Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Top Tier Status

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This is an installment in my Maximizing Elite Status series. Articles include; The Basics and Why People Mileage RunUsing ITA Matrix to Find Cheap FlightsHow Much is Elite Status Worth?, Comparing Top Tier StatusComparing Mid-Tier Status, Comparing Low Level StatusHow to Get Elite Miles Without Flying, Understanding Elite Status Bump ThresholdsThe Lowdown on Soft Landings, How to Cope with Losing Elite Status.

Not all frequent flyer miles were created equal, and the same goes for airline elite status – especially at the top levels. Airlines roll out the red carpet (literally) for their top flyers, yet some offer much more than others. Let’s take a look at the key benefits of the top 4 legacy US airlines and I’ll sum up my thoughts on the best benefits out there for the very frequent flyer. (Stay tuned for similar comparisons for middle and bottom tier elite status levels).

COMPARISON TABLE

American Executive Platinum
Delta Diamond Medallion
United 1K
US Airways Chairman Preferred
Qualification Miles 100,000 125,000 100,000 100,000
Qualification Segments 100 140 120 120
Mileage Bonus 100% 125% 100% 100%
Domestic Upgrade Window 100 hours 6 days 4 days 7 days
Systemwide Upgrades 8 Choice/Up to 10 6 2 (+ Companion)
SWU Intl Fare Restrictions None High Medium None
Free Lounge No Yes No No
Top Tier Extended Award Availability Yes To all Gold+ elites Yes No
Higher private tier? No No Yes No
Gift elite? No Choice–Silver & Gold Sometimes–Premier Associate Silver

Qualification: This is the threshold at which the status is achieved. You earn 1 mile for every mile flown, plus any class-of-service bonuses for buying full and premium fares. You can also qualify on segments, which helps short-haul flyers get status, since they may not be flying far distances, but they are still flying frequently. A segment is generally a takeoff/landing. So if you fly Boston-Chicago-San Diego, that would be 2 segments (Boston-Chicago and Chicago to San Diego).

Best in class: American requires only 100 segments, which is more easily achieved than the others, especially Delta at 140!

Mileage Bonus: This is the bonus in base (redeemable) miles you get for each flight you take. So if you fly a 5,000 mile roundtrip JFK-San Francisco-JFK, you’d get an additional 5,000 miles as your elite bonus if you were an American Executive Platinum and you’d earn 10,000 total miles for the trip.
Best in class: Delta  gives 125% as the Diamond bonus (though frankly their miles are worth less than the other carriers, so it’s pretty even across the board).

Domestic Upgrade Window: All of the top-tier elite statuses will get you free domestic/North America (Excluding Hawaii) upgrades. So as a Delta Diamond, if there is upgrade space available 6 days before any of my domestic flights, I’ll get automatically upgraded to first class (those are perhaps my favorite emails to get!).
Best in class: US Airways at 7 days prior to departure. American Airlines gets befuddlement points for choosing 100 hours as their upgrade window. Come on!

Systemwide Upgrades: Even though domestic upgrades are complimentary, airlines award top flyers with upgrade certificates that allow international upgrades. American and US Airways allow them to be used on any fare class, whereas United restricts them to W or higher and Delta restricts their usage to super-expensive Y,B,M fares which are often more expensive than just outright buying discount business class.
Best in class: American by a landslide with a whopping 8, though they arguably have the weakest international business class hard (seat) and soft (service) product (except for Delta’s outdated recliner style seats).

Lounge Access: All allow lounge access when flying internationally, but Delta actually gives complimentary lounge membership to all of their Diamond Medallions, plus their lounges tend to be among the nicest of the US airlines.
Best in class: Stay classy, Delta.

Top Tier Extended Award Availability: Airlines will release extra award seats to top tier elites. United is known for having great 1K availability, and Delta does it for all Medallions. American doesn’t have separate availability, but their Executive Platinum phone agents have been known to work wonders and even ask revenue management to release award seat inventory.
Best in class: United, thanks to increased availability restricted to the top tiers.

Higher Private Tier: Some airlines have secret invite-only tiers above the top tier. I only note this because it means that some “top” tier elites aren’t actually the top of the food chain. For example, United has Global Services, who outrank regular 1K’s for upgrades. American also has ConciergeKey, but it isn’t an elite status level–it’s more of a program to provide extra services to high value customers.
Best in class: United, though depending on how you look at it, it could also be considered worst in class since a lot of people go to the trouble of achieving 1K status only to be passed over for upgrades by Global Services members. That said, if you’re a Global Services flyer, you’ve got it made.

Gifting Elite Status: Some top-tier elites can give lower elite status to friends/family members with the wave of a wand. As a Delta Diamond I can give Silver Medallion once I cross the 75,000 mile threshold and then Gold status when I hit 125,000 within a calendar year. The other airlines have much less formal gifting programs, but most allow it.
Best in class: Delta for making the rules clear, and upping gifted status beyond the basic level.

Your Personal Top Tier

It’s important to keep in mind that the top-tier elite status you aim for should be the one that makes the most sense for you. You should take into account all the benefits, but also convenience and flexibility for the awards and perks you need. I think overall American Executive Platinum is arguably the best top-tier status due to the super-valuable systemwide upgrades, but that means nothing to someone who lives in a city with little or no service from American. So go for top-tier with the airline that makes the most sense for your home base and the destinations you want, but if you have a choice between major carriers, do a close comparison to determine which will best suit your needs.

I’d love to hear from some of you who have top-tier status about your experience with your program and the benefits you’ve received. Please comment below!

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