Ask a Travel Nerd: Should I Be Loyal to a Single Airline?

If you fly mostly one airline, you'll earn rewards faster, but it might limit your flight options.
Sam KemmisApr 21, 2021

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The pandemic has been hard on all relationships, and you might be asking yourself that all-important question: Should you be loyal, or play the field?

I’m talking about airline loyalty, of course. Sticking with one airline carries lots of perks, from accruing to earning elite status. But air travel monogamy isn’t right for everyone. Some travelers, especially those who fly infrequently or out of diverse airports, might benefit from a more freewheeling approach, chasing whichever airline offers the lowest fares on a given route.

There’s also the big question of which airline is best, both in general and for your specific airport. You don’t want to get stuck in a relationship with some skeezy, deadbeat airline.

If you’re a frequent or business traveler who mostly pays cash for tickets (rather than using miles), then this one’s easy: You should consider going steady with a single airline. Sticking with one airline generally offers good benefits that outweigh the annoyance of more limited flight options when booking.

If you’re a semi-frequent traveler or someone who mostly uses to book flights, the answer is muddier. You might want to focus on a single airline yet stay open to flying with competitors (if the price and timing is right). Think of this relationship as “monogam-ish.” You likely won’t get high level status with your focus airline, but you’ll reap some benefits by staying within a single partner network for using your miles.

If you fly only once or twice a year, you probably don’t need to sweat airline loyalty too much. It might be nice to accrue enough miles with a single airline to book an award ticket down the line, but you won't need to bend over backward to do it.

It’s a common lament among travelers on social media: All airlines are racing to the bottom for price and service, so they’re all equally bad. However, like most things on social media, this truism isn't true. Some airlines are much, much worse than others.

For the other U.S. airlines, the best one for you depends on several factors:

Like real-life relationships, tastes differ, so choose the airline that maximizes your own personal preferences and interests. Unlike a real-life relationship, it’s easy to switch loyalty after a year or two if things aren’t working out.

My recommendation is to keep it simple. Decide which domestic airline you’re going steady with, then learn which partnerships are involved. For example, Delta flyers should learn the basics of the SkyTeam alliance and mostly ignore everything else.

If you learn nothing else about partnerships, remember this: Use your main frequent flyer account when flying with partners. So if you’re taking a flight on a Delta partner such as Air France, apply your Delta account number to the itinerary. Don’t bother signing up for an Air France account to earn a few measly miles that you’ll likely never use.

Airline loyalty carries both costs and benefits. Sticking with one airline means fewer options when searching for flights, which can lead to higher fares and less convenient flights. Yet frequent flyer and elite status programs reward loyalty, so you’ll have an easier time earning free flights and perks if you mostly stick with one airline or alliance.

If you’re on the fence, I recommend focusing on one airline that you already enjoy flying, and preferentially booking through it when fares are similar. But don’t lock yourself in: You can still jump on an ultra-low fare with another airline when you see one.

Your preferred airline never needs to know. What happens in Kayak stays in Kayak.

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