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Maxed out and still loyal - am I crazy?

What should you do when you’ve reached the highest level of your loyalty program? Stick with it? Or start spreading the wealth around? Joel Widzer has some advice that bucks the conventional wisdom.
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It’s a mere six weeks into the new travel year and I’ve already reached the top tier of the loyalty program with my preferred airline. That means that I’ll retain the highest level of membership through February 2009. At this point, most travel theorists would say: “Spread the wealth and move on to another airline.”

But not me. I say, “Keep racking up the miles.”

Why? Because the greater your loyalty, the greater your leverage. This holds true for all travel providers, not just airlines. In fact, there is clear evidence that increased loyalty results in exponentially increased benefits.

The ultimate reward is an invitation into your provider’s undisclosed ultra-elite program. Unless you’ve already been offered this secret level of membership, you probably aren’t even aware that most major airlines , hotels and car rental companies have one, or that members of these exclusive programs receive extraordinary benefits. In the words of one representative, “We basically don’t say no to anyone in this category.”

Benefits include increased upgrade availability, special pricing, waivers of certain fees and restrictions, guaranteed space on otherwise sold-out flights, rooms and cars, private offerings and other perks. While most such programs are obtainable only after very large numbers of loyalty transactions, some programs have entry loopholes (such as Avis’ President’s Club, which is available to Access Level members of the Leading Hotels of the World). If you think you might qualify for such a program, call your program director and inquire about eligibility.

Now, if you are like me, and have never been offered a special membership invitation, you can still get cream-of-the-crop service with the loyalty points you have already accumulated.

Credibility is a major benefit of a long history of loyalty, and it comes in handy when you need a special favor. For example, last year I inadvertently booked an airline ticket for the wrong date. Weeks later, when I realized my mistake, I called the airline to rebook the flight. Seeing my loyalty history, the agent issued me a new ticket and waived the change fee.

A long history of loyalty also gives you capital during a down year. My friend Vic, an attorney, moved to North Carolina in 2006 and spent much of the year getting situated and studying for the North Carolina bar exam. Because he wasn’t traveling, he failed to requalify for Delta Air Lines’ Medallion-level membership status, which he had held for many years. In mid-December, Vic received a surprise but welcome phone call from Delta asking about the change in his travel pattern. When he explained his circumstances, the agent asked if Platinum-level membership (Delta’s highest level) would get him back on the planes in 2007.

“You bet!” he replied. Of course, Vic must now hold up his end of the bargain, as these status upgrades tend to be closely monitored and are offered only once or twice in a member’s relationship with the airline.

Long-term loyalty also gives you a service edge, which lets your travel experience rise above what I see as a creeping sameness in provider offerings. Airlines offer the same routes and fares; hotel chains offer the same range of food and lodging; and rental cars all come with the same options. The only thing that changes is the service you receive, and accumulated points are your ticket to preferential treatment.

Here’s another benefit to sticking with one provider: familiarity. Have you ever considered the amount of time you devote to managing your programs, understanding changes and getting to know the rules? By sticking to one provider, you become an expert in that program and can customize it to your travel needs.

Moreover, the time period for redeeming your points and miles keeps shrinking as program directors seek to reduce the liability from their books. Many programs have reduced their expiration periods from three years to as little as one year, especially for accounts without activity. Having too many miles chasing too many programs just doesn’t give you enough time to use them.

Finally, the greater your loyalty, the better your program knows you -- and rewards you. Last year I received bonus gifts from all my preferred travel providers: an additional 10,000 qualifying miles from Delta, a $100 gift certificate from The Four Seasons (and The Four Seasons doesn’t even have an official loyalty program), a selection of gifts from Hyatt Hotels, and several car upgrades from Hertz. And these special rewards are not only for über-travelers. The young lady who cuts my hair doesn’t do much traveling, but she does make an annual trip to Palm Springs. The hotel she regularly visits has evidently figured out her pattern because each year, even before she gets to plan her trip, a special offer magically arrives in the mail giving her a discounted rate.

Sustained loyalty -- even after you have maxed out of the official program -- is not the conventional route, but it is the route that will get you the most for your travel dollar.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or .