Last December, the panic set in.

The year was drawing to a close, and my airline loyalty status was in jeopardy. I had used hundreds of miles on vacations that summer — that’s what they’re there for, right? — but the free trips also meant fewer dollars spent and fewer miles amassed for the following year. That gap signaled a potential drop in status, and nothing about that tumble says “Happy New Year.”

In a moment of irony, I faced this conundrum: lose my gold status or cough up $1,000 to keep it. Shameful as it may be, I forked over that fee — money I could have spent on those vacations thus achieving my status and keeping my miles.

Why do I care so much, you ask? Well, this status-and-miles racket can be obsessive, addictive even. It’s an insiders club that gives us the opportunity to be grouped in with the “elite,” to snag a glimpse of the high life we might not get otherwise. The free baggage, early boarding and in-flight cocktails don’t hurt either.

In my new role as a food, travel and features reporter, however, I’ll be traveling much less for work than my former job as a college basketball beat writer required. I’ll admit, the idea of losing that status for good gives me a little anxiety.

But while mentally tearing myself away from the status beast — OK, not totally; I’m still scheming for a way to squeak out one more year of gold — I’ve also discovered the world of bargains I’d cut myself off from by remaining willingly shackled to one airline. Last-minute deals abound online if you’re flexible and look in the right places. With no loyalty, I can take advantage of different airline promotions and actually shop for the best value. Better yet, I’ll spend money when I actually want to travel, not when I’m cornered into ultimatums. What a concept! I might have to give up extra leg room and an occasional gratis shrimp salad, but the cost of exploration just might bring less anxiety at the bank.


Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg is on vacation.