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At the beginning of most years, frequent travelers look sadly at their loyalty accounts as their elite status qualification counters are reset, marking the beginning of a new rise up the status ladder.
This isn’t most of the years.
Almost every airline and hotel loyalty program has made huge concessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you had 2020 status, it was likely automatically renewed until the end of next year.
For those who managed to fly or stay in hotels during the year, there is a good chance the status earned will count towards the next year’s status qualification. Many programs have made it easier than ever to achieve elite status in the next year. For those who have never had elite status, reaching for it now might be attractive – and for those who have it, switching allegiances may never have been easier.
The elite status is supposed to manipulate emotions – after all, it is not for nothing that they are referred to as “loyalty programs” and not as “reward programs”. Our culture generally regards loyalty as a good thing, and leaving someone we are loyal to is a grave offense.
But airlines and hotels are not people; Relationships with companies are business, not personal. Nobody has a moral obligation to do business with one company when another is better suited to their needs (try how these companies could convince them otherwise).
Has your dream program let you down with major changes in elite qualifications or a devaluation of the price list? Has a change in your life made your previously preferred program less convenient? Here are some business-oriented factors to consider before making a decision to switch loyalty programs.
Eligibility requirements for elite status for 2021
Loyalty program managers strive to strike the right balance to draw people back to their airlines and hotels and to give too much away at a time of unprecedented financial losses.
American Airlines elites will need 20% fewer miles to qualify for status in 2021, and United will need about 25% fewer miles. Alaska has made it easier to qualify for status when flying with partner airlines – especially useful as it prepares to join the Oneworld alliance. Jetblue, Hyatt and Hilton have halved their requirements.
If there’s an airline or hotel program that you wanted to get but couldn’t achieve, it may be time to take another look – this could be a perfect opportunity to get elite status by early 2023 to get.
Is your dream program no longer the best?
Take a hard and realistic look at travel plans for the year and any relevant changes in living conditions. Have you moved to another city that has better service from another airline? Have your job responsibilities changed in ways that could change your business travel by the time you (finally) get back on the road? Are you expecting specific trips for celebrations postponed to 2021 or 2022?
Make a reasonable prediction of your travel plans for the calendar year – as best you can, given the uncertainty surrounding vaccines and travel restrictions – and compare that to the needs of your preferred loyalty program. If they no longer fit well, it may be time to explore other options. You can start with a “best case” and a “worst case” set of predictions and then find the balance somewhere in between that makes the most sense to you.
Note that if your travel plans stem from a major life event (other than COVID-19), especially if it involves childbirth, it is probably worth reaching out to the loyalty program to see if your status can be reported or adopting a child will act on hold or help you get them back faster. Some airlines have published guidelines such as: Alaska’s “Elite Vacation”, Deltas “Reclaim my status”, and Air Canada parental leave status renewal; others may grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, so it never hurts to ask.
Does it even make sense to strive for elite status this year?
With elite status becoming harder to achieve and many status perks becoming increasingly available in other ways, the start of the year and the usual restart that goes with it is always a good time to take stock of whether your elite perks outweigh the cost .
Which advantages are most important to you? How much would it cost to get these benefits in other ways, e.g. Take advantage of the “free breakfast” offered by many elite hotel statuses, or spend 2021 in limited-service hotels where breakfast is free for everyone (or are you suspicious of a hotel breakfast in our current climate )?
How does that compare to the cost of maintaining your status – taking less convenient routes, buying more expensive tickets and hotel rooms, or planning year-end miles or mattress runs?
For some travelers, it may make most sense not to seek elite status at all and instead focus on redeeming miles and points or buying the services they want regardless of airline or hotel. This is also known as Be Your Own Elite (BYOE). Those who choose to buy services a la carte can get away with it both financially and mentally in the long run, as you don’t have to wonder if your seat or suite upgrade is possible.
Is the grass really greener?
If you’re looking for a new loyalty program, do some research on how advertised Elite Perks work – there are a few key differences and reading the fine print is important.
Take flight changes on the same day as an example. United is super flexible – you can switch to almost any available route within 24 hours of your original departure as long as the original fare class is available (which is usually just before departure). delta will charge non-elite members $ 75 and will not allow you to transfer to non-stop flights or make changes to international itineraries (excluding Canada), and American requires that you keep the exact same routing as your original ticket. (American and United allow any passenger, regardless of status, to wait for an earlier flight for free.)
When it comes to seating with extra legroom, there are also significant differences between the programs: American and United allow most elites to choose Main Cabin Extra or Economy Plus seats at the time of booking (with lowest tier elites being given access at check-in if seats are available), while mid-tier delta and Alaska Elites usually have to wait for an upgrade list just a few days before departure to get seats in Comfort Plus and Premium Classes.
Also take into account any partnership benefits that you receive as a perk of your elite status, such as:
What to do if you decide to move on
If you decide to switch to a different loyalty program, you don’t necessarily have to start over – airlines and hotels are always on the lookout for each other’s high-quality customers, so you will often find that the new program of choice is yours, at least temporarily offer elite status. This is known as a “status match” or “status challenge”.
Expect to have proof of your status in the competitor’s program (sometimes with a screenshot of your account history so they know you actually deserved it). Depending on the program, you may have to meet certain requirements within a certain period of time in order to maintain this status through the end of the calendar year.
For example, Delta’s Medallion Status Match Program gives you elite status free for 3 months; To extend your status beyond this point, you must fly a certain number of miles or segments and earn a certain number of Medallion Qualifying Dollars by spending money on Delta tickets or earning them on flights with certain partner airlines – the number of Miles or segments. (You can also waive the MQD requirement by issuing a Delta branded credit card).
Similar, Status match from Hilton offers Hilton Honors Gold status for 90 days; You can keep this status until March 2022 by staying 10 nights at Hilton hotels during these 90 days, or even upgrade to Diamond status with 18 nights in the same period. (However, unlike Delta, you can get both Gold and Diamond status without a hotel stay by simply holding the correct credit card).
Many programs, especially airline programs, limit the number of times you can use a status match: For example, Delta will let you wait three years after you last got a free status, while Alaska’s status match a unique opportunity.
If you are seeking an airline status match, it will typically not be able to achieve elite status with any of its partners to get a status match with Delta. So before you decide to request a status comparison (or make a major change), be sure to read the fine print. (Do you already recognize a topic?)
It’s still hard to predict what travel will be like in 2021. Airlines and hotels know this and want to stay connected and provide incentives to do more business once more people can travel. Keep a close eye on new developments with your favorite shows – there are sure to be more opportunities to come.