Is Loyalty Worth Silver Status? Not Really

Just a quick word on today’s Middle Seat column from WSJ journalist Scott McCartney. In his piece, “Silver Status Loses Its Luster for Frequent Flyers,” Mr. McCartney confirms what many of us have known for a while. As credit card benefits increase to lure bank customers, airlines have had increased pressure to differentiate their elite status tiers to keep top elites happy. And that often means lower-tiered silver elites who fly 25,000 miles a year end up not much better off than that guy in the next seat paying a $65 annual fee.

When I started flying regularly five years ago, I aimed for and just barely reached Silver status with United’s Mileage Plus program, a status I aimed to keep for several years after that thanks to cushy benefits like free confirmed EconomyPlus seating at booking, two free checked bags, and the occasional upgrade or expedited check-in line.

You can get all of that with the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card now, except for the EconomyPlus seating. These seats almost disappeared entirely before Jeff Smisek decided, yeah, people like the extra legroom, but Silver elites can only move up to them for free after checking in–assuming any are left. Similar dilution of benefits have played out at other airlines. You can check out the article here, or email me if you find it stuck behind a paywall, but most of the facts are summarized in this figure:

chart of silver level perks by airline

Image from the Wall Street Journal, “Silver Status Loses Its Luster for Frequent Fliers”

These days I don’t encourage family members or friends to shoot for silver status with an airline. I used to. I would point out how an extra flight and some strategy with their usual travel patterns could get them that elusive status. Now it’s no longer worth it for most of them, and since they have a hard time understanding what I do with this blog anyway, I just encourage them to book with the cheapest guy who makes them happy, usually Southwest or Virgin America.

For the rest of you, I still think elite status has great perks, but you need to be able to reach the top. If you are a regular traveler, it certainly pays to try to focus your loyalty on a single airline. One of the interesting comments from the article is that all elites make up 6-10% of passengers at most airlines. It’s a lower number than I expected, and suggests top-tier elites may only be in the 1-4% range. That’s going to earn you some special treatment, as I’ve been fortunate enough to experience first-hand. :D

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • HansGolden

    I redeem most of my (and my mom and dad’s) United miles for friends and family on domestic coach tickets that would otherwise cost more than $500. Thus, getting mom and dad to Silver status is extremely important because it gives access to XN availability, which multiplies the value of the miles five-fold, IMHO.

    • Scottrick

      If it’s the difference between getting that flight and not, I agree. Good to know I’m not the only one who sets a $500 threshold for coach awards ;)

  • CMK10

    I don’t think the expanded legroom comment for Delta is fair.  Silver Medallions have access to Exit Rows (which, besides the CRJ-200 certainly feature expanded legroom) at booking which is what the Ameircan Airlines of 2012 offers.  

  • http://thehustleblog.com/ the hustle blog

    Definitely agree. Silver is borderline useless with the presence of co-branded credit cards and lack of upgrades. My bro-in-law was a flight away this year, but it really doesn’t get him much more than the Chase UA Explorer card gave him. I just told him to stay put.

  • Mommy Points

    I disagree….for a small group of folks (including my family).  Even on UA where Silver has been devalued, it is still valuable if you are traveling a fair amount.  My husband is actually about to take an extra trip to hit silver as it will save us money on the E+ seats.  For our routes, moving up to E+ at T-24 has yet to be an issue, however the cost savings are very real.  Skipping the long security line at a hub is also very important for us.  The free checked bag, early boarding, and things you can get with the credit card are less important.  Of course the 25% mileage bonus, Silver line, and occasional upgrades don’t hurt either.

    It doesn’t make sense to go too far out of your way for Silver, but if you are like my husband and just need one more trip to get you there then it absolutely makes sense if most of your flights are on that airline anyway.  

    • Scottrick

      I agree with the last part. I started out with elite status because I only needed one more flight. Renewing was just a matter of maintaining loyalty to a single airline. But for newbies who are starting from scratch, I don’t think silver should be a goal.

      • Mommy Points

        We come from two worlds, so naturally have two opinions on this.  I think as a 1K the silver benefits look crappy.  As someone with no status (until very recently) the silver benefits look infinitely better than nothing.  I don’t think it is a bad goal to shoot for as long as you are realistic about what you get in return, and have done the math to see that it makes sense for you. 

        I’ve got a few more months at silver, so will have a better opinion at the end of that, but so far it was worth the extra push to get here.  It’s not what it once was, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still valuable for some. 

  • Phra

    100% agree.  when I had status, I was amazed how often I would choose to fly my status airline, even if I paid 10% more than I could elsewhere.    I’ve actually enjoyed not being tied to the one airline now and just shop for best value (not always price).   Big mistake in my opinion as airline had a way to get people to differentiate other than price.. now.. delta/aa/ua… best price rules and I keep FF accounts on all, use CC’s for the baggage fee allowances, etc…

  • Chrismoss7

    Was top tier with DL until I went back to grad school 6 years ago.  Am Silver because of my million miler status.  Took my girlfriend to Cancun last weekend on a cheap T-fare ticket and was upgraded both ways.  I knew the market was empty on Saturdays because I had watched the loads.  Totally worth being Silver/low-tier elite.