Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Low Level Status

by on December 7, 2011 · 29 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.

Elite status is a major part of flying these days—both in terms of perks and benefits, as well as mileage bonuses that can up your balances significantly. Even elite flyers at the lower levels stand to gain a lot in terms of waived fees and faster check-in, plus a shot at upgrades. Here’s a look at the benefits conferred upon elite flyers at the lowest level on the top four legacy U.S. airlines. Then read on below to see my thoughts on which one does best in each category.

*Just a note: The benefits I outline below for United Airlines are the new ones from its planned 2012 program changes and do not reflect current MileagePlus/OnePass benefits.


American Airlines Gold United Airlines Premier Silver Delta Silver Medallion US Airways  Preferred Silver
Qualification Miles 25,000 25,000 25,000 25,000
Qualification Segments 30 30 30 30
Mileage Bonus 25% 25% 25% 25%
Domestic Upgrade Window on discounted economy Upgrades are not complimentary- but if you use an upgrade certificate you clear at 24 hours Day of departure 24 hours 48 hours
Companion Upgrades Yes Yes Yes Yes
Access to Preferred Seating Complimentary at time of booking Complimentary at check-in Complimentary at booking for Preferred Seats, discounted intl Economy Comfort Complimentary at time of booking
Priority Check-in, Security Screening and Boarding Yes Yes Yes, but not priority security with a purchased coach ticket Yes
Same Day Standby Flight Change Free. $50 to confirm change. $75 Not possible. $50 to confirm space. Free
Baggage Fees 2 free checked bags of current size and weight limits 1 free checked bag up to 50 lbs 1 free checked back up to 70 lbs 1 free checked bag of current size and weight limits
Lounge Discount $50 off annual fee, total of $450 $25 off annual fee, total $450 $50 off annual fee, total of $400 $75 off annual fee, total $375


Qualification: This is the threshold, in terms of miles or segments, at which elite status is achieved. You earn one frequent flyer mile per mile flown, plus any class-of-service bonuses for buying full and premium fares. You can also qualify for elite status on segments flown—this is to benefit short-haul frequent flyers who might not always qualify on miles alone, but are on lots of flights.
Winner: Tie. All four airlines have the same requirements of either 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments. The one way I’d concede there’s a winner is the fact that Delta lets you roll over any qualifying miles from one year to the next once you’ve reached an elite status threshold. So, if you flew 35,000 miles on them this year, those first 25,000 would count to make you a Silver Medallion, but then those 10,000 extra that wouldn’t do much for you on the other airlines would count towards your next year’s elite status qualification, and you’d only have to fly 15,000 miles to qualify for Silver status again.

Mileage Bonus: This is a bonus on base (redeemable) miles you get for each flight. The table above shows bonuses based solely on miles flown on a discounted economy ticket—so no class-of-service bonuses you might earn by flying in business or first. So as an example, if you had low-level elite status with any one of these airlines, and flew 5,000 miles, you’d earn 6,250 miles total.
Winner: Again, this is a tie. All four offer their low-level elites a 25% bonus on base miles flown. If I had to choose I’d give it to United since I think their miles are the most valuable of the four.

Domestic Upgrade Window: Elite status will get you at least the possibility of free upgrades on domestic flights within North America (excluding Hawaii) and often Mexico and the Caribbean. When you make a booking with your elite frequent flyer number, the airline will automatically register you for a space-available upgrade…behind all the other upper-tier elites. The upgrade window is the most amount of time in advance that the airline will confirm your upgrade. Your chances as a lower-level elite aren’t always the best, but you might score a seat on an out-of-the-way route.
Winner: US Airways…hey, at least they consider upgrading you a full 48 hours before your flight!

Companion Upgrades: If you’re an airline elite traveling with a companion (only one!) and you’re offered an upgrade on your seat, your companion will automatically be considered for an upgrade as well. Chances are it won’t happen at this level of elite status, but good to know.
Winner: Tie. All four offer a complimentary companion upgrade for a single travel companion on their domestic routes. Let’s be honest, as a low level elite getting your own upgrade is hard enough – very few people actually get to upgrade a companion as well.

Access to Preferred Seating: Almost all the domestic airlines these days have split their economy cabins into regular and preferred seating areas. On some, like United, that means more leg room and being closer to the front, while on others, like American or US Airways, it just means you can book aisle or window seats closer to the front of the plane.
Winner: Delta, American and US Airways, that allow their elite flyers to reserve these seats at the time of booking. United probably used to be the best since their Economy Plus seats were not only closer to the front, but were also roomier. However, it looks like this benefit will only be available at check-in to Silver elites. A huge devaluation in that benefit for the program in 2012- I know I’d never want to risk waiting until check-in to get a good seat.

Priority Access and Baggage Fees: In this category, I included priority check-in, security screening and boarding. Elite status confers upon members, even in the lower tiers, access to priority check-in counters (usually the business class ones), security screening lines, and at least getting on the plane before the general public, so you don’t have to worry about there being enough overhead space for your carry on. Not only do these benefits save (well, just a little, really) time, but they also save money on checked bags, so you can bring that extra pair of shoes.

Winner: American and US Airways. United is the only one that will allow just a single checked bag for free for its elite customers while the others allow two. Delta Silver Medallions get priority check-in, but are not classified as SkyPriority, so they don’t get preferred security.

Same Day Standby Flight Change: This situation comes up a lot for frequent travelers. Your schedule changes and you need to book an earlier or later flight home on your day of travel. A lot of airlines will let their elites change flights for free or discounted change fees.
: American Airlines and US Airways let their elite flyers change flights on their day of travel for free while United is going to charge its elites $75, and Delta doesn’t even allow Silver Medallions to standby on earlier flights – only to pay the $50 confirmed change fee is space is available (just like anyone without elite status).

Lounge Discounts: Especially for seasoned road warriors, the airline lounge can be a place of comfort, shelter and refuge. And at the very least, you can grab a drink and surf the web.
Winner: US Airways. Not only is the discount the most at $75, but the total price is also the lowest at $375. Plus, when you’re a US Airways Club member, you also have access to United and Star Alliance lounges, so why settle for United’s paltry $25 discount and $450 fee?

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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  • MSPpete

    Minor correction: Delta has priority check-in and boarding for silvers, but not priority security lanes if you purchase a coach ticket.

  • nate

    I think you missed one big category with major differences: Access to Exit Row Seating.

    This is actually a bigger issue than priority seating. I’d imagine it’s a minor difference to most elite flyers if they have an E- seat in row 10 (AA, US which is considered “preferred”) versus an E- seat in row 25 (UA). US allows exit row seating for Silvers at booking, whereas UA does not allow until check-in. Not sure about AA Gold or DL Silver.

  • nate

    Great comparision BTW – I am considering all options for 2012 after UA Silvers got the proverbial shaft.

  • sebs

    Any chance of a comparison of the benefits of having status with *A, OW, SkyTeam while flying on partner carriers?

  • Susan

    Thanks so much for this analysis! It really helps me to have it all laid out as well as your insights.

  • James

    Another advantage of Delta: they still give 500 mile minimums to non-elites, making it easier to become Silver. BWI-DTW-LAN, for example, nets 1000 miles rather than 483.

  • Lark

    You know, at this level (low level elite), I think you do your readers a disservice by not including Southwest. For many, many people who fly 30K or less miles per year, Southwest is likely the best option… (I know it is not elite status, per se, on Southwest. But certainly an attractive option…)

  • DL

    One more consideration on the upgrade front: whether Hawaii is included. Anecdotally, these can be some pretty high-percentage upgrades for low-level elite on big, leisure-heavy planes.

  • Jameso

    AA gold yes – its the main reason I made the push for lifetime gold, and a big bonus for taller flyers.

  • Jameso

    Another huge drawback to the UA program is they only allow silver and gold to reserve 2 seats at a time (status member + 1). Sorry, families…

  • Gardy

    I was going to comment as well that only Preferred members are allowed to choose exit row seats on US Air – the general public can only get them at check-in, and by then, they’re never available. Also, there is a change coming to US Air Silver Preferred next year, in that they only get 1 free checked bag now, instead of 2. Happy I made Gold this year…

  • JimBobDuggarIsABusyMan

    Good wrap up, Brian! I am now Gold Medallion (thanks to the AMEX Plat 25k MQM transfer bonus) but have a funny story from when I was “just” Silver Medallion earlier this year.
    When I was checking in at Atlanta I headed towards the Medallion check-in area, and noticed that there were a few people in line for the SkyPriority check-in line for GM, PM, and DM. However, there was no one in the Silver Medallinon line and so my lower level of status meant I got to check in faster!
    Interesting note, on my return I had a flight that was delayed due to mechanical failure. I was informed of this at the SkyClub, and told them about my connecting flight. They immediately put me on standby for the next flight–which I got on. Is this typical for Silver Medallions to receive this?

  • Jay

    Brian, How about the Award Travel Benefits? I know AA gold Waived Award Processing Charge. Maybe you can include that as well?

  • PJ

    on october 31, i was coming back from LAX to EWR after a week stopover( Part of my EWR-TPE R/T travel ) in LA area. I am a last class traveller, AA insisted I had to pay $25 to check in my luggage which traveled overseas with me. I had to pay it only late to realize my wife traveling on BA miles can always have 2 luggages checked in for FREE. Bravo Avios ; pray AA would turn around well no adios AA .. My family members are still very on AA miles from CITI AA 75K runs

  • Longmanzz

    I will say the lounge discount is so meaningless for lower or even mid level elites. If you do fly frequent enough to take advantage of the hefty annual fee, you won’t be only a low level elite

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  • TheYGuy

    Can’t believe you forgot AS! Which gives you exit rows and free bags on AA, DL, & AS. Plus upgrades on AS and DL. It also gives 50% elite bonus rather than 25%

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  • Eugene
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  • Gospelbird

    The downgrading of premiere status, by no more offering to choose the seat in Economy Plus at the time of booking -in effort to sell the premiere seating to those without status- is causing me to forget about my loyality for UA. I am very disappointed. To get the desired seat for my next flights I was paying for them now, but for the future I am on a search for alternatives – and I hope, that many Silver Elite Members are doing the same.
    In addition the 2nd free check-in luggage for Silver Elite Members is no more available, but has to be paid with 70 $ each way now!
    And to be hold over hours (!) at a phonecall on waiting line is disrespecting their own customers!
    For me the mileage plus program has degenerated to useless since I no longer get an economy-plus seat at purchase. The number of seats available for upgrade with miles is so limited they are almost impossible to get, and that’s the only worth for me to spend miles – and now this downgrading of Economy Plus in addition!

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