This is a guest post from Adam Kraus, a Premier-Platinum flyer on United/Continental who specializes in HNL-LAX and HNL-SFO, plus frequently travels through DEN, ORD, and BWI. He also is an Emerald Executive with National and has Gold status with Hilton. In his free time, Adam is a Hubble Fellow at the University of Hawaii who works on star and planet formation.
If you get a group of astronomers together, then sooner or later it seems like the discussion always turns to travel. We travel a lot, and we usually have to work at the other end of each trip. In the modern era of full flights, uncomfortable seats, and terrible airline food, that can lead to a lot of painful days (and nights) at 35 thousand feet. However, travel doesn’t have to be terrible experience, as long as you learn how to play the frequent flier game.
Back when I first started traveling, I couldn’t help noticing the people cutting across the terminal to special lounges while running for my flight, or stowing their bags in first class while I was trudging back toward the cattle car. Many of them had business attire, fancy roll-aboards, and suitcases. However, I also noticed the people in shorts and flip flops who were stowing backpacks (and sometimes poster tubes!) in those spacious overhead bins. The purpose of this series is to help you become one of those people: the frequent flying astronomer. Future posts will be about elite status and reward programs but let’s start with choosing an airline.
Part 1: Where do I sign up?
The modern travel industry has provided us with plenty of options for our travel needs. Priceline, Expedia, Kayak—it’s never been easier to plan a trip with the lowest bidder. This approach is great for the occasional traveler. However, it also encourages the bad habit of shopping our business to many companies, squeezing every dollar on a trip-by-trip basis rather than considering short-term productivity gains and long-term savings. The first step in becoming a frequent flier is to break this habit.
I talk to a lot of people who are already convinced that they should become frequent fliers, but don’t know where to start. This first post in the series will help those people establish their priorities and choose the best airline for them. There are a few main drivers for this decision: Where are you flying from? Where are you flying to? Are there any special features that you really care about? What kind of rewards do you want? With a clear outline of the options, you should be able to choose the airline that’s best for you.
Let’s address each of these questions in turn…
A. Where are you flying from?
Most airports have at least a few flights from most of the major airlines, so you probably won’t be locked into a single option from the start. However, many airports are dominated by 1-2 major airlines that use the airport as a hub. If you want scheduling flexibility and the option for direct flights, then there is a compelling argument for signing up with whichever airline is based out of your airport.
The major hubs for each airline in the US are:
- United-Continental: Washington (Dulles), Chicago (O’Hare), San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, New York (Newark), Cleveland, Houston.
- American: Dallas/Forth Worth, Miami, Chicago (O’Hare), New York (JFK Intl, LGA domestic), Los Angeles.
- Delta: Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, New York (JFK), Minneapolis-St Paul, Detroit, Memphis.
- US Airways: Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia.
(If you don’t see your airport in this list, check its wikipedia page. Most of the entries for major airports list all of the airlines that serve that airport, and the destinations. Look for the airline with the long list, and there’s your major airline.)
Some of these choices are clear winners. Delta dominates the Atlanta market so heavily that if you’re based out of Georgia, you almost have to choose them. The same can be said for United-Continental in Denver or Houston, US Airways in Phoenix, and American in Dallas or Miami. In other cases, you have several potential choices. Los Angeles is served equally well by American and by United-Continental, with fairly good representation by Delta as well. Ditto for San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington DC. Finally, you should note that several airlines didn’t make the list, most notably Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines. The omission is deliberate, and brings us to the next question…
B. Where are you flying to?
Your most frequent destinations should also guide your decision. I would argue that this criterion eliminates Southwest and Jet Blue, since neither airline flies outside the continental USA. International travel includes the most arduous trips: 12 hours from the West Coast to Europe, or 16 to Australia! Even travel to Hawaii takes 6 hours from California, 8 from Chicago, and 9 from the east coast. If you want to fly in first or business on these long-haul flights, you have to build your status using the shorter flights.
However, there are also some less obvious considerations related to your frequent travel destinations:
South America. WINNER: American. If you travel to Chile for observing runs, then United-Continental and US Airways are very poor choices. Not only do they not serve Chile, but they don’t even partner with other airlines for code-share. As a United flier, if I want to travel to Chile, then I have to travel from Honolulu to Washington-Dulles to Sao Paulo, then switch to a South American airline for the last leg. With American, you can connect directly to Santiago from Miami, Dallas, or Los Angeles.
Hawaii. WINNERS: United, then American. The situation for Hawaii is less dire, but there is still a clear hierarchy. United-Continental operates direct flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Houston, and Newark, including flights directly to the Big Island for most of them. American serves Honolulu from Dallas and Los Angeles, and the Big Island from Los Angeles. In contrast, US Airways connects most Hawaii fliers via Phoenix, and while Delta has some flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco, most connect through Salt Lake City.
Asia. WINNER: United. This is the international market where United-Continental has a clear advantage, though American and Delta are making up ground.
Europe. This matters less, since you can fly to any major European hub and connect fairly easily. However, you might still choose your US airline based on its local partner. American is partnered with British Airways, so they might be preferred for flights to Heathrow. Similarly, United and US Airways are partnered with Lufthansa, so they might be preferred for Germany (especially Frankfurt and Munich). If you fly to a specific country, then it’s worthwhile to check the Wikipedia article on their national airline to determine who they partner with.
C. Special features for each airline.
Finally, some airlines have specific features that specific fliers value. These can take the form of comfort amenities (such as preferred seating or easy upgrades), productivity aids (on-board internet and power), or leisure bonuses (frequent or convenient award flights). Many of these features can only be used by those with frequent flier status, so you need to concentrate your travel in order to access them.
Preferred Seating. Most airlines reserve the exit row seats (which have extra legroom) for their frequent fliers. If you’re relatively tall, there can be quite a premium on getting access to those seats. However, some also go a step further. United maintains a special section (called Economy Plus, or E+) that is open to any frequent flier, and can comprise as much as half of the economy cabin on some international flights. These seats typically resemble normal economy, but with 4-5 extra inches of legroom compared to normal economy seating. Jetblue and many European airlines also offer “Premium Economy”, in which the seat itself is also larger, though they typically charge a premium for these seats.
For more details on the seats for specific aircraft and airlines, see Seatguru.
Upgrades. United and Delta are distinguished by offering unlimited upgrades on domestic flights for their frequent fliers who have at least the first tier of status. United offers these upgrades within all of North America and Hawaii, while Delta excludes Hawaii, but includes some parts of South America. Every frequent flier on a flight is automatically added to a list, and then any unsold first-class seats are given to those fliers in order of status. As a result, top-status fliers can expect to spend most of their time in first class and even first-tier fliers can see significant upgrades on less traveled routes. Personally, I’ve seen upgrade success rates of ~1/4 as a first-tier flier (25k miles) and ~2/3 as a second-tier flier (50k miles) on flights between the mainland and Hawaii.
American and US Airways follow a different strategy, where fliers are given a certain number of upgrade credits, and those credits can be redeemed for upgrades. Since the number of credits is significantly smaller than the number of flights, then fliers typically have fewer upgrades. However, the more limited number of requests means that any upgrade that is requested is more likely to be approved.
Expedited Security and Check-In. Many airlines maintain special elites-only security lines, and even entire terminals, in the airports where they have a significant presence. Anybody with frequent flier status can bypass the normal check-in areas, using the elites-only areas where there are rarely lines for check-in and they have a special bypass that takes you to the front of the security line. The entire experience is painless and takes no more than 15 minutes, a stark contrast to the hour or more that normal check-in can require. Not every airport has this service for every airline, so you might want to check for it at your local airport.
Internet and Power. US carriers have very uneven internet and even power availability in their fleet. United only provides power in first class throughout their fleet, while American has power availability in economy for most aircraft. American and Delta have begun deploying wireless internet to their fleet, while United will only start this deployment in mid-2012. These features are likely to become more widespread in the future, but their current status provides a proxy for the general willingness of an airline to upgrade its in-cabin service. Detailed descriptions for cabin amenities can be found at Seatguru.
So, how did I make my choice? For me, Economy Plus on United was a clear winner. A typical E+ seat has 5 more inches of legroom than standard economy seats, and leaves 2-3 inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. You do the math. Of course, it also helps that United is one of the major players for both the sites where I’ve been located so far (Los Angeles and Honolulu), including flights between the two.
Stay tuned for future installments in this series about reaching, maintaining, and making the most of elite status and reward programs. Also check out the Airline Guide Wiki page where we’ll be summarizing this series of posts.
How did you choose your airline? Still struggling with making a choice? Share in the comments.
(Updated 2012 Feb 22 to add link to Wiki.)