Elite Status Owns You, And Your Actions Say It All

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Elite Status Levels

Debunking Elite Status Levels

Elite status is a polarizing topic.  Many attain as many elite status levels as possible.  I was part of this group until several years ago.  Others don’t care much about elite status at all – I’m here now.  Of course, plenty are in the big, wide middle.  Over the years, elite status is the carrot that more travel enthusiasts chase.  The big travel industry entities, most prominently airlines, hotel chains, and rental car companies, have obviously noticed.  I now consider elite status a brilliant deception more than a travel necessity.  Indeed, the travel industry has gotten more clever in sinking their hooks into travelers looking to be elite – whatever that means.  It works.  If someone questions the utility of elite status in his or her own situation, other consumers often defend that elite status and the program which provides it.  Meanwhile, marketing departments around the travel industry take a victory lap.

Enough!  Again, I want to remind everyone that elite status influences behavior.  Here are just a few ways many elite status loyalists – the general “you” in this article – can lose.

You Accept Nonsensical Travel Routings

Rather than flying non-stop to your destination on a carrier where you have no status, you choose to fly a multi-stop itinerary to supposedly leverage your elite status benefits.  You self-select inconvenience so that you can hopefully get upgraded, visit an airline’s mediocre lounge, leverage free baggage benefits, etc.  But how often does the airline upgrade you?  If you do get upgraded, does that domestic first class (aka pretty much economy) seat and extra few seconds of acknowledgement from a flight attendant validate you wasting precious time?  How do those packaged, preservative-filled lounge snacks make you feel?  Maybe there are other benefits.  You probably know way more about ATL, ORD, and DFW than I do.

Elite Status Levels

You Compromise Your Travel Goals

I’ve met several people who decided their travel destinations by where Hyatts are located.  Some mentioned they would have rather have gone to another destination, but there was no Hyatt there.  They must get as much value as possible out of Globalist status while they have it!  I’ve cited this example before, but it warrants repeating.  This is the exact opposite of how I’ve traveled for years.  Picking a hotel to take advantage of elite benefits and subsequently rationalizing a random city or region as a high priority just isn’t my style or align with my goals.  Don’t let elite status levels mess with your priorities.  Choose to be a critical thinker rather than an elite status consumer blind to the costs of your own manipulation.

You Pay More Than Necessary

Elite status lovers pay more for upgradable ticket fares while not being assured of any upgrade.  Meanwhile, airlines’ upgraded profits from this trick are guaranteed.  And, again, even if you’re upgraded, do you truly win?  Sure, you may have used those upgrade certificate placebos that have been advertised to you as a perk.  But did the airline provide enough “extra” in premium class to justify your extra cost for the upgradable ticket?  Upgradable tickets are just another clever way airlines have used to separate consumers from their money.  Put your elite status in timeout, and responsibly calculate the costs versus benefits of buying such a fare.

Elite Status Levels

You Spend Cash Rather Than Points

Spending cash on airfare or a hotel room rather than points is similar, but I think it warrants additional consideration.  Travelers pay with cash rather than points for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Airfare and hotel stays booked with cash contribute to future status qualification, while those from miles/points redemptions may not.
  • Paying with cash allows one to use a guaranteed upgrade.
  • Elites earn bonus points on paid stays.
  • One isn’t offered what they consider to be a good return on a miles/points redemption (in terms of cents per point).

Those are just a few – many more exist, depending on one’s situation.  Regardless of the reason, we must understand one common theme.  You are immediately losing a real asset (cash) while hoarding an unrealized, devaluing one (miles/points).  Travel currencies are worth nothing until you redeem them and consume the product or service.  You can’t control how travel entities devalue their currencies, but you can control how you spend your money.  Cherish what you can control!

Elite Status Levels

You Loiter at the Hotel

Elite hotel status can offer travelers many nice perks throughout any given stay.  Those benefits are often undeniable.  That may not be a good thing.  Instead of getting out and exploring the local area, elite status sucks consumers into staying in to get a perceived fuller value out of the benefits.  For example, hotel lounges routinely offer breakfast, midday snacks, afternoon tea, hors d’oeuvres, and/or evening desserts.  An easy solution for some elites is to avoid leaving the property to maximize this at the expense of exploration and a different form of self actualization.  But hey, the cheese, crackers, domestic light beer, and bottled water were worth it.  Yes, I know some spreads are better than others, but the nosedive many lounges have taken over the years is disappointing.

You Set Unrealistic Expectations

Travel entities provide shiny lists of benefits on their websites and membership materials.  They give many a status to aspire to and others an immediate rush of what they earned.  From my perspective, elite status can introduce another sinister element, sometimes subconsciously – irrational entitlement.  Not only do some expect hotels or airlines to perfectly deliver everything on the bulletized list of elite benefits, they dream of other surprises along the way.  Here are just a few examples – the towel on the bed shaped like a swan, a car waiting on the tarmac waiting to transfer you, an ornate surprise in your room on an anniversary stay, a higher upgrade than any room that’s available.  Sometimes, elites don’t even know what such an item is – they just know they weren’t wowed.  They end up disappointed by a trip that many others would consider perfect.

You Commit Other Acts of Status-Earning Masochism

Elite status enthusiasts, whether they’ve yet to achieve it or are just trying to stay at their current level, involve themselves in all sorts of unique, painful activities.  Here are just a few.

  • Mileage or Mattress Runs:  You fly or book somewhere solely to achieve or maintain airline or hotel elite status levels.
  • Hotel Hopping:  Instead of relaxing at one hotel for the duration of a trip, you jump to stay at different hotels – all in the name of boosting your elite status or points balance.  A more selfish version of this involves subjecting your family to these trips.
  • Inferior Spending Techniques:  You spend on relatively low-earning credit cards because the spend counts towards an elite status.  Never mind that you could do better, maybe even with a 2% cash back credit card.  The American Airlines Loyalty Points structure is the newest maneuver here.

I look forward to hearing all the wacky stuff you’ve done for elite status in the comments!

Conclusion

I absolutely know that all of these actions in the pursuit of elite status are real.  How?  Because years ago, I committed all seven of these acts.  I don’t think I’m alone here.  Of course, based on their cost/benefit analyses in advance, many elite status seekers have assessed that such actions were worth their time and money.  I included myself here, up until several years ago.  With thoughtful analysis prior to pursuit, individuals can win the elite status game.  But I fear everyone playing isn’t actually doing so.  Those individuals are at risk of elite status owning them.

On the bright side, elite status is not an “all or none” proposition – there is certainly a wide middle between “get it as much as possible” and “completely avoid it.”  I’m currently in this vast swath, albeit more at the “avoid it” end.  Our travel elite status currently stands at two we essentially bought – Hilton Diamond and Marriott Gold.  In both instances, they were secondary benefits which came along with higher priority goals – achieving a Hilton Amex Aspire welcome offer and maximizing Amex Membership Rewards cashout by holding a Schwab Platinum.  We have and will continue to take advantage of those elite benefits, but only as they organically come up while we pursue our travel goals.

I encourage each of you to think more critically about elite status.   What are your goals?  How have elite status levels affected your decision making?  Are you okay with that?  Before taking action to obtain elite status, ask yourself if it’s worth the time, money, and control you’ll inevitably give up.  No one else is watching out for you or your specific situation.  Take ownership and travel your own way!

Benjy Harmon
Benjy is a fan of points, miles, and financial independence (FI). An experienced world traveler, husband, and father, he currently focuses on roaming throughout the USA expense-free (or close to it). He enjoys helping others achieve their FI and travel goals.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Agree in regard to airlines, disagree in regard to hotels. I made the switch from worrying about airline miles to completely focusing on hotel points about five years ago, and even with devaluations, I still get incredible value with hotel points if I blow with the wind. I look at it like this, most flights are 2-3 hours, airfare has been stable as long as I have been traveling on a regular basis, about 18 years, other than the oil spike back in 2006-7. Going further back, airfare is cheaper now on an adjusted for inflation basis, but award tickets constantly increase in points or miles. Hotels are getting more expensive every year, and with lodging as a favorite target for local and state governments to add mysterious taxes, award stays become more valuable for keeping cash in your pocket. Hotel stays are often 24 hours versus the 2-3 hours spent on a plane. My normal strategy is stay in as many category 1 properties as possible, combining them with whatever the best promotion is at the time. You can work numbers with Hilton, and sometimes Marriott, to stay for literally 1,000 points a night or less at 5,000 point properties, Mexico and Bali and pretty nice long stay destinations. Build up the points every year, then blow them on a 2-3 week category 7-8 vacation. I travel about 15 percent in the USA, and 85 percent in Asia and the Middle East. Breakfasts and lounges are fantastic and easily worth half the price of the room in my normal travel regions. From a USA perspective, loyalty wouldn’t mean much to me as I would typically stay at HIX, Fairfield, Hyatt Place, etc. I know your story is general advice, I totally agree with the bit about don’t go where the deal is, go where you want to go, but this is my two cents.

  2. Last week, an impending snowstorm in the Rockies meant I needed to arrive a day earlier than our condo reservation at Vail. Hotels were nearly sold out and the cheapest room in the valley was $600 – a result of the resort mania which has taken over popular American destinations. My Hyatt Globalist status got me an $1100/night room in a nearly sold out hotel with free valet parking and a FANTASTIC breakfast buffet. I find people whining about Hyatt’s program to be insufferable – they have the ONLY program that’s still worth a damn – and that’s why I put my meetings at Hyatt Hotels whenever it makes economic sense. OH – on airlines, I actually DO get upgraded on American fairly frequently – although I now include Alaska and Southwest as options for nonstop flights to certain destinations. I’d rather be guaranteed a decent seat, even in coach, and even with a connection, than getting stuck with a center seat on a nonstop where I have to pay for bags, too. Yeah, my time is valuable, but so is my sanity – and I’m willing to spend an extra two hours if the “odds” of an upgrade are in my favor.

    I’m GLAD you road warriors like sitting in center seats and paying extra – but that’s not my style!

  3. Benjy the contrarian strikes again! 😉
    Thank you for your well thought posts.
    Some of us just have fun chasing silly things, and call this a hobby.
    And as we grow older, it is amazing to see what things are entertaining to us.
    Video games, fantasy sports, politics, religion, etc.

  4. Really great article with perspectives that really should be considered.

    I’ll share my psychology as someone chasing AA status. First, everyone values things differently – having the mere possibility of an upgrade offers an exciting possibility that can’t be directly translated into a cash equivalent. Being surprised on a Tuesday morning may actually produce more pleasure neurologically than a paid upgrade. The feeling of a personal greeting, while not personally valuable, may be valuable to some.

    In other words, assuming that the only way to be rationale is to use a cash equivalent valuation basis is subjective.

    I’d also take issue with the general feeling that AA status is going to be overdone. The travel and points blogosphere is a pretty small crowd – the nerdiest of the nerdy points whores that want to actually click on an article – then finish it – talking about the philosophy and psychology of…status seeking? I have a ton of friends who already have AA status who haven’t even bothered to look up this new loyalty points system. Do we really think they’re all going to become EXP?

    Then you start to actually think through all the strategies one can use to chase status through AA, as a recent example. Let’s think of loyalty points via hotel spent. Many corporate travelers can’t use the Rocketmiles or AA hotels portal because they have to use their own corporate travel portal or preferred vendors. So, the biggest road warriors are pretty much cut off from that status route. At the same time, AA status has doubled in difficulty through flying alone. Then enters the idea of spending your way to 200,000 loyalty points via credit card spend. So, you think the average American is spending $200,000 on a credit card in a year? What about wine club memberships and meal kits – most are one time offers that would get you 30,000 points in or so, but are non-repeatable – not just this year, but moving forward. So we think the average person is going to spend a lot of time and a decent amount of money ordering all these kits to get 30,000 points? Even if, they get Gold and we’re worrying about a flood of EXP’s?

    Put these together and think about the psychology – if I’m an average person and any one of these routes only gets me to Gold status or maybe Platinum if I double down, am I really willing to change my entire consumer behavior for that? Realistically, I think most people do some quick math and don’t even begin because the end target doesn’t seem either achievable or worth it.

    So, to sum, I definitely think people are influenced by artificial rewards with little mathematical value, similar to lottery tickets, but the feeling of a lottery ticket – even knowing the odds – may still be worth it. At the same time, the number of people that will likely enter this game I think is vastly over-estimated by the fairly tiny and insular travel blogger community that conflates their digital nomad friends with the average American on the DFW-CLT Monday morning commute upgrade waitlist.

  5. Every month I maximize all my cards earning 1.5 or 2 points. After that instead of earning 1 membership reward I spend on Hyatt or Hilton cards which gives me status also and earning rate comparable. I hope this is okay strategy.

  6. -Stands and applauds-

    Spot on, sir. There are certain programs I have more points in than others, but loyalty? Please. I’m loyal to whatever airline/hotel is the most convenient for the next destination I will be visiting. For hotels, more often than not it doesn’t involve a chain with a loyalty program.

      • “I’ve met several people who decided their travel destinations by where Hyatts are located. Some mentioned they would have rather have gone to another destination, but there was no Hyatt there.”

        ^This. This is how ridiculous it is. I’ve met several people like this. Blows my mind.

  7. Benjy I hope you have a fire truck on standby cause you’re probably going to set some folks on FIRE with this article. LOL! I wholeheartedly agree with you…but I live in a place where there’s no captive airline hub so I just pick the flight that works best for me and hopefully I have enough universal transfer currency to make the booking with points.

    I’m not loyal to any airline but I do have some that I absolutely refuse to fly with regardless or non-stop routing. Southwest, Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant, are airlines that I just refuse to fly with. I hate the boarding process of Southwest and I hate the way the others go about business when things go wrong such as delays and mechanical breakdowns.

    No airline is perfect but at least the bigger U.S. carriers will make an attempt at getting you to your destination within a day or so…Frontier and the likes will tell you to kick rocks and deal with it.

    This article is perfectly timed as over the past few days I’ve rea countless comments about folks bragging about their status via this marketing scheme AA has going with Loyalty Points. This will turn out to be the new Hilton Diamond status…where everyone has it so it really isn’t worth the paper the benefits are printed on.

    What does Platinum Pro or Executive mean when the upgrade list has 50 other folks with the exact same status hoping for an upgrade? It means absolutely nothing. Rather than play stupid loyalty games I just book what I want so I don’t have to worry about the off chance of hoping the points and miles god shines one down on me.

    If this article gets traction I’m sure the comment section will be on fire.

    Good write up…I always appreciate your perspective.

    • 2808 Heavy,
      Thanks for the kind words! Something I’ve caught myself saying more often these days is, “If everyone has status, no one has status.” I feel like that easily applies to this AA Loyalty Points red herring.

  8. I think this is a very narrow perspective. I travel for work, and I buy meals out – often for clients – which results in inflated restaurant spend. My preferred card? My Macy’s Amex. It gets 3% back on restaurants, and when I combine that with the regular 25% off coupons I get, that’s 3.75% in returns at a place I’d regularly shop at for things I’d normally buy.

    Hotels? If I have two superchains relatively close to each other at a similar price point, why not pick the one I have better benefits at? When traveling for work, being at the hotel working from my room odd hours can be the norm, so having a known good place to get up, get some coffee, have a larger workspace, etc. can be worthwhile. Maybe I pick the one slightly farther way, adding an extra 5 min to my walk… but then I get to USE those points for travel with my significant other.

    One more thing – somethings a small upfront fee is worth the downstream benefit. Example: I have several IHG stays coming up that are the best choice for the dates/location I’m at (and I’m already IHG Platnium). Buying up to Ambassador status for $200, getting the equivalent of $100 in points back, and getting a “free weekend night is a no-brainer.” Functionally $100 for enough points for two nights somewhere and a second night somewhere where rooms are $200+/night when flying my partner in for a weekend getaway? Slam dunk.

    Like anything, consider the cost/benefit. To your point, I don’t keep a lot of points – I use them as I accrue them – because they devalue. But with constant earning, there’s constant use.

    • If you are earning status via paid stays from work then that is a different combination. You would be much better off with a 4% cash back card at Restaurants or 4X or 5X points earning card and use the money / points anywhere, including Macy’s. Unless the 25% off coupons require spend they shouldn’t be included in your calculations since they can be used with the superior cash back you earn from a much better card. This also doesn’t include that you can often get Macy’s gift cards at 10%+ off pretty much any time you want which discounts the currency you are earning with the card.

    • Mike,
      Beyond what Mark said, it seems you and I may agree more than you think. All other things being equal, I’d probably pick the hotel chain I have the better status with, too. It just so happens for me, all other things are rarely equal, if ever. And with your IHG analysis, you determined buying into Ambassador was a net win. That’s a great example of “winning the elite status game”, which I alluded to in the conclusion. Bravo!

  9. Well I’m sure some are irrational, but I think I’ve found my balance. Airline status is pretty useless to me. I fly F/J internationally on award ticketing, so I get all the benefits anyway, and domestic Y is good enough, since I rarely check bags and I almost always have access to a lounge from a CC benefit, and with Clear and precheck, I am way over getting to the airport early to get free food and drinks, now I’d rather get there as late as possible. Domestic F is not worth fretting over, considering how rare the upgrades would come.

    So that leaves hotel status, and that offers tangible value. I will stay at Hyatts if possible because free breakfast and reliable upgrades are actually valuable to me. Backup status with Hilton and to a lesser degree Marriott are very easy to maintain via CC. You could say “but you’re forgoing Airbnb or small chains as an option!”. Well first, I hate Airbnb, too unreliable, too hard to rectify situation, arrival time is often a problem, I’m just done with them. So yeah, I might miss out on the rare time a small or independent chain is the best option, but I also don’t waste countless hours hunting them down, since I’m never going to be ripped off considering the benefits I’m getting.

  10. Enslaved by as opposed to owned by.

    Jim F — and everyone else — ask yourself a simple question: What does elite status give me that I don’t already have . . . other than a higher points earning rate? If I have elite status, what benefit do I *actually* receive (to an extent that I receive *meaningful* value)? You’ll find that if you’re willing to pay for domestic first class, you’ll receive (virtually) all of the benefits that tier status would provide.

    • I get it, Reno Joe, and I appreciate your attempt to simplify this dilemma. I’m responding — not to argue or rationalize — but because I think this question is so important and I, for one, want to peel back as many layers to this onion as possible. You ask what benefit I actually receive that I wouldn’t get with a first class ticket. As I indicated, I am in the unenviable position of being a hub captive and there’s a virtual absence of lounges at CLT. I also often experience shorter wait times and better service/help when calling the EP line. But, perhaps the biggest barrier to exit is the often predatory pricing at CLT. I have been more successful and spent less by buying and upgrading economy tickets than paying the price for first class. So if “cash is king”, I need to compare the cost of buying first class tickets to the cost per Loyalty Point to maintain status. Finally, I realize that most folk aren’t hub captives and I’d love to see a ratiional “formula” for weighing/making this decision.

      • And, I understand your situation — it is what it is. But, given your circumstances, you’re devised your own optimal situation — you haven’t *chased* tier status. And, that’s fine.

        In an article on a different site, the author admonished readers to not let one’s personal identity be defined by tier status. And, I think Benjy’s article folds into this concept. Some people do chase tier status. They make less than optimal choices and they spend on mileage / mattress runs. It is to these individuals who are *chasing* tier status that I ask “what are you really getting for all of this extra effort?” and “is there another way to obtain the same benefits?”

        Best of luck.

  11. This piece literally made me change a future trip I had planned from “pay with cash on Alaska so I can put myself in position to requalify for MVP in 2023” to “nah, screw it, I have Delta Gold until early 2023 and there’s a cheap flight outbound using Delta miles, a way to get Delta One on pay with miles coming back that burns off balance, and this will use some more of my AMEX airline miscellaneous credit”.

    I was already looking at 2023 being free agency, this just moved it up.

    • eponymous coward,
      Hopefully, I don’t randomly hear from you in 2023, cursing me due to some obscure Alaska rule applied to non-elites. 😉 Thanks for reading!

  12. Think I have best of both worlds. After around 35 years of heavy travel I retired w lifetime status on AA and DL (around 3 million miles on each) and lifetime Marriott Titanium. In addition I have a status match on UA to Platinum through 2022 and top or next to top on most hotel groups through credit cards, spend or matches. Therefore I get all the benefits of elite status without being tied to any one program. I fly and stay on the airline/hotel that best meets my requirements (which change based on specific trip and if I am traveling alone or w family).

  13. A ledger must also be kept for hotel non-elites: how much are you actually paying for breakfast & water/snacks for a family of 4 while on the road? if you can’t get into a property early after your plane lands (or hang out there til you need to leave for the airport), how much money are you instead spending in the airport or elsewhere killing time? how many $45/day + tax could you be saving with free elite parking – how many $30-$50+/day resort fees could you spend elsewhere? how many extra rooms do you pay for because you didn’t get a free suite upgrade with a sofa sleeper or enough room for a rollaway?

    Conversely, if you don’t stay at expensive properties with some regularity, elite status is too expensive to get to receive enough benefit to justify. But if this is finally the year for you (& maybe your family?) for the new Conrad Tulum; Woodlands Resort Curio; Park Hyatt LA; JW Marriott Savannah; Thompson San Antonio then you can clean up.

  14. Great thought piece, Benjy! Does the needle move (with regard to airlines) if one is a hub captive as I am living 20 minutes from CLT where AA has a virtual monopoly (91% +) of all flights? I can drive 3+ hours to RDU and get cheaper fares but that drive and, now with the costs of gas spiking, has its own costs. Am I rationalizing my continued pursuit of AA status or am I a logical actor? It’s an interesting dilemma.

    • Jim F.,
      Indeed, your situation makes it a bit trickier to resolve. Revalidating the utility of the status may be warranted more often. It’s also good you’re cognizant of your own bias toward achieving said status. It sounds like you’re aware of your own blind spots and weaknesses here, so I’m confident you’ll figure it out by consistently weighing the costs versus benefits!

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