Nearly everyone I speak to lately–along with most of the internet–is furious over Delta Air Lines’ plans to make earning status harder. But while these benefits certainly have their appeal, I think it’s worth briefly stepping back and evaluating whether going out of one’s way to get status ever truly made sense—and whether, in a new era of even more stringent status requirements, it makes any sense at all. Spoiler alert: it never has and it still doesn’t.
The illusion of value
Chasing elite status (by which I mean making travel and credit card spending decisions specifically intended to help get status) is essentially trading money and time for perks that, on closer examination, aren’t worth their implied value.
Many elite perks can be purchased for less than the cost of the tickets and credit card spend you would need to buy to achieve elite status in the first place. Other perks can be replaced relatively cheaply. For example’s sake, let’s look at a few of the best perks you’d get as a Delta Diamond Medallion and discuss why they’re not all that great.
- SkyClub access: Admittedly, it’s nice to have a place to sit and get some work done before a flight or on a long layover but, for me, the buffet food and lousy coffee on offer are typically less pleasant than grabbing something from Starbucks and sitting by a window with a good view of the apron.
- Domestic first class upgrades: A slightly bigger seat and free food is nice, but isn’t a radically better experience than you’d get in economy class on a short domestic hop. Keep in mind, also, that you’re not guaranteed to even get these upgrades, especially on popular routes.
- International business class upgrade certificates: These “Global Upgrades” are perhaps the most compelling perk of top-tier status, but Delta has made them much less useful in recent years by only allowing upgrades from expensive premium economy seats. Using transferable credit card points for business class tickets is almost always a cheaper option.
There’s a litany of other perks, like free checked bags, priority check-in, priority phone lines, free CLEAR membership, and drink vouchers. I already get some of these from my credit cards and others I just don’t use very frequently. The perks that I actually want, I can buy myself for relatively cheap. Though this is a highly subjective assessment, I suspect it applies to a lot of fliers.
Next, there’s the time spent on the Sisyphean endeavor of status chasing. My mother, for example, goes out of her way to book flights with Delta—even when more convenient or economical options are available. This involves longer layovers, inconvenient flight times, and potentially higher ticket prices.
On top of all that, the time you spend organizing, planning, and executing these itineraries could, for most folks, be better used elsewhere, like spending time with loved ones or working on personal or professional projects that bring real value to your life.
Delta’s recent announcement is a reminder that the rules can change at any time. After investing time and money into achieving a certain status, frequent travelers have now been left out to dry, sitting on MQMs that won’t mean diddly squat come 2025. The lack of control over these programs and the capriciousness with which changes can be instituted should make you very wary of investing too heavily in them.
The opportunity cost
The time, effort, and money spent on achieving elite status have opportunity costs. Could the thousands of dollars spent on higher-priced tickets have been put towards equally (or more) comfortable business class tickets on other? Could the hours spent in airports have been used more productively?
So, is pursuing elite status a smart use of time and money? Even before Delta’s recent changes, probably not. Now, with even higher status requirements, the pursuit is even sillier.
If your company is the one paying for flights, fine. For the rest of us though, it would be far wiser to focus on travel that actually serves us, not the airline–getting us where we need to go when we need to get there, in as much comfort as possible. At the end of the day, it is absolutely possible to spend less time and money than it takes to earn status, while at the same time travelling in greater comfort.