Remember the good ol' days of flying when airlines like United Airlines had those commercials that always ended with, "Fly the friendly skies"? Remember when you could keep your shoes on when you went through security and scenes of the TSA patting down elderly women wasn't common place? You might even remember when you had a place to put your legs, your suitcase wasn't in the overhead compartment, and an actual hot meal on longer flights wasn't the laughable idea that it is today.
The friendly skies aren't as friendly anymore. United Airlines merged with Continental, Delta merged with Northwest, and those "discount" airlines like Southwest (which merged with Airtran) are no longer that great of a bargain. There's a fee for everything, and when we figure out how to work around the fee, they announce a new fee to close the loophole created by the old fee.
Take Allegiant Air for example. Allegiant Air markets its airline as a low-low cost, no hassle service. Recently, Allegiant announced that it will pilot a program that charges passengers between $10 and $30 to place a bag in the overhead compartment. Although Allegiant may not be a well-known airline, the larger carriers will certainly be interested to see the customer response that comes from this announcement.
Even through all of the changes in the airline industry, there is one group of people who still receive some of that "friendly sky" treatment. Business travelers who remain loyal to one airline move up the ranks of their frequent flyer programs and receive perks as part of the program. Not only do they get free upgrades to the posh, business class seats, but they often don't have to pay fees to change reservations, have a special customer service phone number and get to board first.
Airtran, for example, allows travelers to purchase credits. If you're close to earning its elite status, you can pay a per-credit price for each credit you need to join the elite club. At the current price of $29 per credit, it may not be cost effective, but if you're one or two credits away from earning a free round trip flight, purchasing credits may be a bargain. Other airlines have similar programs.
Rent a Car
Airlines often have travel partners that reward you points for using a certain rental car company, staying at a certain hotel or other purchases. American Airlines rewards miles for renting a car at just about any of the major companies. Each company has a slightly different program. Marriott allows you to exchange rewards points for frequent flyer miles and other hotels have similar programs. Any time you're traveling, consider the miles you can receive from different travel partners if miles are important to you.
Most people now know that for those who fly frequently, an airline credit card can amass a large amount of points if you make everyday purchases with the card, but there are drawbacks. These cards work best if you're a frequent traveler already. If you're not, a rewards or cash back card may be a better choice for you providing you never hold a balance.
Although you can join the elite clubs without being a frequent flyer, it may not be worth what it once was. Because many of the major airlines have merged, there are now more business travelers competing for the same rewards and those who are higher up in the programs will receive the free business class seat upgrades before you. Because of the amount of people now a part of these programs, airlines are changing the requirements. Those travelers who used to be at the top tier of these programs may find themselves much lower unless they fly internationally on a frequent basis.
The Bottom Line
Becoming part of the elite club of travelers without traveling frequently is still possible, but if you have to pay to enter the club, it may be more cost effective to purchase the seat upgrade if it's available. Even purchasing these seats is becoming increasingly difficult. Traveling isn't so friendly anymore and it probably won't get much better any time soon.