The beginning of most years is met with frequent travelers gazing sadly upon their loyalty accounts as their elite status qualification counters reset, marking the beginning of a new climb up the status ladder.
This is not most years.
Almost every airline and hotel loyalty program has made major concessions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you had status for 2020, it’s probably been automatically extended through the end of next year.
For those who managed to fly or stay in hotels during the year, there’s a good chance status earned will count toward next year’s status qualification. Many programs have made it easier than ever to earn elite status next year. For those who’ve never had elite status, reaching for it might appeal right now—and for those who do have it, there’s perhaps never been an easier time to switch loyalties.
Elite status is designed to manipulate emotions—after all, there’s a reason they’re called “loyalty programs,” not “rewards programs.” Our culture generally regards loyalty a good thing, and forsaking someone we’re loyal to is a grave offense.
But airlines and hotels aren’t people; relationships with companies are business, not personal. No one has any moral obligation to keep doing business with one company if another is a better fit for their needs (try as those companies might to convince them otherwise).
Has your program of choice forsaken you with major changes to elite qualification or an award chart devaluation? Has some kind of change in your life made your previously-preferred program less convenient? Here are a few business-minded factors to consider before deciding to switch loyalty programs.
Elite Status Qualification Requirements for 2021
Loyalty program managers are scrambling to find the right balance between wooing people back to their airlines and hotels and giving away too much in a time of unprecedented financial loss.
American Airlines elites will need 20% fewer miles to qualify for status in 2021 and with United it’s about 25% less. Alaska made it easier to qualify for status when flying partner airlines—particularly useful as it prepares to join the Oneworld alliance. Jetblue, Hyatt and Hilton have slashed their requirements in half.
If there’s an airline or hotel program you’ve wanted status with but haven’t been able to reach, it might be time to take another look—this might be a perfect opportunity to earn elite status through the beginning of 2023.
Is Your Preferred Program No Longer the Best Fit?
Take a hard, realistic look at travel plans for the year and any relevant changes in life circumstances. Did you move to another city that has better service from a different airline? Have your job responsibilities changed in ways that might change your business travel when you do (finally) hit the road again? Are you expecting specific trips for celebrations that have been pushed back to 2021 or 2022?
Make a reasonable prediction of your travel plans for the calendar year—as best you can given the uncertainty around vaccines and travel restrictions—and compare it with your preferred loyalty program’s requirements. If they aren’t a good fit anymore, it might be time to explore other options. You might start with a “best case” and a “worst case” set of predictions and then find the balance that makes the most sense for you somewhere between them.
Note that if your change in travel plans is due to a major life event (besides COVID-19), especially if it’s the birth or adoption of a child, it’s probably worth reaching out to the loyalty program to see if they can put your status on hold or help you regain it more quickly. Some airlines have published policies, such as Alaska’s “Elite Leave”, Delta’s “Reclaim My Status”, and Air Canada’s Status Extension for Parental Leave; others may grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, so it never hurts to ask.
Does It Even Make Sense to Pursue Elite Status This Year?
As elite status becomes harder to obtain and many status benefits become increasingly available through other means, the beginning of the year and the usual reset that comes with it is always a good time to take stock of whether your elite benefits outweigh their costs.
What benefits are most important to you? How much would it cost to obtain those benefits another way, like opening an airline credit card, buying an airline seating subscription or buying upgrades instead of hoping for them? Do you use the “free breakfast” benefit offered with many hotel elite statuses or are your 2021 stays more likely to be at limited service hotels where breakfast is free to anyone (or are you leery of any hotel breakfast in our current climate)?
How does that compare with the cost of maintaining your status—taking less convenient routes, buying more expensive tickets and hotel rooms or planning end-of-year mileage or mattress runs?
For some travelers, it may make most sense to not pursue elite status at all and instead focus on spending miles and points or buying the services you want regardless of the airline or hotel. This is also known as Be Your Own Elite (BYOE). Those who choose to buy services a la carte may come out both financially and mentally in the long run because there’s none of that pesky wondering if your seat or suite upgrade will clear.
Is the Grass Really Greener?
If you’re shopping around for a new loyalty program, do some research on how advertised elite benefits work—there are some important differences and reading the fine print is important.
Take same-day flight changes as an example. United is super flexible—you can change to nearly any available routing within 24 hours of your original departure, as long as the original fare class is available (which it usually is close to departure). Delta will charge non-elites $75 and won’t allow you to change to a nonstop flight or make changes to international itineraries (except Canada), and American requires that you keep the exact same routing as your original ticket. (American and United both allow any passenger to stand by for an earlier flight for free, regardless of status.)
Extra legroom seating also has significant differences between programs: American and United allow most elites to select Main Cabin Extra or Economy Plus seats at time of booking (with lowest-tier elites gaining access at check-in if seats are available), while mid-tier Delta and Alaska elites typically have to wait on an upgrade list to obtain Comfort Plus and Premium Class seats just a few days before departure.
Also make sure you take into account any partnership benefits you receive as a perk of your elite status, such as the status boosting and points earning relationship that United has with Marriott Bonvoy or the similar relationship American has with World of Hyatt.
What to Do If You Decide to Move On
If you do decide to jump to another loyalty program, you don’t necessarily have to start over from scratch—airlines and hotels are always looking to take each other’s high-value customers, so you’ll often find that your new program of choice will offer you elite status at least temporarily. This is known as a “status match” or “status challenge.”
Expect to provide proof of your status in the competitor’s program (sometimes with a screenshot of your account history, so they know you actually earned it). Depending on the program, you may have specific requirements to meet within a certain time period to keep that status through the end of the calendar year.
For example, Delta’s Medallion Status Match program gives you complimentary elite status for 3 months; to extend your status beyond that point, you have to fly a specified number of miles or segments and obtain a certain number of Medallion Qualifying Dollars by spending money on Delta tickets or earning them from flights on specific partner airlines—the number of miles or segments. (You can also waive the MQD requirement with spend on a Delta-branded credit card).
Similarly, Hilton’s status match offers Hilton Honors Gold status for 90 days; you can keep that status through March 2022 by staying 10 nights at Hilton hotels during those 90 days, or even bump yourself up to Diamond status with 18 nights in the same time period. (Unlike Delta, though, you can secure both Gold and Diamond status without any hotel stays by simply holding the right credit card).
Many programs, especially airline programs, put restrictions on how often you can use a status match: For example, Delta will make you wait three years after you last received any kind of complimentary status, while Alaska’s status match is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Also, if you’re seeking an airline status match, they typically won’t match elite status with one of their partners—that means that if you have elite status with Air France, KLM or Aeromexico, for example, you won’t be able to get a status match to Delta. So before you decide to request a status match (or make any major change), be sure to read the fine print. (Sensing a theme yet?)
It’s still hard to predict what travel is going to look like in 2021. Airlines and hotels know this and want to stay connected and offer incentives to capture more business as soon as travel is possible for more people. Be sure to keep a close eye on new developments with your favorite programs—there are sure to be more opportunities to come.