Pursuing Elite Status Was Always Dumb. It’s Even Dumber Now.

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.

The time

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.

The uncertainty 

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?

Final thoughts

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.

  1. It’s truly pathetic what Delta has done to its most loyal customers with these changes. I have almost 2M miles and have been a Diamond every year since 2009. I fly every week for business and usually spend around $20K a year – some first class, but mostly coach. With the miles requirement gone and the spend requirement nearly doubled, folks like me don’t stand a chance for 2025. Now Diamond status for many will mean 5 international Delta One flights a year. Catering to the wealthy while spitting in the face of the frequent business traveller.

  2. The one elite benefit no one mentioned, is going to the front of the line when something goes wrong. I’ve had several situations this year where I missed a connection due to delays, but my status moved me into the front of the line to be placed on another flight. If I did not have elite status, I would have had two unplanned overnights just this year. I do live in a major Delta hub city, so it’s relatively painless to focus my travel on them skipping some of the downsides articulates in the article. For me, that’s the single biggest benefit of being at the top status tier.

  3. Interesting take although I partially disagree. My disagreement is based on the fact that sometimes it’s little-to-no effort to get elite status. As an example the most used airline miles for me are with American so I make it a point to spend a lot on my AA credit cards at work. That gets me Executive Platinum status and some ancillary benefits for literally no extra effort. I do similar with Hyatt along with my paid and award stays and have been bumped into truly jaw dropping suites for free as a result.

    On the other hand, getting top status with Delta is – well, not quite worthless but certainly not all that valuable when there are so few seats available for upgrade in the first place.

    Ultimately there’s a whole lot of grey area in elite loyalty as with so much else.

    1. Totally agree. I’m saying it’s dumb chasing elite status, that is, going out of your way and making travel/credit card decisions specifically intended to help get status. There’s absolutely nothing dumb about getting elite status without trying hard!

    2. From a former flight attendant: I always liked serving my frequent fliers; just as much as I did my infrequent ones. I got tired of the entitlement sometimes, “I need to have three predeparture cocktails in order for my upgrade to pay off.” said one passenger to another.
      Don’t feel too badly. The airline loves you until you are no longer making them money. Its always been that way. For everyone.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more…most of best elite benefits never occur (like upgrades) or can be obtained easily through other means (priority boarding through cheap credit cards, priority security with TSA/Clear)…I think along the same lines, collecting airline points is about the dumbest thing you can do with your spending. Given the ever decreasing value, why would anyone take airline or hotel points over either a transferable points like UR or MR or just cash back? Then you have these travel blogger hacks push credit cards because they have THE BIGGEST SIGN UP BONUS EVER!!! OMG 100K points. Right, biggest every while points are worth the least amount ever.

    In addition, if you are traveling or spending enough to obtain a ‘meaningful status’ you’re probably flying F class a lot anyway so none of the benefits even matter. Best advice any travel writer can give is to advise readers to steer clear of any co-branded card instead looking to cash back or one of the bank cards, and use google flights to just find the cheapest option. Absolutely no need to have airline loyalty.

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