Is it worth being loyal to a single airline or hotel if you don’t travel enough to earn elite status?

Oct 17, 2019

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Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

Frequent travelers account for a disproportionate amount of the revenue at most major airline and hotel chains. In order to retain this business and loyalty, these travelers get showered with incredible perks in the form of elite status, including bonus points, free upgrades and often an improved customer service experience as well. TPG reader Josh wants to know if it’s worth staying loyal to a single airline or hotel if he doesn’t travel enough to earn elite status …

I realized that I don’t travel enough to earn elite status with any major airline or hotel chain. In my case, is there any benefit to staying loyal to just one company or should I shop around for the best price instead?

TPG READER JOSH

Josh’s question is important, because as nice as elite status is, loyalty often comes with a cost. Maybe you pick a more expensive flight to travel with your preferred airline or a hotel a bit farther away from your destination just to requalify for next year, but whether you’re a top tier elite or a general member, it’s important to be cognizant of how much it costs you to stay loyal.

First of all, there are plenty of shortcuts that Josh could take to earn elite status much faster, especially when it comes to hotels. A number of incredible travel rewards cards offer automatic elite status to their customers, so Josh could earn the luxury perks normally reserved for frequent travelers simply by opening any of the following cards. Note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just a few of the most popular options:

Credit card Elite status offered
The Platinum Card® from American Express Gold elite status with Marriott and Hilton
The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card Hilton Diamond elite status
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card Marriott Gold status
World Of Hyatt Credit Card Hyatt Discoverist status
IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card IHG Platinum status

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: On the hamster wheel of chasing hotel elite status? Buy it instead

Earning airline status solely from credit cards is a little bit harder, but not impossible. With the current elevated offers we’re seeing on the Delta Amex credit cards, you could earn Delta Silver Medallion status without taking a single flight. If you open the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express you’ll earn 40,000 miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

The card also comes with a “miles boost” option, allowing you to earn 15,000 bonus MQMs and 15,000 redeemable miles after spending $30,000 on your card each calendar year, and another 15,000 MQMs and 15,000 redeemable miles after spending $60,000. Even better, spending $25,000 a year earns you a Medallion® Qualification Dollar (MQD) waiver all the way up to Platinum Medallion status. So if you open the card now and squeeze in $30,000 in spending before the end of the calendar year, you’ll earn 25,000 MQMs and an MQD waiver, giving you Silver Medallion elite status (in addition to 90,000 Delta SkyMiles to use for your upcoming travel).

If Josh can’t apply any of these strategies to his travels, the case for staying blindly loyal to a single airline or hotel chain is pretty weak. Money talks, and you can’t expect much in the way of elevated treatment unless you pay for it outright or have a long-term financial relationship with the company in question. Still, I can think of a few reasons why Josh might want to consider picking one airline and hotel company to stay loyal to, assuming it doesn’t cost him that much more money.

While we talk often about diversifying your points earning, there is absolutely such a thing as too much diversification. Someone who flies so infrequently that they aren’t earning elite status might be spending $1,000 a year or so on airfare, which roughly translates to 5,000 miles a year earned with the three U.S. legacy carriers. If Josh splits that travel up between Delta, American and United, and thus only earns 1,000-2,000 miles on each airline, he’ll have a hard time ever saving up enough for an award flight. Sure, he could transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to United or from American Express Membership Rewards to Delta to top off his accounts, but he might find that it’s worth consolidating his points with one airline so he can actually earn enough to redeem.

Based on TPG’s valuation of airline miles, the 5x miles per dollar that non-elite members earn on airfare amounts to a roughly 6-7% return. If Josh never earns enough miles to redeem, he’s essentially leaving that money on the table.

The second scenario that jumps to mind has less to do with what Josh wants and more to do with where he lives. Many travelers around the U.S. are so-called “hub captives,” which means their primary airport is dominated by a single airline, so they end up “loyal” whether or it not it benefits them in any way. If you live in Miami (MIA), Charlotte (CLT), Atlanta (ATL) or San Francisco (SFO) you’ve probably experienced your hometown airline jacking up prices on short routes due to the lack of competition. Many travelers who live in Atlanta will end up loyal to Delta as a matter of convenience, even if they don’t get anything in return for it.

Bottom line

Josh is certainly not alone, as there are many travelers who are on the road just enough to want elite status but not enough to actually earn it. When it comes to hotels, there are plenty of shortcuts Josh can take to earn some form of status with the major players, but airline elite status is a bit tougher.

At the end of the day, there are some mild convenience benefits to staying loyal to a single airline even if you aren’t able to earn elite status. What Josh needs to do is figure out how much it would cost him to stay loyal. While many airlines match prices on routes where they compete for market share, Josh would probably come out ahead focusing more on price and less on loyalty.

Thanks for the question, Josh, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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