You are looking to fly-cross country and see a direct flight that stops midway. The layover is only about 45 minutes, you get to stay on the plane, and you know you won’t miss your connection. Perfect, right?
Not necessarily. Direct flights can negatively affect your attempts to get elite status and prevent you from getting first-class upgrades.
First, some definitions. The distinction between a direct flight and non-stop can be confusing sometimes. A direct flight is “a flight with one or more intermediate stops but no change of aircraft.” The flight number is the same and you often do not need to deplane.
A direct flight can also have more than one stop. A few years ago, I took a trip with a few other people on my birthday to San Antonio. The person booking the flights had one connection on the itinerary, so asked the phone agent to make sure our second leg was “direct”. This taught me the difference between direct and non-stop very quickly when, after a delay in taking off from New Orleans, we got stuck in a delay taking off from Houston, and we finally reached San Antonio at the very end of my birthday.
A non-stop, on the other hand, is just that. A flight that doesn’t stop. It goes from A to B, and there’s no random C dropped in there. You take off from Philly, you land in San Francisco. No transfers, no layovers, no stops.
So why are direct flights so bad?
When you take a non-stop flight, you only receive miles from the airline from point A to point B. This makes sense. You didn’t go anywhere else. On a direct flight, if you fly from A to B, but stop somewhere in C in the middle, you only receive miles from A to B. As far as airline miles go, you never flew to C.
To put this into perspective, if I fly from DCA (DC / Washington Regan) directly to SFO (San Francisco) and back, I get an awesome amount of miles. 4,884 in fact. But if I add in a connection in PHL (Philly) each way (which usually costs the same), I earn a whopping 6,042 miles for the flight. Since I am elite on US Airways, I get 500 miles for the flight between PHL and DCA. Plus, Philly is further from SFO than DCA is, so I get extra miles for flying out of Philly.
But let’s say I book a direct flight to SFO from DCA, stopping in PHL. Even though Philly is further from SFO, I will receive miles for a flight from DCA to SFO. So instead of receiving 6,042, I get 4,882 miles–1,160 less than I could have received–plus I have to deal with potential delays at Philadelphia airport when I could have taken a nonstop.
So, does this mean taking a direct flight is just like a nonstop flight, aside from an annoying layover? No. Even though non-stops and direct flights receive the same amount of miles, even when discounting the layover, a direct flight is still worse than a non-stop.
How do direct flights get worse?
On a direct flight, some people are in it for the long-haul, other people are in it for a leg. Either way, as an elite on the entire flight, if you want to get upgraded, there must be space on both legs. So let’s say there’s a direct flight from DCA to SFO stopping in PHX (Phoenix). That’s a long flight and it would be nice to be in first for the long portion. But if first class filled up from PHX to SFO, even if there is a dearth of elites on your longer leg from from DCA to PHX, you will not get upgraded unless BOTH legs are available to you.
So in this case, if you are a Chairman on US Airways, the top status they have, you will be waving at the Silver Elites in first class from back in coach.
But let’s say you did your research. Both legs are completely open. It is two minutes before they process upgrades. Are you pretty much in the clear?
Nope. (Chuck Testa?)
This is the really weird part about direct flights, so bear with me. Even though the flight is considered a non-stop when dolling out miles, and you must be upgraded on both legs or none, the flight is considered in pieces when actually processing the upgrade. So both flights must be processing upgrades for you to get upgraded. Brain hurt yet? Mine does trying to explain this!
So, when your 7am EST flight from DCA to PHX processes upgrades four days earlier at 7am, your upgrade will be skipped over because they are not processing the upgrades for your 11am MST flight from PHX to SFO yet. Once that upgrade window opens, if there are seats left, your upgrade will be processed.
This actually happened to me recently.
I booked a direct flight (against my usual misgivings) because I needed to get across the country quickly, and this was the fastest way I could do it.
I went into the upgrade window about as high-ranking of a Platinum Preferred member as you can be. What I mean by this is, I was a hair away from being Chairman status with US Airways, and US Airways ranks within status by total miles. So when it was time to upgrade the Platinums, there was little chance anyone could outrank me going in.
But since I had an 11am MST stop in Phoenix, my upgrade window wasn’t actually open. So I watched as the seats quickly disappeared, and I was left with bubkis. The Phoenix to San Francisco leg looked really empty, but this was an all-or-nothing game. Since I couldn’t get into the first leg, I was skipped over for the second upgrade window.
I’m not complaining–I could have used miles to upgrade myself if I really wanted to be in first class for this flight, and I have no right to an upgrade. (And I chose to save my miles rather than fly this in first). But I wanted to use it to illustrate why, if you are trying to get a free upgrade, you should never book a direct flight.
You can usually spot these by noticing your connecting flight has the same flight number as your first. But if you do need to get somewhere in a hurry and there are no non-stops available, I would book a direct flight just to make sure. There are no missed connections, and you know your plane won’t disappear at your stop (usually). Just know the consequences going in, and never use this method for a mileage run.