Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Top Tier Status

by on November 9, 2011 · 48 comments

in American, Delta, Elite Status, United, US Airways

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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).


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!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Bill

    Nice comparison, Brian. Just wondering what your thoughts are when comparing Delta Platinum to the other airlines top elite status. Granted, Platinum is not the top tier for Delta, but it’s easier to get than the 100K needed for everyone else and are the benefits of Platinum that far off from top tier everywhere else?

  • Anonymous

    Delta’s biggest weakness are the systemwide upgrades, which pale in comparison to the competition. Delta’s domestic upgrades are good, but since the introduction of Diamond Medallion last year, I’m sure Platinums have seen a decrease in upgrade percentage. That being said, Delta Platinum is on par or better than Continental/United Platinum and lightyears ahead of American Platinum.

  • PL

    Do you qualify for these over just a single year or can you accumulate points from several years to reach these status levels. Once the status level is reached, are you permanently in that status?

    If I transfer SPG miles to American before December 1, do those miles count towards the American Executive Platinum status?

  • Anonymous

    You must qualify in a single calendar year (Jan 1- Dec 31). Once you qualify its good until February of the year after next.

    So if you achieved 100,000 AA elite miles today, your status would be good until February of 2013.

  • Ty

    American does actually have expanded award availability for Executive Platinum. It won’t appear on their web site when you search, but it does when you call. Even if those agents have the ability to ask for inventory to be opened, the expanded availability doesn’t require them to do anything special.

  • Adam

    I was a United 1K for several years when I lived in the DC area, however now living in Cincinnati and flying to the Northeast and Europe frequently I am now a Diamond Medallion with Delta. I feel I get much better service and rewards as a Delta Diamond than I ever did with United. I am frequently greeted and addressed by name, not only by Customer Service agents, but Flight Attendants, who take the time to look at their manifest, find out who their top fliers are and go out of their way to make us feel special. Also I have not been in anything less than First on a domestic flight where 2 classes of services are offered since becoming a Platinum Medallion.

  • Alex Stevens

    I’m a Chairman’s Preferred with US. I live in a small-airport city (Charlottesville, VA) where my only real options for my frequent travel are DL or US. As a CP I’ve gotten a pretty high (though not perfect) upgrade percentage and really good service from the CP line, including with awards and upgrades. They have made exceptions for me on companion upgrades when my wife was on the same flight but not the same reservation, and they have added low-bucket award seats when I’ve made changes to award flights. Free changes to award flights is definitely also a feature that you should track in your comparison, especially with DL’s ridiculous new 72-hour policy.

  • hobo13

    United does, in theory, have expanded NY inventory for 1K’s. But it has been almost non-existent for 6-8 months now. These days, it’s usually NY=XY. CO still has good XN inventory for Plats though.

    Since you are lumping CO/UA together, I guess it’s fair to give this award to United, for now. But assuming COdbaUA continues to combine the worst of both carriers, we are likely destined for United’s NY 1k ‘non’- inventory in the future.

  • chris

    I recently reached Delta Platinum for the first time (September), and have a chance to reach Diamond by year end. My questions is how do I choose my “bonus” gift? I received the welcome packet, but can’t see where to choose my bonus (either miles or gifting status). Assuming I also reach Diamond this year – do I still get multiple bonuses? How can I maximize the options.

  • Anonymous

    I am currently a Diamond with Delta and love it! I think there are variables that you did not include that each program may have that gives it extra special value. For Delta, it would have to be the rollover. It definitely makes it a nice perk of the system when you are unsure of the next program year’s flying habits, or you are debating what to do with your travel when you between Plat and Diamond (ie. stay with the program or use a different airline – with Delta, just stay since it will rollover to next year’s status).

  • Jarrett

    Yeah, but you can’t compare Delta Platinum vs AA Platinum because you have to fly 75K miles to get Delta Platinum compared to 50K miles to get to AA Platinum. AA Platinum should be compared to Delta Gold instead.

  • Allsmilestracey

    LOL@ “Stay classy, Delta.”

  • Adam

    This is done from the Delta Site. Here is a link that will take you to the Choice Benefits available to you. If you are eligible to make a selection it will let you.

  • Guest

    +1. You need to fix your chart by entering “by phone only” under AA in the “Top Tier Extended Award Availability” row

  • nick

    You can buy into US Airways Chairman’s Preferred from scratch for $3,999. Given the 2 (+ companion) systemwide upgrades, which seem to be low on restrictions, is this actually a pretty good deal? TPG, I know you have some sort of complicated matrix whereby you calculate the value of a frequent flyer mile, so I’m curious as to whether $4K for top-tier status is “worth” it. FWIW, I fly out of LAX primarily, so it’s not a USAir hub, but for, e.g., European travel, it’s not that big of a deal anyway to fly via an East Coast hub.

  • chris

    Adam – thanks for the help, link worked perfectly.

  • chris

    Adam – thanks for the help, link worked perfectly.

  • Guest

    As Executive Platinum, I see higher award availability online as well when I login with my AA account vs. not.

  • Guest

    This is a published benefit of Executive Platinum, not just string-pulling agents can do.

  • Rocky Horan

    Currently I am a DL Plat and have been for the last two years and spent several years as a NWA Gold. My NWA Gold benefits were amazing! 100% mile bonus, 3 days upgrade window and I had a 99% upgrade status out of Seattle on almost every flight, I think I only didn’t get upgraded once. I even got upgraded multiple times on near empty transpacific flights as a phantom upgrade, something NWA was good for! As a DL plat, I’ve never been upgraded on an international flight, I’m only upgraded about 75% of time domestically and my bonus miles are still only 100% vs NWA plat that was 125%, Needless to say I’m still bitter at Delta.

    However, Now I am living in L.A. Fly normally from LAX. I travel domestically a lot for work. I am debating changing airlines but don’t know who to go with. Nice thing about about Delta Gold and above is you can be upgraded on Alaska Airline flights at check in and I’m 5/6 on those upgrades and commonly fly home to Seattle to visit family and friends on Alaska for the have super cheap fairs (like $69 one way) and I earn 100% bonus on AS flights.

    Would you all recommend as an LA flyer that I stay with Delta (I do like 3-4 international trips a year for pleasure) or should I branch out to United or America that Offers more Non stops destinations from LAX? AA has 31 Non stops from LAX (Domestic and internationally including American Eagle) 63 on United/Co (Domestic and internationally including shuttle flights) 26 on Delta (38 if you count their co-share and upgrade availability on Alaska – this is mainly to mexico though).

    Any thoughts from any bloggers our there?

  • Matthew Adams

    If I’m reading it right, it looks like you can save yourself a grand by earning a single PQM before buying up.

  • Anonymous

    I updated my chart

  • Jenny

    Next year I have the option of going with United or AA for my flights from NY. I have been trying to get Premier status on United for this year. Should I switch my loyalty to AA for next year?

  • MV

    Clarification re: Delta’s better award availability. The chart says it is for Gold and above, and then the paragraph says “Delta does it for all Medallions”. Is this benefit available to Silvers then?

  • Biggles209

    As a Million Miler on United, I get to gift my status to a companion – a new perk for 2012. This has motivated me to regain 1K status for the first time in 10 years!

  • Anonymous

    AA and US have special benefits for passing a tier but not reaching the next one. For example, US’ top tier is 100K but they give free club membership at 125K, the same as Delta. Of course, Delta’s clubs are nicer but US club membership gives you access to UA clubs too.

  • Juan Fernández Ceballos

    I was Plat with DL for a couple of years and then was one of their “charter” Diamond members and became extremely disenchanted when I realized how little value miles had. I would talk with my friends over on CO and AA and realized that I was getting hosed – they would only need to use say 100k when I had to use 200k or even 300k miles for certain rewards. So one of my friends got me matched to AA Plat. While it’s much more expensive to upgrade on AA as Plat, if you’re willing to spend the money and request upgrades early, you could get upgraded almost all the time and I thought the food on domestic fist class is hands down better at DL. But frankly all being told, I found myself spending much more than I did with DL as I saw myself buying “stickers” to upgrade on flights.
    That said, I’m still Plat with DL and will do the MegaDo challenge with AA and plan to move all my flying to AA as their highest tier is light years ahead of DL’s. In a way, I almost just see AA monetizing the lower tier elites and rewarding their highest tier with a far superior product and program.
    These are just my .02.

  • Alex

    I do see on AA’s site that there are elite rewards

    And USAir has their own I believe too called special dividends on their website too.

    These probably are good until the end of the year, but it’s for those that accumulate miles above a certain status or beyond the final tier. Interesting…

  • Hwtj

    I think you also need to edit the comments after the chart

  • Scott

    Actually, I think AA does allow free domestic upgrades to Hawaii. I know for me at least, it makes mileage running to HNL very easy!

  • calbear77

    I’d like to see a direct comparison of how you value the miles for each of the programs. You’ve mentioned many times that you value certain miles a certain amount (SkyPesos less so), but you don’t explain how or why you feel that way. I think that info would be helpful for a lot of us noobs.

  • Anonymous
  • Matt

    If you fly 75000 miles on AA, what status level do you get? It’s reasonable to compare the two, just as it’s reasonable to compare AA Plat with Delta Gold. AA’s elite program sub-EXP is a real weakness.

  • Jens

    Thanks for the nice post!

    I’d also be curious about your opinion on mid-tier (50,000 miles) status, especially so after United’s bonus mile downgrade of Premier Executive.

  • Carberrie

    I love AA’s EXP status mostly because of the SWUs I can use on ANY Fare class. Plus, the domestic upgrades are very frequent/easy (90%?). Plus, the AAdvantage miles are quite valuable too. I consider AA miles just modestly below Untied miles, but way ahead of Delta miles. Perhaps 1 UA mile = 0.9 AA mile = 0.6 Delta mile.

  • Guest

    Which elite status program would be good for someone that lives in hawaii?

  • SomeGuy

    Are the systemwide upgrades one-way or RT? For example, if US Air gives 2, does that mean I could upgrade two RT international flights a year or just one RT (two one-ways)?

    Also, do credit cards that generate miles (e.g., Delta Amex or US Air MC) count toward the qualifying miles?

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  • Thunderstorm

    Carberrie, I’d love to know why you value UA miles more than AA? UA have much devalued their Award Levels, although not so much as Delta!!

    Kindly explain your reasoning! Thank you!

  • Vinpoet

    cannot get to click to talk feature for United. Hoow do I find it? i am waiying on two lines to united. Have they done away with the dedicated number for 1K members?

  • Vinpoet

    “Waiving” should read “waiting” below.

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