Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Mid 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.

At this point, I don’t need to tell you that elite status confers a lot of perks and privileges upon frequent flyers who reach the upper echelons of their mileage program of choice, but even flyers at the middle levels of elite status stand to gain a lot. In fact, many airlines how now split their elite levels into four separate tiers (such as the new United Mileage Plus, and Delta) just to create even more distinctions for their top-tier customers.

For the purpose of this post, however, I just look at the mid-level tier that flyers qualify for at 50,000 flight miles since all four major U.S. legacy carriers offer this tier. 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 Platinum United Airlines Premier Gold Delta Gold Medallion US Airways  Preferred Gold
Qualification Miles 50,000 50,000 50,000 50,000
Qualification Segments 60 60 60 60
Mileage Bonus 100% 50% 100% 50%
Instant Upgrade on full-fare economy Yes Yes Yes Yes
Complimentary Domestic Upgrade Window on discounted economy No- must use upgrade instruments and they process at 72 hours 48 hours 72 hours 72 hours
Companion Upgrades Yes Yes Yes Yes
Access to Preferred Seating Complimentary at time of booking Complimentary at time of booking Complimentary at booking for Preferred Seats and domestic Economy Comfort Complimentary at time of booking
Priority Check-in, Security Screening and Boarding Yes Yes Yes Yes
Same Day Standby Flight Change Free Free Free Free
Baggage Fees 2 free checked bags of current size and weight limits 3 bags of 70lbs each 2-3 free checked bags of current size and weight limits depending on destination 3 free checked bags of current size and weight limits
Award Processing Charges Waived fee for awards ticketsWaived close-in booking$150 for ticket changes or redeposit of miles $50 close-in award booking$25 award change fee$100 award redeposit fee No late ticketing fee for anyone.
$150 mileage redeposit/change fee
$25-50 award processing fee$75 fee within 14 days of departure$150 mileage redeposit fee
Lounge Discount $100 off annual fee, total of $400 $75 off annual fee, total $400 $100 off annual fee, total of $350 $75 off annual fee, total $375

Qualification: This is the threshold, in terms of miles or segments, at which elite status is achieved. You generally 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 qualify on miles alone but are on a lot of flights.
Winner: All four airlines have the same requirements of either 50,000 miles or 60 flight segments. However, 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 65,000 miles on them this year, those first 50,000 would count to make you a Gold Medallion, but then those 15,000 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 60,000 miles to qualify for Platinum the following year.

Mileage Bonus: This is a bonus on base (redeemable- not elite) 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.
Winner: Tie between American and Delta, who both offer their mid-level elites a full 100% bonus. That means if you flew 5,000 miles, you’d actually get 10,000 in your account (only those base 5,000 would count toward elite status, though). United and US Airways look downright cheap for only offering a measly 50% bonus.

Complimentary Upgrades: Elite status will get you at least the possibility of free upgrades on discount economy tickets 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.
Winner: Delta because they also upgrade Gold Medallions on domestic coach award tickets.  US Airways is in second for also offering complimentary domestic upgrades and processing them three full three days in advance. What’s with the only 48-hour window, United? And American is in last because they don’t offer complimentary upgrades for Platinum flyers (you have to use upgrade instruments or miles).

Preferred Seating: Almost all the domestic airlines these days have split their economy cabins into regular and preferred seating areas. On some, like Delta, 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.
Winner: United because they allow their elites to book their premium economy and exit row seats at the time of booking. Delta is a close second since they also allow their mid-tier elites to book preferred seats that also have more legroom, but still charge them for international Economy Comfort seats (though they do give a 50% discount).

Priority Access and Waived Baggage Fees: In this category, I included priority check-in, security screening and boarding. Elite status confers upon members access to priority check-in counters (usually the business or first 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. All also allow their elite members to check bags for free.
Winner: United, for letting their Gold members check a total of 3 bags at a whopping 70lbs each!

Award Fees: Airlines charge even their mid-level elite flyers fees to book, change, and even cancel their tickets and redeposit their miles. As you can see above, that large redeposit fee can get you every time. So, at this level at least, be sure of your dates when you’re making your booking!
Winner: United only charges $100 to redeposit, and $25 to change your ticket.

Lounge Discount: While I get my lounge access from my Amex Platinum card, I’d probably buy it if I had to since I really value lounge access.
Winner: US Airways. Gold Preferred members $375 (the same as for lower-tier elites), but membership gives you access to over 200 clubs, including United Red Carpet clubs. In second is Delta who gives the biggest discount at $100 off the normal price, meaning lounge access is $350 for Gold Medallions. The only problem is: there are only 40 Delta SkyClubs.

As you can tell, many of the airlines have comparable elite program benefits—it really depends on what you’re looking for. If it’s ease of booking tickets, better chance at an upgrade, or making elite status again next year, those factors will determine which program is best for you.

I’d love to hear from you. What program are you a mid-level elite on, why, and what do you like about it?

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