a hand holding a credit card

Let’s be honest, on some level, everyone who loves elite status in travel kind of loves to see themselves as George Clooney or Vera Farmiga in ‘Up In The Air’. It’s fun to be the mysterious, ultra-important customer who the seas part for. That movie made people who previously didn’t pay attention, pay attention and aspire.

This week, people are mad at Delta Airlines for being a little bit more overt about which people truly matter enough to them to open up the coveted velvet ropes and extend valuable perks going forward.

Unfortunately for most of us, we’re just not nearly as important to our chosen hotel or airline loyalty program as we’d like to think we are.

It’s ok — take a deep breath and stop being emotional. The best thing we can do is to be as rational with our travel decisions as they are with their customer decisions.

a hand holding a credit card

Emotion VS Metrics

In an AI driven, data analytics world, we travelers still operate emotionally with our loyalty and in my opinion, it’s becoming our fatal flaw. No tears have been shed by airlines or hotels over you deciding not to renew your elite status. You either hit the heavily scrutinized and modeled numbers, or you don’t.

Yet here we are trying to justify spending hundreds or thousands on a trip we don’t need, or staying on the wrong side of town, just to hit that next level of the elite status game. We potentially get a perk in return which may in reality be worth less than the expense extended just to achieve it or too much hassle to enjoy.

Everyone has their vocals with violin of “I gave X number of loyal years to this, or that” and they can sing with that violin all they want, but when push comes to shove, no one is listening, no one truly cares and those days are over.

If we approach each travel transaction with equal clarity as these loyalty programs we can still have fun and enjoy the ever changing games.

a person holding a bottle of wine

My advice here is simple: always earn — and don’t play stupid games.

Participating in loyalty is always better than not. At the very least, points add up to discounts, savings or perks. Even if you no longer hit elite status benchmarks you’d be a fool to not earn something.

If you’re going to continue to pursue perks or elite status, choose your battles with the precision and data these programs do. Find the best perks that fit the organic patterns of your travels and don’t be struck with FOMO (fear of missing out) for things like perks you don’t really need, or will struggle to redeem later.

Enjoy the freedom of picking the best hotel on merit, or the best flight on schedule. And yes, still earn points and status where you can, obviously, just don’t get caught on a hamster wheel if the cheese isn’t worth the calories.

I made a conscious decision not to chase any hotel loyalty, because I found that working with travel agents with Virtuoso and other benefits yielded equal, if not better perks and allowed me to remain a free agent, not beholden to any one group. I stand by that, for my personal travel. I still earn minor tiers naturally, but I’m not addicted to top tier.

To be fair, I’m not a top tier guest either. That’s me coming to terms with my true value to the programs.

Let this data driven “show me the money” era of travel loyalty be freeing. Don’t chase status just so you can feel some sort of superiority or stand in line ahead of others at the airport or hotel. Trust me, no one is really that interested in your shiny luggage tag.

The adjustment will be seeing that there are still benefits if you stick with a program — heck Delta gives free wifi to all Skymiles members — just perhaps not the level of benefits people believe they were e-n-t-i-t-l-e-d to.

People talk about swapping over to other programs, but most data points would suggest its hot air. Very few actually swap, due to the ever changing nature of the game.

If Delta truly has superior products, it’d also be self sabotage to leave just out of spite. That’s personal choice. It’d be easy to argue that Delta’s products will only get better as the top tiers thin out to only those who spend enough with the airline to justify truly premium experiences. Harsh world, but real.

I’ve long argued that if everyone is “VIP”, no one is.

Lake Geneva

The reality is, many people lamenting Delta’s changes, and recent changes from other programs were doing crazy things to earn perks to fuel some sort of emotional feeling or connection. The ones that hit it naturally really aren’t impacted.

Delta has made it clear that spending money on flights or their credit cards is what matters to them. If that’s cool for you, cool. If it’s not, enjoy the feeling of free agency. Take even a small step out of the echo chamber of frequent travel forum and you’ll be told plainly that the behavior of flying somewhere or staying somewhere just to earn something you may or may not be able to use, is mental. It’s nice not to be crazy.

In many ways its sad that the “games” around status are over, but in many ways it’s also just cutting the chatter of the philosophical arguments rather than the cold hard numbers which truly justify the businesses giving out the benefits.

People did too much to earn things they probably didn’t need, or could’ve easily lived without, and that overstretched behavior created this deeply emotional rub between programs and travelers.

a group of currency bills and coins

Path Of Least Resistance

Most but not all people choose the loyalty program with the easiest route to the thing that they want. In a world of comparison shopping and price drop alerts, it’s natural to look for the best pathway to the best perk.

But is that loyalty? It’s a handshake driving some sales for sure, but is it driving the best sales or the mutually beneficial loyalty where both parties are happy to indulge each other in rich benefits without red tape or hassle?

If too many people are “VIP”, no one is.

The truth is that for any functioning business, expenses are justified by income and the completely fun and totally amusing, but also completely convoluted world of air travel elite recognition metrics we mutually created is done.

Flying on a $200 USA to Australia ticket back and forth — over and over again where the airline makes $1 off the customer, but that customer gets more perks than the person who spends $1000 to fly from New York to Washington DC every week is just wrong.

Those in the know loved “the game”, including me — but if you ask me, the games that were created are dead, or certainly calling for the defibrillator. When we put emotions aside, we know it just doesn’t make sense, even if we’d like it to.

The true “dream” customer is unfortunately for most of us, a truly high margin one. The more data that comes in, the more that can be tracked back to that margin for the business, the more the airline or hotel has to invest in the benefits.

Loyalty will only become more impressive for those who pledge that 360° loyalty to fly, stay and spend with one airline and hit lofty numbers, and for everyone else, enjoy the freedom of making logical decisions for each trip. There will still be perks, but they’ll be different.

In 1994, the Wu Tang Clan declared “cash rules everything around me”, and when we put the emotion aside, it rules everything in travel these days too.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I would do mile runs because flights were cheap and rewards were high. Now, things are flipped around; expensive products with less rewards.

    The game isn’t over; it just requires a different line of attack. VIP treatment is still obtainable, it will just be by booking a premium cabin using miles or a suite using hotel points.

    The other trend is credit cards trying to become their everyday default by brute force; mandating certain spend for extra benefits which used to be standard.

  2. Foreign carriers’ loyalty programs and credit cards are much more appealing. Carriers like AC, EK, AF, AY, among others, provide greater value for money compared to DL.

    If someone invested the same level of dedication and strategy as they did to achieve DL Diamond, they could get AA EXP and an intermediate status with at least two other international airlines.

  3. Delta status has no value anymore for the occasional, say monthly or bi-monthly, domestic traveler (unless they buy every ticket first class or last minute). I would also argue that the credit card route has been seriously devalued i.e., before, the MQMs were somewhat easy to get silver, gold, plat and waived with $25k of spend. Now if you have a reserve card, it takes $60k of spend to earn silver, or a platinum card needs $120k just for silver, and/or you need $6k on ticket spend. The devaluation basically hits everyone hard except for weekly last minute domestic travelers or those doing somewhat regular international trips in biz. Fortunately, I gave up on Delta status a couple of years back given Skypesos are pretty worthless.

  4. I am not emotional. I just put Delta in my 2nd tier of preferences since 2016 when I declared SkyMiles to be the enemy

  5. I have run on the airline status hamster wheel for years and years (not doing it for hotels), spending a lot more money and time than I otherwise would. I did the calculation last year and it’s cheaper for me to purchase that first class seat or baggage etc.

    What status did was to make a long haul coach journey more comfortable – upgrades/better seats, quick check-in, faster security, higher baggage allowance, lounge access etc. I will miss that but will book more business class in return. And business class already comes with most perks of elite status.

    1. I think that’s such a valid and important point. The horse-trade style is over. When people really crunch the number it’s better to save for the premium experiences than take those extra trips. That may prove negative to airlines in their load performance but the trade will be the margin from selling more premium experiences. Always love your inputs PM1!

  6. “stop caring about the thing I’ve built my business on because I say now 9s the time to totally ignore ‘the game’ I’ve been selling you for years”

    I won’t be so crass to imply a large cheque from Delta arrived in the mail ( because I at least hope that is not the case) BUT. If there was ever an article full of deflection and flat out documented 180 degree reversal on what a person had spent years( and making bank off of) telling the world to do & then saying ‘ahh don’t be silly this opposite thing is totally fine’ then this article would be that

    1. I’ve always been eyes open and suggested eyes open behavior here. Play the advantages you have while you have them. Take status as far as you can while you can. The game is always evolving and ultimately we each know what we’re worth. I’m not a top tier hotel guest. If I can achieve it in the interim, take it. That’s always been my advice. Enjoy the good times while you can, but keep your eyes open about true value and what drives the numbers. Points are always better than no points. Any status is better than no status — if it’s organic. Simples.

  7. People get emotional when the rug is pulled out from under them after they spent money in reliance on promises. If you spent $5k more to get Hyatt elite status and then you do get the cheapo free breakfast because the lounges are closed then you get upset. It is the same for airlines. If you save up 60k miles for a free biz class ticket and it becomes 80k with no advance notice you get upset.

    The basic problem are not the changes but consumer ignorance. If consumers would cancel all their airline cards after the SUBs you betcha the airlines and banks would notice. But instead people continue to spend on their Delta Amex and Chase UA even though they would be better off using other cards. So the airlines continue to play games, because they can.

    1. I agree that consumers spend far too much time on X and Instagram complaining rather than actually status matching or calling their banks. Because there is such a safety net there’s no real risk for programs to make changes. I don’t like rugs being pulled out at all, but in this instance I’d say Delta has a decent case because of the each year is a new year nature of elite status. It’s interesting times.

  8. I still think this article and the comments are missing the point. It’s not about which customer “matters more” or not getting perks. The simple reality is that Airport lounges these days are overpopulated and frankly the opposite of relaxing, so they’re wanting to thin the crowd a bit. Personally I wish airports would do the same with their public paid lounges, either by lessening capacity or building more lounges.

  9. This is a great article written too soon. As you say many people enjoy the status game. The puzzle, the perks, the identity of being ” elite “. Occasionally one gets to feel important even if one really isn’t. Delta has suddenly taken that away and it’s only natural there would be an intense emotional response. It’s a huge loss to some. It may be irrational, stupid even, but nevertheless a loss of a emotional connection to a company who spent years telling them how important they are. Some customers need time to deal with the shock, denial, anger etc before they reach acceptance. This article will be useful to re-read then.

  10. I want to leave DL, but I can’t. On my preferred city pair, DL offers a big A320, compared to AA’s and UA’s small CRJ and Embraer. Also, SkyClub food and beverage is better than the other lounges in those selected airports. So, even though 1st class now is like cattle class of the 1990’s, I have no choice but to stay with DL. (I can’t afford PJ.)

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