Can a loyalty program have too many elite members?

It’s easy to get status with some loyalty programs. For example, you can get top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status just by having the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. And you can get Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status — and a massive 25 elite night credits toward earning Titanium Elite or Ambassador Elite status — just by having the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card.

The information for the Hilton Aspire 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.

Likewise, you get automatic Hilton Gold and Marriott Gold status if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. Aeroplan elite members and cardmembers can now status match to Avis. And recently, Bilt Rewards members could sign up for a free United elite status challenge.

Plus, now you can earn American Airlines status — including top-tier Executive Platinum status — through non-travel activities like spending on American Airlines credit cards and clicking through the AAdvantage shopping portal before making online purchases.

But can a loyalty program have too many elite members? I recently asked fellow TPG staffers Summer Hull, Clint Henderson, Kyle Olsen and Ryan Smith for their take on this question; here’s what I found.

Too many elite members?


Clint likely summed up the feelings of many travelers with the following statement:

The short answer is absolutely! The whole point of elite status for me is getting upgrades on planes or at hotels. When elite ranks are crowded that means I’m not even close to the top of the lists for upgrades anymore on planes and don’t get upgraded rooms even mentioned at check-in for hotels. It makes me resent the programs instead of feeling rewarded for my loyalty.

Ryan went on to note, “I agree with the idea that ‘when everyone is elite, no one is.'” But Kyle added that he’s “always thought that the big four airlines ‘penalize’ you for not having status (e.g., smaller seats, last to board, bag fees, etc.). Even entry-level status can make your travels so much nicer.”

And indeed, entry-level status can keep you out of the worst hotel room, let you board early enough to put your carry-on luggage in an overhead bin and even give you a free checked bag. Best of all, you can often gain entry-level status — or elite-like benefits, in the case of airlines — by holding an airline credit card or hotel credit card. But these aren’t the benefits — and low-level status isn’t the target — loyalists usually have in mind when arguing a program has too many elite members.

In the rest of this guide, I’ll discuss our thoughts on whether a loyalty program can have too many elite members.

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Related: So, what exactly is elite status in travel — and how can I get it?

Some benefits are finite

A suite at the JW Marriott Bogota in Colombia. KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

The most obvious issue with a loyalty program having too many elite members is higher competition for finite elite benefits. For example, Ryan said:

I’m not the type who complains about the number of elite members and it has rarely affected me. However, I’m aware that there are only so many suites and business-class upgrades available, so they can harder to receive. The constant complaints about Marriott Suite Night Awards are a great example: If you go where no one else is going, you can use them easily, but they’re tough to use in the U.S. or in popular tourist destinations. This is why we hear things like ‘Platinum is the new Gold,’ as people need to reach a yet-higher status level in order to get a better chance at the upgrades they’d like to receive from their status.

Kyle chimed in to add: “Airport lounges have been packed to the gills, and when you have to wait half an hour to get into a lounge, there isn’t much point in having a lounge membership.”

The combination of ample elite members and an increasing willingness by some travelers to pay for upgraded seats and rooms means fewer upgrades for an increasingly large elite population. For example, now that American eliminated its 500-mile upgrade certificates and instead adds all its elite members to the upgrade list for travel on eligible flights within North America, it’s not uncommon to see an upgrade list with more than 30 elite members uncleared.

It can also be difficult to get a notable hotel upgrade when traveling within the U.S. Presumably, hotels are selling their upgraded rooms or other elite members at my tier or higher beat me to the limited number of upgraded rooms. With high-tier status, I usually get a room with a better view within the room type I booked. But I’ve gotten some excellent upgrades when traveling internationally, presumably because I have fewer high-tier elite members to compete against.

Related: Current airline elite status match and challenge options you should know about

Other benefits are infinite

Breakfast at the InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort in Vietnam. KATIE GENTER/THE POINTS GUY

Many of the benefits I value most aren’t affected by the program having many other high-tier elite members.

For example, airlines can offer free checked bags and bonus earnings to an infinite number of elite members. And even if an airline loyalty program has a lot of elite members, perks like priority check-in and international airline lounge access will usually still be available for all eligible elite members.

And on the hotel side, programs can offer free breakfast, rooms with decent views and bonus earnings even if many elite members stay on the same night. However, perks like guaranteed late checkout, suite upgrades and lounge access may become increasingly difficult or costly to offer when many elite guests are eligible for these benefits.

It may seem programs can offer perks like complimentary breakfast and checked bags to all eligible elite members without any issue. But, as we’ll discuss in the next section, even benefits that programs can simultaneously offer to all elite members may be at risk when a program has too many elite members.

Related: Breakfast, upgrades and more: 3 TPG staffers reveal their favorite elite status perks

Too many elite members may lead to devaluation

The Conrad Punta de Mita in Mexico. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Summer offered the following take when asked whether a program can have too many elite members:

It’s absolutely true that when everyone is elite no one is in terms of hard, finite benefits (suites, upgrades, etc.). But it’s also true when that tipping point hits the pockets too directly on benefits that are less finite (free breakfasts, fee waivers, etc.) and all the sudden widespread reductions are needed to lessen the impact of the herd. So yeah, there’s a balance to be struck that takes the elite perks out of only the hands of the super-elite members but doesn’t make them so widespread as to end up over-grazing the field and leaving nothing but dust.”

Summer provided the perfect response to why having too many elite members can lead hotel owners to skimp on perks and programs to devalue their elite status benefits. One example of such a devaluation is Hilton’s replacement of complimentary breakfast with a food and beverage credit at U.S. hotels.

However, many members having low-tier elite status may be less of an issue. As Kyle noted, “Entry-level status can make your travels so much nicer.” For example, I rarely fly United but have United Silver status as a perk of Marriott Titanium Elite status. So I can get a free checked bag and complimentary access to Economy Plus seating at check-in if available. Even though I’ll likely never get a complimentary Premier upgrade, I’ll usually fly United over a low-cost airline due to these benefits.

Related: How I earned elite status with all 3 major alliances — without taking any flights

What’s to be done?

Grab-and-go food at the Capital One Lounge in Dallas. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Increased elite qualification requirements are never something we like to see. But IHG increased the number of elite qualifying points required for its top-tier Diamond status to an all-time high earlier this year. And Delta recently announced it will make it harder to earn Medallion status in 2024.

One way to handle too many elite members is to increase elite qualification requirements and reduce the number of elite members. As Delta’s senior vice president of SkyMiles, Dwight James, told TPG while defending the increase in requirements, Delta’s focus is on “ensuring that the customers that are investing the most are also the customers that we’re investing the most in as well.”

But another path is finding different ways to reward elite members. For example, Kyle mentioned that airline and hotel lounges could “cater to a large number of elite members by offering grab-and-go food.” We’ve seen this option at the Capital One Lounge in Dallas. Ideally, this option would reduce lounge crowding.

Another way Kyle mentioned that hotel loyalty programs could improve would be to show an upgrade list in their app. When I see myself listed on the American Airlines upgrade list before a flight, at least I can go to ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) and check how many upgraded seats are still available. Then, I can estimate my chances of an upgrade. As Kyle noted:

It would be nice if hotels were more transparent about waitlisted upgrades. For example, if I’m checking in to a Marriott hotel, how many Titanium Elite and Ambassador Elite members are on the upgrade list for a suite? And how many suites are left? Keeping the customer informed can reaffirm loyalty and reduce stress.

I agree with Kyle that keeping the customer informed is important. I’d love to see hotel loyalty programs lean into technology and provide more visibility into the upgrade process.

Finally, I appreciate the milestone rewards some programs have introduced that allow elite members to pick which benefits are more valuable. For example, the new IHG One Rewards program offers an annual lounge membership as a milestone reward at 40 nights or 70 nights. However, by choosing an annual lounge membership, you’re passing up other perks like points and confirmable suite upgrades. So, IHG elite members will only select an annual lounge membership at 40 or 70 nights if they’ll appreciate and get value from this perk.

Related: What elite status TPG’s points and miles team is keeping for 2023

Bottom line

In this story, Summer, Clint, Kyle, Ryan and I addressed whether a loyalty program can have too many elite members.

There’s an argument to be made either way. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that having too many high-tier elite members reduces the finite benefits like upgrades that each member can enjoy. Depending on what you value in airline elite status and hotel elite status, you may not find that a program having too many elite members affects your experience — at least until too many members use a particular perk and the program decides to devalue or remove it.

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