Are airlines taking a cue from magazines, Netflix, even Internet and cable packages?
This summer United Airlines introduced yearlong baggage subscriptions (check up to two bags on all your flights within the continental United States, starting at $349) and Economy Plus subscriptions (more-legroom seats on all your flights, starting at $499) that you can also give as gifts. In September, Delta rolled out its own subscription program, Smart Travel Pack ($199), which gives fliers features like priority boarding and preferred seats on each flight they take through Jan. 5. And if you regularly fly American Airlines, you know that last year the airline began bundling amenities, like no change fees and in-flight beverages, into a variety of “choice” fares.
“This really is what the cable companies do,” said Gary Leff, a founder of Milepoint, a frequent-flier forum, and the mileage-award booking service Bookyouraward.com.
If you’re frequently checking bags and buying seats with more legroom, a subscription may sound tempting. But does it pay to join? Here’s how to figure it out.
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ANALYZE YOUR CURRENT FLYING STRATEGY. By buying a subscription you are essentially tying yourself to a particular airline, so you need to find out how regularly it flies to and from your desired cities, and whether the seats you are paying for are actually available.
And check fares on competing airlines. By buying a subscription you might save money on incidentals, but if the fares for the routes you fly are cheaper on other airlines, it simply doesn’t pay to commit to one brand. A good rule of thumb is that subscriptions are best for travelers who fly frequently, but not enough to reach elite status, which, in many instances, would allow you to get those perks at no extra cost.
CONSIDER SPENDING MONEY ON AN AIRLINE CREDIT CARD INSTEAD OF A SUBSCRIPTION. In general, the subscriptions “give people access to the kinds of stuff that airlines give at no cost to their bottom-tier frequent fliers,” Leff said.
So instead of buying a subscription, consider paying the annual fee for an airline co-branded credit card, which will duplicate a lot of the same benefits. Many airline credit cards, for instance, give users priority boarding and a free checked bag.
RECONSIDER YOUR ALLEGIANCES. Whether these subscription programs will prevent elite travelers (without subscriptions) who book last-minute tickets from scoring preferred coach seats will depend on how well the airlines manage that inventory. If they continue to hold back some seats for their best customers, it won’t be an issue. But if the airlines presell all of their most desirable seats to travelers willing to pay extra for a subscription, elites could lose out.