I’ve been pondering the meaning of loyalty lately. To say that the last year or two have been challenging for the typical bloggerverse/message board person among us (myself included), would be an understatement. You already know my feelings on the average airline loyalty program which could be summed up with if you think SkyMiles 2015 is the end of change you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

I am well aware that loyalty programs have evolved into standing businesses in their own right (though I think the real meaning of “profitable” can be debated), and that the majority of miles are now earned from just about anything except flying, with credit cards being tops for mileage earning. In my mind, it also means that someone who collects a plethora of miles isn’t necessarily loyal in the commonly understood sense of the word.

Later this week, I will pen a post on the easiest 100,000 miles I ever earned. You likely already know how I earned those miles, which belong to a program of an airline I really don’t fly all that much. Am I loyal? Well, I met the considerable minimum spending requirements, will collect the miles, and will ultimately spend the miles. The airline will collect funds from selling those miles to the bank, but I cannot fathom a scenario where the value I extract does not far exceed that of the revenue collected by the airline. Perhaps there’s no better example of taking my own advice and making loyalty a one-way street leading to me. 🙂 Now, if in collecting those 100,000 miles, I decide to switch my allegiance to that airline, and begin a long term period of traveling with them (and spending money with the bank), perhaps, they win…and perhaps I can be called loyal. Heck, maybe they’re even betting on a number of customers doing just that. Otherwise, I’m just a hobbyist putting a few miles in the bank.

And then, there’s the other side of me. I’ll fly about 100,000 BIS miles this year when it’s all said and done, and 95 percent of those miles will be flown with one airline, Delta. Does that make me loyal? I think so, even if a significant portion of those miles are spent on flights that are contractually obligated. Now, 70 percent or so of those miles will be spent on business travel for which I am reimbursed, but the remaining miles will be for personal travel in which I could have flown someone else, but I will choose not to. Why? Well, for starters I enjoy the benefits of elite status whether I’m flying for work or for play. Further, dedicating my personal travel to the same airline I fly primarily for business serves as an insurance policy in maintaining that elite status I’m so fond of. I’m under no illusion that I’m a great customer of Delta, but I am a good, repeat customer. They benefit from that whether they know it or not, but so do I. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the 300,000 miles I redeemed last year across three airlines.

In the end, I think many will be happier if they learn to separate airline elite programs from redeemable mileage. If you are not a person who is getting reimbursed for a significant portion of your travel expenses, you may be better off forgoing the idea of elite status and focusing on cash back and proprietary programs like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards or the Barclay Arrival program (and maybe…if you live in a place where you are likely to spend more time on one airline than another, toy with that program too). Leverage these programs to finance your travels, and even purchase an occasional premium class ticket (with points or cash) when the pricing makes sense. And of course, take advantage of those 100,000 mile card offers if your financial situation allows. You may not be “loyal” in the historical sense of the word to an airline, but you will be loyal to yourself. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

-MJ, May 5, 2014