Should You Attain Elite Status in More Than One Loyalty Program?

Photographic illustration ©2012 by Brian Cohen.

Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com wrote the following in this article asking what is wrong with frequent traveler loyalty programs:

“…elite members’ willing to switch to another program can be explained in practical terms. Once you’ve achieved top-tier status, it makes perfect sense that you’d seek status in a secondary program, since there’s no higher status to be earned in your primary program.”

I realize that there are FlyerTalk members and fellow “bloggers” who might wholeheartedly agree with that statement — but I am going to go out on a limb and disagree as a contrarian, if only partially.

The purpose of a frequent traveler loyalty program is to give you reason to remain loyal to a particular airline, lodging company or rental car company — that is, ceteris paribus, you would choose to patronize the product or service of a company primarily because you would receive benefits as a result of achieving elite status.

I might agree with the statement by Tim Winship if you travel excessively frequently and have a choice of products quite often. If you travel to cities in which Hilton, Marriott and Starwood Preferred Guest have a selection of hotel properties from which to choose and you spend at least 100 nights per year staying in hotel rooms and there are exclusive benefits to earning elite status in each frequent guest loyalty program which are significant enough for you to want to enjoy, then it might be sensible to strive to earn elite status in greater than one frequent travel loyalty program…

…but what if you are what is known as “hub-captive” — for example, you live in Atlanta and Delta Air Lines is the predominant carrier? Sure, you can strive to attain elite status in the frequent flier loyalty programs of American Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, or Southwest Airlines — but more often than not, you will be inconvenienced in the forms of less frequent service and connections in other cities such as Dallas, Chicago or Houston.

Is it really worth that upgrade to a seat in the premium class cabin or that percentage of bonus frequent flier loyalty program miles to start over in another frequent flier loyalty program to earn elite status — especially given the potential opportunity costs of such a decision? Is your time really worth that — and will you really get a return on your investment?

Probably not — but then again, your mileage may vary.

A couple of many examples of FlyerTalk members wanting to earn elite status in a competing frequent travel loyalty program once they have earned elite status in their primary frequent travel loyalty program can be found in the Hilton HHonors forum and the Marriott Rewards forum.

To me, elite status is not about striving to reach that next level.  Not everyone wants or needs to have Super Duper Titanium status. A private ride in a luxury car to get from one terminal to the next during a connection is always nice. Complimentary entry into a lounge is certainly a perk worth having. Bonus frequent traveler miles and points to earn that coveted award trip faster is always welcome…

…but are not all of those perks already offered in the primary frequent traveler loyalty program of your choice? Why should earning the highest level of elite status in one frequent travel loyalty program automatically trigger the desire to earn elite status in another frequent travel loyalty program? Do you really want to sit in an economy class seat on one airline when you could be in a premium class seat on your preferred airline; or do you really want a basic room in a hotel property of one lodging chain when you could be enjoying a suite with lounge access and a welcome amenity in a room of a hotel property in your preferred lodging chain? In other words, why not enjoy the benefits and amenities you have already earned for the remainder of the year?

I had thought seriously about wanting to earn elite status in the American Airlines AAdvantage frequent flier loyalty program when it offered a “fast track” to elite status — initially and perhaps mistakenly opened to all who did not already have elite status — which would have been relatively easy to attain. However, I ultimately declined because it just was not worth it to me at this time. Am I crazy? Perhaps, but I am not the only one who feels this way, as Summer Hull — author of the Mommy Points weblog at BoardingArea.comstates reasons similar to mine as to why she ultimately decided not to take advantage of a “fast-track” offer which might “make perfect sense” to Tim Winship.

For me, elite status is not always about more, more, more. I have mentioned numerous times in the past that I do not drink alcoholic beverages, so complimentary access to a lounge — nice as it may be — is not all that important to me. An upgrade to a seat in the premium class cabin on an airplane for a domestic flight is nice — but I do not necessarily need the extra room. Because of these reasons and more, I am usually quite content with the mid-level tiers of frequent travel loyalty programs. Would I like to be a top-tier elite member? Been there, done that multiple times. It is very nice and I would never refuse it if it was offered to me — but is achieving a higher level of elite status worth it? Not always, in my opinion…

…so for me — due to such factors as not being on a regular travel schedule, not coveting some of the benefits lauded by others and the opportunity cost in general to earn and maintain elite status — elite status in greater than one frequent travel loyalty program for airlines, hotels and rental cars is not a necessity nor a desire at this time. I have done it in the past — and it can be more effort than it is worth to pursue elite status in a second or third frequent travel loyalty program.

Of course, factors can always change and I may change my mind one day.

Then again, having elite status in greater than one frequent travel loyalty program is a form of diversification. In case you cannot patronize your favorite travel provider for whatever reason — such as that company does not do business at a particular destination where you are traveling or has a low profile — you can fall back on your second or third choice and still enjoy elite benefits. This diversification can be especially useful in the event of “enhancements” or a devaluation of one of the frequent travel loyalty programs…

…but Is diversification worth the bother for you? Is it really necessary? What are your thoughts? Please share your pros and cons pertaining to being a member of two or more frequent travel loyalty programs with elite status.

Comments (Showing 16 of 16)

  • garydpdx at 5:55pm August 23, 2013

    My primary and secondary elite status come as a result of choosing flights (and hotels, etc.) by price and schedule, whether for business or personal or both. There are arguments for trying to attain silver or even gold status on one airline alliance, given that missed connections or cancelled flights can be costly in time (a startup CEO that I know became convinced after being stuck at DEN for 3 days). If you do enough flying to attain higher levels, more power to you. But if you are spreading your business around in order to help minimize travel costs, then getting at least silver on a second alliance makes sense. I have been United Gold (formerly Premier Executive, sub-75k) and American Gold (their silver) for most of the past decade.

  • FlightNurse at 7:37pm August 23, 2013

    You always need a back up, this is why I’m elite in two hotel programs (top tier) and airlines. Having these level’s have helped me when problems arise.

  • guyinmotion at 7:38pm August 23, 2013

    I agree with Gary. No alliance has optimal global coverage. One alliance network may be strong in one region but weak in another, or flight schedules/ prices may not be ideal thus forcing us frequent travelers to switch between airlines and alliances to better meet our travel needs – even within a single trip I am often forced to use airlines from different alliances due to better connections or pricing. So if my travels force me onto flying different alliances, then I welcome Elite Status on multiple loyalty programs.

  • clarkef at 3:50am August 24, 2013

    Like everything else, it depends on the individual travel patterns. For example, I prefer Starwood Hotels. However, many places do not have Starwood hotels. Consequently I maintain Marriott as a backup.

    By contrast, I don’t have a backup for car rentals because Hertz is everywhere.

  • sdsearch at 7:40am August 24, 2013

    I think it’s completely different with regard to airlines and hotels. Airlines have alliances, and through those it’s more likely that you can get to somewhere while still having at least those elite benefits that carry over to alliance partners. But there is hardly any such thing as hotel alliances (it’s not like you can get half of your Hilton HHonors benefits staying at Marriott or half of your Hyatt benefits staying at SPG). Meanwhile, some of the hotel programs have small footprints. So, for example, no matter how much you like Hyatt, if you often enough need to stay in smaller cities where there’s no Hyatt, doesn’t it make sense to get at least a second hotel program? And if you need to often enough stay in small towns that have some of the “budget” hotel programs but none of the “major” ones, doesn’t it make sense to also get at least one of those? Why should you only join the “budget” hotel program simply because that’s the only one that’s available in small towns and big cities? Doesn’t it make sense to use a “nicer” hotel program where it’s available but still belong to the “budget” hotel program for where it isn’t?

    • Brian Cohen at 9:22am August 24, 2013

      Your point about alliances leads to an interesting question, sdsearch: should lodging chains form alliances, similar to airlines?
      Perhaps I will pose that question in a future article here at The Gate

  • blue47 at 8:20am August 24, 2013

    If you don’t get a status match or a “fast track” offer, then you have to forego elite benefits while getting to the elite level in the other brand, at least the first year. I am in a captive airline city, so that doesn’t matter. I am elite on one airline only. My hotel stays are in scores of different locations. I had top level elite in three hotel programs and second level in two more. The best place to stay in each location I visit is not brand specific. And hotel location, newness, cleanliness, quietness, friendliness, and price easily trump the elite benefits, which are often negligible.

  • stimpy at 8:36am August 24, 2013

    I’ve kept top Elite status in all 3 alliances for many years now, and now have lifetime top status in Star and ST. So I really only have to renew in OW each year (BA) if I want to keep top level in all 3. Having this status has been really, really, handy over the years. There are strikes, snow, pricing issues, etc. that push me towards one airline over another and I am thankful to have the flexibility to change and be treated well wherever I fly.

    • Brian Cohen at 9:18am August 24, 2013

      You and other readers have posted excellent reasons for achieving and maintaining elite status in greater than one frequent travel loyalty program, stimpy. With your travel patterns, what you have done is a “no-brainer”, in my opinion. Rather, I took issue with the blanket term of perfect sense, as I do not believe that having elite status in greater than one frequent travel loyalty program is worth it for everyone. It does take some time and effort to constantly keep track — even with the tools which are available to ease that effort.

  • stimpy at 10:06am August 24, 2013

    Hi Brian,

    I’m not sure what you mean by hard to keep track? For me it just takes a few seconds to look up my account in each airline. And I always have at least a rough idea in my head. So that’s not the hard part. The hard part is coming up with the cash to take all those flights! But as I do a lot of business travel to go with personal travel, it hasn’t been too difficult for me. But your point about it only making sense for certain people is very true. It’s like having an Amex Centurion card. It doesn’t make much sense for people who don’t travel or don’t travel a certain way and can’t take advantage of the benefits, but for people like me it is a huge benefit.

  • Counsellor at 4:55am August 25, 2013

    Because of my travel pattern, which includes intercontinental flights to Europe, Asia, and Africa (frequency and destination vary year to year, though), I had lifetime Gold with United, year-to-year SEN (Gold) with Lufthansa, various levels of elite in SkyTeam via AF/KLM (usually Platinum or Gold), and lifetime Platinum on AA for OneWorld. It is very handy being elite in each alliance even if not the highest category, particularly when you’re not certain where in the world you’ll be flying next.

    It came in handy, too, after Continental took over United and the service for elites plummeted. Fortunately, my lifetime mid-level (Sapphire) in OW has meant I haven’t had to get on a United flight and can still enjoy elite perks on TATL routes. (Now, if only AA gave lounge access on Domestic US flights to their Platinums, I’d really be set.)

  • Dubai Stu at 5:45am August 25, 2013

    My wife and I live in Detroit which is Delta. The next biggest carrier is United. 90% of the best flights are on Delta, but a carefully chosen United credit card gets us most of their basic elite benefits. I fly on the client’s dime and I think I have a fiduciary duty to the client to fly the most economical way possible within reason. I won’t do a three stop to save $50, but I won’t book a flight on my preferred carrier if I can get one on United for $500 less. For me, the card makes the psuedo-status makes United tolerable.

    My wife has played the cross-over status game with hotels a bit this year. She is working for two weeks in Kuwait and even though she is Hilton Diamond, the only viable option was the Holiday Inn Kuwait City. She used her once in a lifetime cross-over upgrade to get Diamond status with Holiday Inn for those two weeks because it is 115 degrees (F) every day in Kuwait and we decided that this made the most sense. We immediately booked a personal get away at the Interconn. Toronto for two days to continue basic status for the next year.

    With hotels, sometimes you can’t stay in your preferred hotel. It is easy to find a Hilton in any Metro area, but what about if you are stuck in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan or Imperial Valley, California? If you can afford to give up a few miles from your primary carrier/chain, a backup never hurts.

    Just my two pence.

  • ronin308 at 6:13am August 25, 2013

    For me it’s simple economics, I can’t justify spending more to fly a single airline for business. For personal travel I’m almost totally cost sensitive. I do have some airlines I would generally never fly (Spirit) and a few I’m less inclined to fly (Frontier) but in general I’m going to go with the lowest price (I include bag costs in the economic analysis). As such it makes more sense to have mid-tier status on several airlines at the same time.

    With hotels, it’s easier to get top end status on a few of the programs, and mid tier on several more. Price staying the #1 factor, I find that I end up with HH Diamond because usually pricing works out. After that I’ll get mid-tier in several other programs, generally Marriot and Hyatt. This can change dramatically based on project location. This year with projects in Nashville where we have a great rate at TownePlace Suites and Seattle where the Grand Hyatt cost me the same as a Hilton, I find myself staying there more often and actually had to hotel hop to get myself well on the way to Diamond by August.

    For me I don’t get those blindly loyal to a single program (hotel or airline) when the “free” benefits can mean you’re paying more otherwise for them.

  • harvyk at 4:18pm August 25, 2013

    I sort of agree, if you can make it to top tier and maintain it in two programs then that simply gives you more options where you can fly, drive and stay in comfort.

    What I don’t get is those people who sign up to all loyalty program out there, stay at the bottom tier and then get articles published on how worthless loyalty programs they are.

  • jamesteroh at 9:20pm August 25, 2013

    All my flights originate out of DTW so I really don’t have a choice but to remain loyal to Delta. If I were to get loyalty with another airline it would mean dropping to Platinum or Gold status on Delta with the flights I would be giving another airline for status I wouldn’t fly much. Just not worth it to drop in status and lose the benefits for another airline I wouldn’t fly much.

    It is a lot easier to maintain higher status with hotels due to how easy it is to get status via a credit card. I am a Hilton diamond but thanks to the Hyatt Visa I am Platinum with them for the few stays I have with them every year, I get good benefits at SPG by being a Delta Diamond with the crossover program, and although I haven’t stayed at a Best Western in almost three years, I keep diamond status with them every year with their generous status match program (not that status at BW is worth anything)

  • relangford at 12:38am August 27, 2013

    As has been mentioned, hotels and airlines are very different. For hotels, I strive for top elite status in only one (usually Marriott), but for airlines, it’s different, I am Lifetime Gold on UA, year-to-year EXPL on AA, and either year-to-year SM or GM on DL. I have to fly on whatever airline offers the best fare, so I like having the ability to earn miles and receive perks on each of the alliances. I have the Delta Reserve card so get into the club; lifetime membership in United Club (glad I got it when I did); and Citi AA Executive so I get into AA clubs, for my international travel. I like being able to get perks on whatever airline I have to fly.

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