The Critical Points: Did you fall short of elite status? Stop asking the program for help

Jan 17, 2020

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Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Airline and hotel elite statuses are wonderful assets to have. The benefits often make your trips less stressful, more enjoyable and more rewarding. The criteria to reach these different levels of elite status are very specific and widely published by programs online (matches and challenges excluded), and just about every one includes easy-to-understand trackers on your individual profile. At any time, you can see where you stand as you work toward a given tier. Many will even send you email updates if you want.

Long story short: Your progress toward earning (or requalifying for) elite status isn’t secretive. There should be no surprises when the end of the year rolls around.

Despite the widespread availability of these trackers, the month of January each year is always rather surprising to me. Like clockwork, there are widespread emails, posts and messages across social media platforms with customers shaking their proverbial fists at a program for not rewarding them elite status when they fell just short of reaching the published criteria. We need to stop asking the programs to cave and do our due diligence.

Plan and execute

concept of travel vacation trip and long weekend planning with calendar on wooden background
Carefully plan your year to help ease your elite status qualification progress. (Photo by Tatomm / Getty Images_)

Now, it’s important to note that sometimes, travelers are painfully close to the published qualification thresholds, and it seems almost cruel to not grant status. This year I saw a gentleman who was $3 (yes, just three dollars!) short of the $20,000 in required spending for Marriott Bonvoy Ambassador Elite status. Other readers have written us lengthy e-mails, laying out their demands that airlines to which they’ve been loyal for years cave and award them elite status, even though they fell just short of the applicable criteria. My question in response to these demands is always the same:

Where do you draw the line on how close is close enough?

If I am one elite-qualifying mile short, should that be given to me? What about five? 10? Is 100 too many? Even if a program decides to draw a line on what should be gifted, there will always be other members right on the other side of that line who (in turn) would be placed in the same situation as those gifted the next level of status. While we have seen examples of programs making up minor differences (along with ones doing it incorrectly and then taking it back), I personally don’t think a program should gift anything below published criteria — not one elite mile or one qualifying night. It keeps a level playing field, and it places the onus for planning to meet the elite status requirements on all members.

To avoid these situations, you need to plan and then execute to that plan. Make sure you leave yourself a cushion in case something goes awry — and things almost always go awry in the world travel.

Here’s how I approach this process. At the mid-year point, I’ll evaluate whether my current travel pattern will put me close to a certain airline or hotel status. If so, I go ahead and plan out my required miles, spending and/or stays to meet that tier with a week of cushion at the end of the year. My goal is always to have the following year’s status post in my account with a week left in the calendar year.

Avoid these situations:

  • Don’t rely on crediting a partner airline flight to your domestic carrier account by Dec. 31 to push you over the edge. Partner flights are incorrectly credited all the time, and passengers frequently miscalculate their expected earnings. Since it takes time for these to post, you may run out of time to close an unexpected gap before the end of the year.
  • Don’t book a hotel stay with a check-out date of Jan. 1 and hope the stay counts toward the previous year. I’ve seen people do this and miss status by one night.
  • Don’t rely on bonus elite-qualifying miles from credit cards or nights earned through annual spending to post properly in December to carry you over the hump. If you are relying on credit card purchases to meet status, aim to complete the required spending on your November statement. Waiting until December is not worth the stress.

Avoid irrational behavior

Is the chance at a few first-class upgrades worth spending money and taking time away from your loved ones on a mileage run? (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

As I’ve written about before, the pursuit of status for just for the sake of having status often leads the smartest individuals I know down the path of irrational behavior. Spending $1,000 for one additional flight to push you over the edge for a low-level airline status is not a move anyone should make. Burning tens of thousands of hotel points to book award stays to reach the next level of status is probably a bad move as well.

It’s incredible to see the amount of money and/or time away I’ve seen people consider to earn elite status — and then actually go through with it. Don’t make a rash decision; just because you can earn elite status doesn’t mean you should. Carefully go through a cost-benefit analysis of whether you actually need it — meaning you’ll benefit from status both financially and in convenience — before you convince yourself that a last-minute, expensive mileage run is worth it. Avoid the irrational behavior that elite status can foster.

Bottom line

In the end, this comes down to being fair to all of your fellow loyalty program members. This is why in December 2018, I actually disagreed with Delta offering members just short of the required MQMs for the next level of elite status a complimentary bump up to it. Yes it is a kind gesture and those members gifted it will rightfully be loyal Delta flyers for another year, but you still left some members hanging who were perhaps one MQM shy of the cutoff Delta set and left others wondering if the behavior would be repeated year after year by Delta; making published criteria murky.

While you may be successful in petitioning a program to grant you status you just missed, avoid that and take ownership of your own status pursuit. Leave yourself a week’s cushion so when things inevitably go wrong, you have time to decide on whether it makes sense for a last minute mileage or mattress run. Stop asking the programs for help.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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