How much is elite status worth? If you stick to one airline, it’s not as much as you think

I fly a bit. OK, I fly a lot. I figure that my elite status with two groups saves my company and customers about $3,000 to $4,000 per year. I fly enough to have earned Elite Status on two separate airlines – Continental and United.

I have chosen these two airlines for a reason. Continental is part of the Sky Team alliance, while United is part of the Star alliance. The reason I have chosen to be sure to keep Elite status on two distinct airlines seems to go against the common belief that it is best to keep all your miles in one large pile, rather than having many smaller piles. While the idea of one large account with one airline may be good if you are looking to earn free tickets, it does not help when you need to use your status to save some money.

And just how is elite status going to save anyone any money? Doesn’t elite status just get you those first class upgrades and priority boarding? The answer to that question is a bold NO. While the airlines have been quietly doing away with many benefits of flying and making it more difficult to use the miles we earn (for the average flyer), they have been more understanding with their elites.

As an example, both Continental and United recently announced that they will no longer award a minimum of 500 miles for all flights. If you fly only 250 miles, that’s all you get. However, if you are an elite flyer with these two airlines, the 500-mile minimum is still valid.

Ok, great, that’s wonderful for earning miles, but how does that save money? I’m getting to that.

The airlines have been in the news often over the last year for the various fees they’re charging their customers. Overweight bag fees have gone up, fees to simply check one bag are being added, fees to check a second bag are being added and increased and fees to use your frequent flier miles have been implemented.

Continental currently has a first bag fee of $15, a second bag fee of $25 and an overweight bag fee of $50.00. United currently has a first bag fee of $15, a second bag fee of $25 and an overweight bag fee of $125.00. Other airlines have similar fees, except for Southwest. The foreign carriers have even more extreme fee schedules. As an example, on some fares, Lufthansa allows a total of 20 kg (About 44 pounds) per person.

I recently flew from Newark to Wroclaw, Poland via Frankfurt, Germany. I had two bags to check – each weighed about 35-40 pounds. I flew Continental to Frankfurt and stayed overnight. Continental charged me nothing for my two pieces of checked luggage thanks to my elite status.

Sunday morning, I checked in for my Lufthansa flight to Wroclaw. The ticket agent told me that my total baggage allowance was 20 kg, and my two bags weighed together 41 kg. The excess bag charge was to be 10 Euros per kilo. Doing the math in my head, 21 x 10 = 210 Euros, or about $265! I might add that this same luggage was coming home with me, so the cost was going to be $530 round trip. My airline ticket only cost about $700 for the FRA-WRO portion.

Remembering that Lufthansa was a member of the Star Alliance, I pulled out my United Premier card and asked the agent if this would help. He smiled and told me that, indeed, it would. He checked my two pieces of luggage, asked me if I would prefer a bulkhead seat for the extra legroom, and printed my new boarding pass. There was no charge for any of these items.

Had I not had my elite status with the two airlines, I would have paid $15 + $25 for my first and second bags on Continental for a subtotal of $40 each way. Lufthansa would have charged me $265 each way. This brings me to a grand total of $305 each way, or $610 round trip. I take, on average, 4 to 5 trips overseas a year. Five trips could add up to over $3,000 in baggage fees if I had the same weight luggage.

Another area the airlines are charging fees is in seat choice. On Northwest, they have something called Coach Choice where the better seats, like aisle and window seats, cost from $5.00 to $75.00. United has Economy Plus, a few rows at the beginning of coach, that have a few more inches of legroom. United charges a flat $349.00 per year if you are not an elite member, so you have to either earn elite status or pay the $349 up front.

How much is your time worth? Have you noticed that the lines at the airports have not shrunk even though the number of flights has? My guess is that the airlines are employing fewer and fewer ticket agents, relying on the automated check-in machines to replace these valuable employees. Check-in lines can be quite long, especially on Monday mornings, or before holidays. A wait of over an hour is not unusual for some international carriers.

As an elite traveler, most, if not all, airlines have set up a reserved line for their most valued passengers. The wait in these lines is usually much shorter. I would say, on average, I save about 15 minutes per trip (Remember, I fly out of Newark Liberty, an airport known for its congestion). My time is billed to the customer at numbers in excess of $125 per hour. If I save 15 minutes in each direction, I have saved $62.50 per trip that my customer or employer does not have to pay.

Add in the other 20 to 30 domestic trips I take, each with two pieces of luggage, and you can see where I come up with my original estimate of $3000 to $4000 per year. Next time your boss questions why you aren’t sticking with one carrier for all your flights, email him a link to this article. He might thank you for being so cost conscious. Besides, with your elite status, you might even get bumped up to first class.