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Losing elite status at the end of January? Here's what to do now

Jan. 16, 2020
11 min read
An airplane approaches an airport in San Diego, California.
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The start of a new year resets the clock on an array of perks and bonus opportunities in the world of points and miles. You have new Amex airline fee credits, a new chance to earn the Southwest Companion Pass for nearly two years and a fresh opportunity to earn free night certificates on cards such as the Amex Hilton credit cards.

However, there's an important milestone in the changeover to 2020 that's delayed by a month: the expiration of airline elite status for the major U.S. carriers (American, Delta and United). All three of these airlines provide an extra month of status, essentially as a grace period to allow last-minute flights from the previous year to post. If your 2019 travel resulted in the same (or higher) status than you earned in 2020, there's nothing for you to do. Your current tier of membership won't change come Feb. 1, 2020.

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However, if you're hanging onto a higher level of elite status based on your 2018 flight activity, that'll come to an end on Jan. 31, 2020. This gives you a limited window of time to leverage any final perks before your new (lower) tier kicks in. Before the month runs out, here are a handful of things you can do in the next few weeks to still take advantage of those soon-to-be-gone benefits — or to parlay them into elite status with a competing airline.

Review your benefit structure

Before jumping into action, it's critical that you understand exactly what you will be losing as of Feb. 1, 2020. Every tier of airline elite status confers a number of different perks, and it can be overwhelming to parse out the difference. Can my free checked bag be 50 or 70 pounds? Can I select premium seats for just a single companion or multiple companions? Can I book those seats in advance or at check-in? For a quick reference (and valuation) of these benefits, check out the following guides:

Compare the perks you're currently enjoying to the ones you'll have starting Feb. 1, so you know exactly what to expect.

Make flight plans

Where applicable, next try to finalize any pending travel plans you have for 2020. I know it's still early in the year, but this is crucial to squeezing those last few drops out of your current benefits. (If your upcoming travel appears to focus on a different airline than where you have elite status now, you may want to skip down to the final item in the checklist.)

If you have any flights booked for later in the year on your current preferred airline, here are some important perks you can put to use now:

Related: How to find cheap airfare

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Select your seats

One of the first things you should do with existing tickets is select your seats. Many elite status tiers of American, Delta and United offer some type of seat-selection perk, and that's typically based on your elite status at the time of selection. This benefit won't include seats that have a formal upgrade process — like domestic first class or Delta's Comfort+ — since those are based on your status at the time of departure. However, you should be able to choose the following seats:

  • American: complimentary Main Cabin Extra for Platinum and above (Gold members get a 50% discount); preferred seats for all elite tiers
  • Delta: preferred seats for all elite tiers; Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion members should be able to select Comfort+ seats shortly after booking
  • United: Economy Plus for at booking Premier Gold and above (+1 companion for Premier Golds, up to eight companions for Premier Platinums and 1Ks), preferred seats for all elite tiers
Lock in that extra legroom (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Just note that there's no guarantee that your seat selection will stick. An aircraft swap or a missed connection could result in you being re-assigned to a non-preferred seat.

Book or change your award tickets

Another key perk of airline elite status involves award tickets, as carriers will waive or discount certain fees when you use your miles. If you need to book an award trip or have a need to change or cancel an existing one, you may want to do so by Jan. 31; otherwise, your downgraded status could wind up costing you more.

Here's a quick run-down of the various elite status perks associated with award bookings:

  • American AAdvantage: waived change/cancellation fees for Executive Platinum members
  • Delta SkyMiles: waived award ticket change/cancellation fees for Platinum and Diamond Medallion members
  • United MileagePlus: waived or discounted award ticket change/cancellation fees for all elites

In some cases, the discount is minimal. If you're a United Gold member dropping to Premier Silver, for example, you'll only need to pay an additional $25 if you make a change to or cancel an award ticket after Jan. 31. Nevertheless, every dollar saved can be put toward something, so be sure to jump on these benefits before then.

Select your Delta Choice Benefit(s) ... carefully

One of the unique airline perks for frequent travelers is offered by the Delta SkyMiles program: Choice Benefits. When you reach Platinum Medallion status, you can select one benefit, and surpassing the qualifications for Diamond status grants you another three. But here's the important part: You must make the selections by the time your status expires, and if you earned these benefits based on your 2018 flying for the 2019 Medallion year, you have until Jan. 31, 2020, to make those choices.

This (unfortunately) gets even trickier. Some of the benefits have an automatic expiration date, while others are based on when you make the selection. You're free to pick any of these perks, but here's our advice if your status level is dropping or expiring:

  • Don't gift Medallion status. This status is valid for the duration of your status, so if you use your Platinum Choice benefit to give a friend or family member Silver status, it'll expire on Jan. 31, 2020.
  • Do select upgrade certificates. Whether you select Regional Upgrade Certificates (RUCs) or reach Diamond and have the option to select Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs), these will be valid for one year from the date you select them. This effectively allows you to extend one of the perks of your soon-to-expire status.

Again, the Jan. 31 deadline only applies to any outstanding Choice Benefits you earned for the 2019 Medallion year, which was based on your 2018 qualification. Any from the 2020 Medallion year (based on 2019 flying) can be selected through Jan. 31, 2021.

Related: Guide to Delta Choice benefits

Use remaining upgrade instruments

When you reach the top tiers of airline elite status with the major airlines, you're granted a number of upgrade instruments (or at least the opportunity to select them). American, for example, awards four Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs) when you reach Executive Platinum status, while United shifted to more flexible PlusPoints in late 2019, awarded to Premier Platinum and Premier 1K travelers. If you have any of these instruments left from your status that'll soon be expiring, you need to use them by Jan. 31, 2020.

Note that both American and United require you to book travel, redeem your upgrades and complete travel before they expire. Check out our guides to fare classes on American and United to see exactly which inventory you need to confirm the upgrade. Remember, too, that both airlines allow you to use them for other travelers, even when they're not traveling with you. If you have no use for these upgrades before they expire, see if a friend, family member or colleague can put them to use.

Related: Best business class seats on American Airlines

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Consider a status match or challenge

Finally, if your status is on the verge of expiring, it could be a great time to check out another carrier and initiate a status match or challenge. United, for example, just launched its new challenge program, and both American and Delta have long-standing elite status challenge offers of their own. Alaska also offers one, though it (sadly) is now a challenge rather than a straight-up match. The exact details vary from airline to airline, but you'll typically be granted temporary status for a limited time and then can extend that status by reaching certain (accelerated) thresholds of flying and/or spending.

Just be aware that these requests are typically approved manually, and you'll need to provide proof of your current status along with any other required documentation. You may be unsuccessful if you had a low travel year in 2019 and must submit your account activity to initiate the challenge. The fact that you simply have status may not be enough, but it is worth a try.

Consider asking for an elite status extension

Before you give up and accept that you're now in boarding group 88, think through whether it is worth asking the airline for an elite status extension. If your status is dropping due to a temporary change in travel plans (such as the birth or adoption of a child, an extended illness, etc.), the airline may give you a break. When it comes to a temporary drop in travel due to parental leave or another qualified life event, some airlines (such as Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian) have formal programs laid out for those exact situations, while others evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis.

Here's a guide to what many of the major airline programs do for travelers who experience life events that result in temporary drops in flying patterns.

Don't forget about hotels

Much of the thought and emphasis is put on airline elite status, but don't forget about hotel status if that is dropping for you in 2020. Hotel elite status often resets at the end of February instead of the end of January, but it comes to an end all the same if you didn't re-qualify. The good news is that many hotel programs have elite status match and challenge programs, so you can leverage what you have into something else. Best Western, Hilton, Radisson and Wyndham all currently have offers that allow you to match status you have with another chain to either automatic status or a challenge.

In the case of Wyndham, you can then leverage that status you matched from another program to unlock Diamond status in Caesars Rewards. This can get you everything from a free meal in Vegas to a stay at Atlantis in the Bahamas. If you have Hyatt elite status that will be expiring, now is a good time to match it to M life and enjoy shorter lines and bonus perks while in Las Vegas at M life properties.

Or, you can just get your hotel elite status courtesy of a credit card and call it a day.

Related: Guide to hotel elite status matches and challenges

Bottom line

Elite status isn't always easy to earn, so once you do, it's critical to make the most of those perks ... right down to the last second. If you saw a noticeable drop in your travel in 2019 — enough to lead to a downgrade in your status as of Feb. 1, 2020 — you have just a couple of weeks remaining to take advantage of those benefits or consider initiating a status challenge with a competing airline.

Featured image by Getty Images