"The person I'm always concerned about is the one who's maybe 20 percent away and thinks, 'Gosh if I just spent this much more, so many wonderful things will come my way,'" said Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "But when you add up the value of those free things, it doesn't equal what you spent."
Blind loyalty can also have a liability of choosing loyalty over a lower price elsewhere, said Jill Cataldo, founder of the Super-Couponing workshops. "You should still always shop around," she said.
On the other hand, there's some value in knowing when to halt the sprint for elite. One-third of consumers told Colloquy they don't feel properly acknowledged for participation in the lowest tier of a loyalty program, even though they are actively participating.
That's a good reason to reassess loyalty altogether, especially if you're not likely to surpass the minimum-spend threshold for a higher tier. Credit and travel experts already recommend, for example, that typical leisure travelers shop airfares by price and pay with a general travel rewards card instead of spending years racking up miles in one airline's program.
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There may be no reason to pursue the highest tier, either, Berry said. "As you move up in a tier, typically the benefits are more about perceived value than actual measurable value," he said. In other words, more perks like access to special events and better service. Just making it to a middle tier is often the biggest jump in tangible perks like cash rewards or freebies.
Tier-frustration or not, just don't bow out entirely. Even infrequent customers may find that loyalty membership has its perks, said Cataldo. That might be exclusive access to particular sales, or occasional free gifts (such as on your birthday). Plus, the reward points often don't expire, even if you're not racking up enough in a year to get to elite status, she said. Participation may still add up to a gift certificate or free hotel night down the line.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant.