Elite Status – The Travel Industry’s Brilliant Deception

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Elite Status Overvalued

Is Elite Status Overvalued?  Here Are the Primary Reasons I Think So

Elite status remains a huge topic in our hobby, for travelers, writers, and podcasters alike.  I like receiving the benefits of elite status, albeit less than previously.  I enjoy thinking about the topic and sharing my views, both pro and con.  But I feel elite status has gone too far lately.  Elite status programs from a variety of airline and hotel heavyweights have seemingly played into their overall strategies of monetizing their loyalty programs and borrowing against them.  Desperate times have apparently called for desperate measures.  As consumers, we can rightly take advantage of a newfound ease in obtaining elite status, sometimes at the top tier.  Of course, many achieve elite status as part of their normal travel patterns, work-related or otherwise.  But is elite status overvalued?  In my opinion, yes.  Let’s get into the primary reasons I think so.

Paying Now for Little (or No) Benefit

Multiple Hyatt promotions have recently circulated where a World of Hyatt Member can achieve top-tier Globalist status fairly easily with cash or points stays.  Frontier Airlines shamelessly allows members to pay for elite status.  In general, companies are asking you to pay for something now without providing any meaningful, tangible, immediate benefit.  From my perspective, companies are coming up with new ways to get money (or other assets) from us quickly, and these fast-tracks to elite status are just one example.

Before you go down this road, look at the true benefits of the status and how much you will actually use them.  Many times, I surprise myself at how useless various status benefits would be to me.  Not surprisingly, I then easily talk myself out of these strategies.  It’s key to be honest with yourself here – don’t try to talk yourself into a trip, hotel, or benefit you wouldn’t normally have any interest in.  Some benefits, like eligibility for upgrades, may never be realized, and other benefits gradually degrade over the long term.  Programs can take away benefits at any time of their choosing.

The pandemic also makes the amount of benefit you can obtain from any elite status even more uncertain.  Sure, some companies have enticed us with extending out these benefits for a second year, but the amount we actually will use the benefits is still an estimate.  And an estimate we conveniently and substantially round up on, I think.

Elite Status Overvalued
The Southwest Companion Pass is a worthy pursuit only for those with an active, clear plan for using it.

One Example

The Southwest Companion Pass (similar to chasing elite status) is a great example here.  Years ago, I obtained this pass through strategic credit card applications and normal spend.  How many times did I actually use the Companion Pass?  Zero.  Southwest has subsequently made achieving the Companion Pass more challenging since, and many have gone to much greater lengths (and expenses) to achieve it.  Have all those people used the Companion Pass enough to justify their efforts and expenses?  I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure.

Giving Up Your Freedom

Travel “Free Agency”

I’m proud to say I’m a travel free agent the vast majority of the time.  I only hold Hilton Honors Diamond status, IHG Platinum status, and some random car rental elite status thanks to the Amex Platinum.  These are all status from credit cards where I obtain other benefits that outweigh the annual fees I pay.  In other words, I would hold these cards even if elite status wasn’t offered.  Other than that, I don’t hold any other travel elite status.  I don’t have an urgent need to limit my travel opportunities and experiences to a specific subset of airlines or hotels.  In general, I decide where I want to go and what I want to do there, and I subsequently pick the airline and hotel that best meet my needs.

Elite Status Promotes the Opposite Approach

In reality, it seems that many take the opposite approach based on the elite status they hold.  On multiple occasions, people have told me about how they have wanted to visit a specific vacation destination, but they decided against taking the trip because there was no Hyatt.  Their loyalty and elite status dictated their behavior.  They forfeited their freedom of choice to Hyatt.  What about some examples with airlines?  “I’d fly non-stop on X Airline, but I’ll make a stop on Y Airline because I need EQM’s/EQS’s with them.”  “I’ll take a couple hops on the chance I can get upgraded.”  Some willingly give up their travel freedom and preferred travel lifestyle for elite status.  Indeed, the “loyalty” part of “loyalty program” is working on them.

Of course, we all can fall into these traps.  Sometimes, they make sense for a person’s situation.  Regardless, be cognizent of your loyalty vulnerabilities and make more thoughtful decisions with your eyes wide open.

Elite Status Overvalued
I have no plans to hold airline elite status ever again.

An Unnecessary Distraction

Elite status is one more thing to track and tend to.  It takes time, effort, and money to obtain and efficiently use.  Of course, some people love the earning side.  Using the elite status is fun but can take significant amounts of those resources to maximize.  I say “No, thanks” to that stuff, in general.

Life is busy enough.  A growing list of items compete for our most valuable resource – time.  With so much out of our control, I carefully guard the things I can control.  One of those items is my time.  Elite status is just another distraction to me.  Perhaps if I naturally traveled a lot more on a specific airline or stayed more with a specific hotel chain, I would think differently in this cost/benefit analysis.  For certain very frequent travelers, the benefits can clearly outweigh the costs.

Before pursuing elite status, ask yourself if you are enjoying the journey of it all.  Also, do you really want or need the elite status?  Would you rather be doing something else?  These seem like obvious questions, but it’s easy to fall into the “I need this status” trap.  And just because there is a “great deal” for a given status doesn’t mean it’s worth pursuing in your situation.

Elite Status Overvalued

Elite Status Discourages Exploration

In years past when I had several top tier elite status, we’ve checked into hotels and experienced impeccable lounges and property benefits.  We found ourselves sticking around the hotel more so that we could take advantage of all the different lounge offerings throughout the day.  Not coincidentally, we didn’t end up exploring the locale as much as we had hoped.  The hotel didn’t care about that – they cared about keeping us on property more so that we would hopefully spend more money.  We also noticed that we weren’t as open to trying out different airlines when we had top tier status with a given airline.

Of course, some destinations are centered around a specific resort experience.  I’m a big fan of one of them – Walt Disney World.  In many situations, though, the benefits of elite status can unknowingly pin you into a subset of activities and discourage you from getting out and exploring local sights.  Those local experiences, planned or spontaneous, are where the true magic of travel happens, at least for us.

Acknowledge your own travel weaknesses and blind spots.  Challenge yourself to not only enjoy your travel, but to grow from it, as well.

Is Elite Status Overvalued?  Conclusion

Elite status can be great, but know that your own goals should come first.  We plan our travel based on our goals, and if elite status can organically mesh into those experiences, great!  If not, that’s fine, too, because we are still traveling for the right reasons for us.  Make loyalty programs, elite status, and points currencies work for you in meeting your goals.  Don’t become a prisoner to any of those corporate creations.  And definitely go after elite status if the benefits outweigh the costs in your situation.  Is elite status overvalued in your opinion?  Why or why not?

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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36 COMMENTS

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36 COMMENTS

  1. Good article. I have jumped through hoops the last few years and enjoyed all the benefits, but going forward travel will be limited and I will have to probably part with my gold UA status. The last year I have been thinking ….okay so I don’t have lounge access, or front of line, or…. it is hard to part with but at some point I assign a $ amount to each benefit and see if it is worth it. Thank you for the reminder to not get caught up in the hype.

  2. Hi Benjy – this is a great article. I have had top status (including United Global Services) on all three major US airlines in the past 4 years. I do wonder if its worth it. Your point about taking extra stops and picking an airline that doesn’t make sense rings true. As the perks get more and more watered down I am getting closer to the point where I actually put pen to paper and see if its better to just spend when I want to go somewhere and choose the cabin I want to fly in.

    • Bob,

      Your predicament is definitely not a unique one – many have been there (including me in the past). Doing the pen/paper exercise and crunching the numbers isn’t always fun but definitely a worthy effort.

  3. IROPs and overbookings show one huge, tangible benefit of Elite Status.
    Both during and pre-Covid I have been rebooked, evacuated, upgraded, put up at hotels, transported, etc. during IROPs in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America while non-elites waited hours or days standing online, waiting on the phone or solving problems alone and with their own money.

    • DC,

      Thanks for sharing how elite benefits have helped you particularly during the pandemic. Stay safe out there!

  4. Hi. Great overview and you raised some really good points. I think that if you have more flexibility to your travel plans, such as being retired, there are some really great opportunities to put together high quality trips, “elite” journeys in biz/ first and nicely upgraded hotel rooms. But if you are traveling for biz and your schedule is not completely in your control, having status that gets you to shorter lines is worth it’s weight in gold…no pun intended! 🙂 The other trap from all these programs is the program owner can constantly downgrade / move the goal posts as to the value of your hard earned points..

    • Marc,

      You bring up great thoughts for and against status, and each are definitely valid depending on one’s specific situation. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hiya Benjy, I am an EP with AA and have been for about 15 years. I do the SFO/JFK r/t about 25 times a year. I buy coach – seat 11F – and it is my best estimate that i get up-graded to business about 85% of the time, wifey too. Other tangible benefits include jumping various lines, system-wide upgrades, etc. I think you are underselling the value the frequent flyer status programs. However, now AA is no long flying SFO-JFK non-stop. Dumb bastards. Everyone else (UA, SW, Delta, JetBlue) is. So that handicap (see phoenix?, enjoy charlotte??) is insurmountable and i have become a devotee of UA. So another measure of the value of the EP Status is convenience, would I value the joy of a stop in that crappy substation at LAX for EP status, i guess not.

    • Jon,

      I appreciate you chiming in! Clearly you value the benefits you obtain, like several other commenters do. As long as your benefits outweigh the costs, great! I know many out there aren’t assessing this, though. Couple that with companies convincing consumers to spend time, money, and effort for “easy” elite status, I fear consumers are the ones who are getting the short end of the stick moreso than the companies.

  6. Elite status on Frontier? That’s funny. I would rather crawl to my destination on broken glass than fly Frontier.

    • Mike,

      Haha, I hear you. What I find hilarious about their top tier status is much of what they give comes automatically to all Southwest flyers.

  7. Benjy,
    One thing that you fail to mention is when there is an issue and a travel disruption. That is where I get to talk to a customer service agent faster, and then they try harder to get me to where I need to be. There is also the access to lounges when flying Internationally on an Economy ticket, and due to my status I get to sit in a nice lounge and eat and drink for free. These are small things, but when you have a 4 hr layover in Heathrow the BA lounges are a godsend.
    I will agree that there is only so far I will go for my status, but the privileges’ and support for me make it worth an extra $50 to fly on my chosen airline.

    • Robin,

      You make great points! The key is you highly value and use the elite status benefits that you made an effort to obtain. It seems you are coming out ahead in the cost/benefit equation. I obtain lounge benefits via other means, but I certainly understand I’m giving up certain networks of lounges. From the customer service angle, I understand as a no-status guy I may end up dealing with more challenges. I just assess the costs/benefits differently for my situation. Regardless, we can both be correct! Thanks for reading.

  8. “In general, I decide where I want to go and what I want to do there, and I subsequently pick the airline and hotel that best meet my needs.”

    Flexibility is one of many reasons my wife and I will never, ever buy a timeshare. Why give up options? The difference between Elite Status and a timeshare is, you can let Elite Status expire at no cost. A timeshare is a real fishhook…

    • Rick,

      Great thought bringing timeshares into the conversation. I consider them a “hard no” even moreso for our situation, so they weren’t on my mind while writing. But your thoughts definitely apply!

  9. As many of the comments suggest, one’s strategy on pursuing elite benefits really depends on who is paying the bills. For business travel it makes sense, especially if one’s business does not pay for the likes of business class seats or lounge passes. I have worked and traveled for non-profits for 30 years, all in economy class. The elite benefits were a welcome balance to the lower salaries paid by many NGOs. But the shift to counting dollars rather than miles has completely killed any advantage to my category of fliers. So I am not won the Benjy plan.

    • Ronald,

      Fair enough! I agree that if someone else is paying the bills (work travel, for instance), this can change the calculus, as I alluded to in the intro. Incorporating those elite benefits into your situation seems to be a no-brainer.

  10. Hello There Benjy, overall, I think that I agree with you. As a lifelong traveler, I have earned status on domestic airlines and with multiple hotel partners (AA Executive Platinum for 20 years with 6 million miles, Delta Diamond for many years, Marriott Platinum Elite, etc. with others such as Hilton and Hyatt). I also earned top tier status with EVA Air (Diamond) and Cathay Pacific. And although I am within one year of retiring from my main “day job”, I also own a company (sole owner) here in the U.S. and have an office in Asia (have 20 employees in the U.S., and 17 in Asia).
    So I have enjoyed the perks. But a few years ago, I received a “nasty wake up surprise” from AA when they created their Concierge Key. One night I went to bed as one of American’s best and most coveted travelers, and the next morning I woke up to find myself as a very downgraded person with many fewer perks.
    So the moral to the story is that, as you say Benjy, these airlines and hotels can take away anything at any time, can change the perks at will, and can “cheapen” earning advance status in multiple ways.
    Bottom line to me is that I am now a totally Free Agent. I still will need to travel very often to my office in Asia (once travel to there resumes). But my loyalty to AA has totally evaporated.
    I will by my Business Class and/or First Class tickets as best suits me without any eye on these elite tier programs.
    Besides, I am AA Platinum for life, Marriott Platinum for life, and have similar advantages with other hotels/airlines.
    The pandemic has changed MANY things. Yes, the airlines and hotels will continue to change their programs, but, as Rhett Butler said in Gone With The Wind, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”.
    EdSparks58

    • EdSparks58,

      Thanks for sharing, especially your ConciergeKey story. Indeed, these companies have the power to change anything at any time, and we are left holding a big bag of (almost) nothing. But now, you seem to have the best of both worlds (being a Free Agent while also holding various lifetime elite status), similar to what AA Flyer shared below. Enjoy!

  11. Good article. Regarding Southwest Companion Pass, I’ve had it the past five years and have used it a ton. My wife now travels with me when I travel for work, so that is anywhere from 10-15 uses alone. Add vacations, (only 2 last year, thanks COVID, but 4 times in 2019 including two Mexico destinations) and weekend getaways (3 in 2019, none in 2020) and the value for me is terrific.

    I qualified for the Companion Pass this year in a combination of travel through March and taking advantage of bonus offers. This year might be tricky, we’ll see. It would be nice to use the pass this year, but that’s still a bit up in the air still, we’ll see how the COVID response goes.

    • Kevin,
      Awesome! I’m glad you’ve been able to historically obtain great value out of the Companion Pass. I’m jealous I never was able to! Thanks for reading.

    • Tell us how you really feel AJ lol. I removed your other comment for profanity. If you want be able to continue to comment here keep the F bombs out of it. Show some class going forward. You can disagree with an opinion but no reason to go there.

      As Benjy said status works for some people and not for others…and it doesn’t work for him. Pretty sure it has been proven that status leads to people paying more in the long run to get those benefits vs booking the best deal available. Some people still find it worth it and others don’t. Not sure why Benjy falling in the don’t side of things has you so up in arms but hope you have a great rest of the day and you find some happiness out there.

  12. Benjy – Great article and I totally agree. For many of us in the hobby, it’s best to stick with maximizing our limited travel time not chasing elite status just for status sake. In the context of having a job in the US where vacation time isn’t “automatic” like it is in Europe or elsewhere time is everything! I for one got the Southwest Companion Pass and used it twice. Not worth the mental effort and time put in!

    I read this just as I was contemplating a mattress run for Hyatt Globalist before the end of February. Suffice to say based on my previous travel patterns it’s unlikely that I’d use it enough to take advantage but it’s easy to convince myself I hypothetically would (and then not follow through). Life is meant to be lived not hoarded. Cheers.

  13. Excellent article Benjy! I think the elite status is very valuable for people who travel extensively for work. While of course very nice to have for those of us who are leisure travelers, it is not as valuable since we are not on the road as often.
    I totally agree with you regarding being a Free Agent and also letting the travel goal dictate which flights/airlines to take and which hotels to stay in, and not the other way around. In my earlier days of the points and miles hobby, the flights and hotels dictated where I went and what I did, but that is not the case anymore.

    • Jacob B.,

      I appreciate the kind words, and thanks for reading! Indeed, elite status is truly not a “one size fits all” benefit.

  14. Benjy – Like you I am a travel free agent and agree chasing status is often overrated. However I have the best of both worlds as a result of extensive business travel since the mid 80s (8 million miles and a couple thousand hotel nights). I’m retired but have lifetime Platinum status on AA and lifetime Gold on DL (each with around 3 million miles) plus lifetime Titanium w Marriott. Then you add United Silver, Hilton Diamond, IHG Platinum, Hyatt Explorist and Best Western + Wyndham Diamond (all w credit cards or status matches) and I have the benefits of elite status without having to chase it.

    As a retiree with a lot of miles/points plus free cash flow that can easily cover my travel needs I love my situation. Can do whatever I want but can also fall back on elite status as appropriate.

  15. There’s an awful lot of YMMV. I love my Globalist status with Hyatt. Not only does Hyatt have the best priced award chart of any major chain but the top tier benefits have been amazing. Likewise for Starwood back in the day. I get great value from Hyatt, and until and unless I get Bonvoyed, I’ll stick with them.

  16. Some elite statuses come with tangible benefits, and could be worth aiming for if it can be done cheaply. Take for example the 2019 Cathay Pacific error fare, I got Alaska MVP Gold 75k through that and a boatload of Alaska miles. With the COVID-19 pandemic Alaska has extended elite status into 2021 which coincides with them joining OW – I now will have access to exquisite first class lounge experiences throughout the OW network.

  17. When I was a business traveler, must of those of those top tier airline status came with flying so much. It was nice getting the better seats and upgrades, but now it is not important to chase when the long flights are now business class and positioning flights are short.

    Currently spending the week at a Courtyard in the Keys and the daily vouchers and wonderful room are nice benefits of Marriott Lifetime Elite status. The Hyatt Globalist will be very useful over the next couple of years when staying at their resorts and those weekend away’s at a nice Hyatt. I am using Hyatt points earned off of Staples free gift cards. Very little cost out of our pocket for this. Plus, my wife can do her virtual teaching from any of those Hyatts.

    • Byron,

      Thanks for chiming in. Those who can obtain elite status simply through business travel have it made! It sounds like you have the nuances down for your situation and are getting lots out of the status you have. Awesome!

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