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Updated: Jan 3, 2022, 8:44am
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. (We know—we said that last year, too).
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 or 2021, it’s probably been automatically extended through a portion of next year as well.
For those who flew or stayed in hotels during 2021, there’s a good chance status earned will count toward next year’s status qualification. Even with an increase in travel this year, many programs have extended the already loosened requirements 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 or more opportune 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 often considered a grave offense. Hotel chains and airlines are experts at applying rose-colored glasses to those who have achieved elite status with titles like “titanium” and “platinum pro”.
But airlines and hotels aren’t people; relationships with companies are business, not personal. You haven’t any moral obligation to keep doing business with one company if another is a better fit for your needs (try as those companies might to convince you 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 or in the routing of an airline or quality of service from a company made your previously-preferred program less convenient? Here are a few clear-eyed factors to consider before deciding to switch loyalty programs.
Loyalty program managers are still 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 and slowdown.
American Airlines is offering more ways to earn and keep elite status in 2022 plus an extension of current status up to March 31, 2022. United is maintaining a 25% reduction in status requirements. Alaska made it easier to qualify for status when flying partner airlines through Oneworld alliance and a 2021 status extension until April 30, 2022. Hilton has reduced its standard requirements by 30%.
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 great opportunity to earn elite status through the beginning of 2023.
Take a hard, realistic look at travel plans for the year and any relevant changes in life circumstances. Did you move to another city with better service from a different airline? Have your job responsibilities changed in ways affecting your business travel? Are you still expecting to travel for celebrations pushed back to 2022 or 2023?
Make a reasonable prediction of your travel plans for the calendar year—as best you can given the uncertainty around Covid-19 variants and travel restrictions—and compare it with your preferred loyalty program’s requirements. If the requirements 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 (aside from 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 it 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.
As elite status becomes harder to obtain and many status benefits become increasingly available through other means, the beginning of the year and the accompanying reset always marks 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 2022 stays more likely to be at limited-service hotels where breakfast is free for everyone?
How do the answers to these questions 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 better in the long run because there’s no anxiety about your seat or suite upgrade clearing.
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 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 until only 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.
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 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 the status through the end of the calendar year and hopefully for the next year as well.
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 2023 by staying 5 nights at Hilton hotels during those 90 days, or even bump yourself up to Diamond status with 9 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) place 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, programs typically won’t match elite status with a partner—this means if you have elite status with Air France, KLM or Aeromexico, for example, you won’t be able to get a status match with 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 difficult—if not more difficult—to predict what travel will look like in 2022. Airlines and hotels know this and want to stay connected and offer incentives to capture more business (or retain what business they can). Be sure to keep a close eye on new developments with your favorite programs or programs you want to switch to—there are sure to be more opportunities to come.
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Chauncey grew up on a farm in rural northern California. At 18 he ran away and saw the world with a backpack and a credit card, discovering that the true value of any point or mile is the experience it facilitates. He remains most at home on a tractor, but has learned that opportunity is where he finds it and discomfort is more interesting than complacency.
Caroline Lupini is the Credit Card and Travel Analyst for Forbes Advisor. She’s a credit card enthusiast and digital nomad who has leveraged credit cards to travel around the world for next to nothing, often in style. Prior to working for Forbes, she contributed to other leading publications in the credit cards and rewards space. She would like to visit every country and try as many different local culinary specialties as possible.