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:
Analyze your current flying strategy. To determine whether you'll get value out of a subscription, ask yourself how much you plan to fly during the subscription period and where you plan to go. 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. If, for instance, most of your flights will be on regional jets that do not have seats with more legroom, there is no point in buying a package where those seats are your main draw.
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 along with other perks like a free checked bag.
Read the fine print. Just because you sign up for a subscription does not mean that you will always be able to reap the benefits.
For example, United's Economy Plus subscription program includes roomier seats, but not all flights will have those seats.
Or consider Delta, which includes priority boarding in its Smart Travel Pack. Delta Shuttle flights do not offer priority boarding.
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.
If you do have status, but not enough to receive regular upgrades, you might consider switching airlines, rather than buying a subscription.
As Brian Kelly, the founder of the Points Guy website, noted after using his elite status to nab an economy comfort seat on a KLM flight: “I realized it's 34 inches of legroom. That's what JetBlue gives to all of its customers.”