the redemption rate for Wanna Get Away fares. Spirit is the only one that seems to be using “transfarency” these days.
How I Use It To My Advantage
I am more apt to shop where I want to go now and find a way to get there. Sometimes that means cash on airline tickets, sometimes it means AirBnB, but mostly it means that I will cobble a trip together in whatever way makes sense for me. On a recent trip (my wife wrote a primer to this and we will begin to post more about it in the coming weeks) we freelanced all over the place. For example, we flew:
- OneJet – Pittsburgh to Florida
- Spirit – Florida to Colombia
- JetBlue – Colombia to Florida
- Southwest – Florida to Pittsburgh
We stayed six nights during our trip in a mix of Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott properties as it suited us. In the past, this would have been 100% Hyatt, and we would have used more points and money than booking the way we did. Here is our per person cost breakdown for our week in Florida and Colombia booked a day before we left:
- 10,000 True Blue points
- 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points (transferred to Hyatt)
- 16,000 Hilton Honors points
- 5,333 Southwest Rapid Rewards
- (1.3) Promotional certificates
As a result, we got a chance to try out the ultra-Luxurious Conrad Cartagena resort as well as the new Hyatt Regency Cartagena. We were able to fly Spirit’s Big Front Seat (comparable to a domestic first class product) for just $45 premium on a $132 one-way ticket (I am a big fan at this point). We got to use my wife’s companion pass and points when it suited us but weren’t pigeon-holed to their availability and (lately) sky high prices.
We were able to burn a ton of promotional certificates that we usually wouldn’t be able to, including a pair of one-way car rentals on National, and two free hotel nights (one from our Hyatt credit card, and another from a Marriott promotion). In the past, we would have shopped our primary carrier only (American) and let that dictate our destination choices. Hotel stays would have been solely on Hyatt to continue to build stays and utilize points. We wouldn’t have had other options other than cash and perhaps that would have meant we didn’t go at all, but now, the whole world is open to us.
Am I wrong on this? Do you still prefer to fly just one carrier or stay with just one hotel chain? Have you also become a Free Agent?