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Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Mid Tier Status

by on December 5, 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.

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.

COMPARISON TABLE

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?

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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  • Mooper

    Great analysis, but a key factor you omitted is free upgrades on domestic award travel. Delta Gold Medallions have roughly a 50% chance of being upgraded on coach awards, confirmed at their normal window.

  • MHuang

    I’ll search around for an answer but have you ever looked at trying to quantify “ease of booking” with award miles? I was very frustrated recently when I learned that US Airways limits their customers to round trip flights with award miles. If you want a one way flight, you still get charged the round trip # of miles. Also, it appears that the same flight can cost a different # of miles depending on which airline you belong to. It’s convoluted and almost deceitful but it’d be great to get more information about redemption.

  • Jorge

    Great article Brian !! .. I have been a DL Gold for a couple of years now, and I’ve had a 100% upgrade hit ratio since.. (even a JFK-MAD overbooked flight, got an upgrade) I fly JFK-MEX for business every two months, and all domestic flights have been upgraded as well. The Elite status + Delta Reserve Amex is a fantastic combination before striking the 60k spending-30k MQM bonus, plus you always get SkyClub access along with other benefits .. The best thing is the rollover.. Ive had the chance to become Platinum, but have opted for rolling over my Gold status , as I think Plat has no real advantages, at least to my point of view…

  • Anonymous
  • Matt

    International Lounge access policy would be a useful item to include in the comparison, although I believe that benefit is now pretty much equalized across the programs. It’s still a big benefit worth calling out.

    On the club side, there may be only 40 skyclubs (although the membership grants you access to a significantly larger number of clubs. Coverage is in general pretty good where Delta flies domestically, especially when you add in the AS boardrooms that you can also access). How many of the lounges accessed by US Airways lounge membership are domestic? Once you go international access through the alliance covers things anyway. Also, the Skyclubs tend to be slightly nicer than many of the other domestic lounges I’ve visited.

    Companion upgrade details and priority could be interesting to explore in more depth as well. What airlines give the best shot to have have the companion upgrade clear? I believe the new UA way is to clear the companion at the elite’s level – unfortunate for lower level elites (particularly with their sometimes smaller F cabins) but better for companions vs. eg Delta where companions all clear last.

  • Sean Buchanan

    Is there somewhere I could find what credit cards give status and at what level for each airline? Through churning I’ve amassed quite a few airline branded CC’s but I have no clue which ones offer status complimentary and which don’t. I’ll never hit status on flying alone so I’m just hoping to get comped status by having the airlines credit card.

    “Thank you” in advance to anyone that can help.

  • Ddcoffeelady

    The consistency of upgrades was the deal maker in my case. I have been elite on USAIR for 3 years now – CP or Platinum and was Platinum on CO with a status match. During the year I was highest on the upgrade chain for both I only once got upgraded on CO and was upgraded 98% of the time on USAIR. I live in LAS and travel to BOS and EWR and ILM regularly as that is where the rest of my family is so status becomes easy to achieve and maintain. I would love to see any of the airlines do the cash and miles redemption like hotels do – would make the travel game even more fun!

  • Anonymous
  • James Kurz

    Actually, given that the programs are so similar, the decision point really should be which airline offers the most frequent, convenient and well timed flights on the routes you fly most. For me, American is the only real option. I’d never fly one of the others because I’d have to make more inconvenient connections to get to my most common destinations. That would be a far bigger drag than missing out on these tiny nuances.

  • http://twitter.com/allisonemarino Allison Marino

    Not that this would necessarily discourage anyone from United, but this year they are requiring a minimum number of paid flights on United to qualify for status.

    Per the website “Also beginning January 1, 2012, to qualify for any Premier level, members must fly at least four paid flights on the new United (including Continental), Copa Airlines or Copa Airlines Colombia during a calendar year.”

    Definitely something to think about if qualifying for a certain level based on a long haul trip through a partner.

  • Matt

    Short version is none – some offer some credit towards qualifying, or may provide status if you spend a lot, and many offer benefits similar to low tier status, but no one just comps you status based on having a CC.

  • Matt

    nataas’s link is a start, but is really biased toward a very specific type of redemption with a relatively low monetary value.

    All the airlines have different rules for award tickets, and different price structures. This is not all that different from different airlines selling tickets with different rules and for different prices. Whichever airline you have the miles with determines the mile cost and routing rules for the award. Often the rules are more generous from purchased fares – some airlines offer 1-way for half round-trip, others have generous stopover allowances, etc.

    There are a lot of opportunities to redeem for flights that would be extremely expensive in dollars, but there are also occasions where redeeming does not offer a good value. There is some amount of complexity involved, but the tradeoff is availability of absolute showstopping itineraries if you can put in the effort (or pay someone like Brian to do it for you). If it was trivial to redeem eg 120k miles for a ticket that would otherwise sell for $20k (I have 2 of these booked) then these opportunities would be unlikely to be available.

  • Modernhaus

    I would be really interested to hear from Elite Status seekers with families…the lounge access and concierge service in event of delayed and cancelled flights, etc., would be invaluable to us, but it’s difficult to accrue enough miles to travel with four people, let alone accrue status for four.

    Are there tricks to doing this, or are most Elites single business travelers or couples?

  • Anonymous

    I would consider matching alliance status as well, especially if someone lives in the U.S. and travels to Europe and Asia. I often feel like I receive better service from Lufthansa as a Star Gold than I do from UA/CO as 1K/Platinum. The Lufthansa First Class check-in in Frankfurt beats most UA/CO check-in at EWR or JFK. And with Lufthansa, Asiana and other non-U.S. airlines, Star Gold often board with First or Business, while in the U.S. they are often held back until regular Elite boarding. Add in the beautiful lounges run by non-U.S. airlines, and Star Gold becomes a huge benefit.

  • Anonymous

    If I have a silver/gold status on a different Star Alliance carrier (i.e. Singapore Airlines), does anyone know if I’m still able to get the same perks from US Airlines, which is also Star Alliance? Would I still be eligible for upgrades? Thanks!

  • http://www.awardtravelconsulting.com AwardTravelConsulting

    I don’t believe that AA PLT get Waived fee for awards tickets, do they? I think that’s only for EXP per http://www.aa.com/i18n/AAdvantage/redeemMiles/makingAwardReservations.jsp

  • Matt

    If your upgrades are 100%, then much of the benefits of Plat don’t matter too much. The free award changes can be very helpful when redeeming, though.

  • Bp3capitalllc

    You have discussed the top tier and the middle tier what do u have to say about delta platinum?
    Thanks

  • Mark

    Excellent comparison!

    I recently got lifetime Gold at AA and am Diamond at Gol in Brazil which requires 100 segments or 100K miles flown. They partner with AA for domestic flights in Brazil, but are not part of Oneworld.

    Does anyone know which airlines would match their status? Dows AA do it?

  • JC

    AA doesn’t offer instant upgrades on Y tickets, but rather doesn’t require any 500-mile upgrades and upgrades at 72 hrs.

    I’m PLT on AA, and prefer their upgrade system as many PLTs chose to not pay for 500-mile upgrades and therefore are not “competition” for a seat in First.

  • Jorge

    Yes, I agree with you .. Because also the “Choice Awards” are pretty much useless. Thats why I prefer to rollover to repeat Gold…

  • David

    I must have missed it; I’ve been reading the blogs for 5 months, getting point and miles and also finally gold Medallion Delta. I traveled fro Northern MN to Orange county for Thanksgiving–going early and leaving late–12 days and hoped to get an up grade; I was #1 on the list 10 hrs before departure, with 1 unsold first class, but 3 hrs before I was number 6 with no first class open. I flew econ. T class. What class should I have been to get an “Instant Upgrade”? I didn’t know an Instant Upgrade existed. I thought it was a dice roll. David

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HZ5IYP4QP7V4FGAHY7Q47JRXHU me4tux

    Could you pls clarify a minor point about that paid US Airways lounge membership which gives you access to over 200 clubs, including United Red Carpet clubs…. Do you get the access to the lounges regardless of which airline you fly any time?

  • Jake

    David… If you want to get an “Instant Upgrade” you must book a Y class ticket and there must also be open F seats. Unfortunately, Y fares are frequently more expensive than just paying for a First Class ticket so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to this guy.

  • Matt

    You need to be flying Star Alliance for non-US Airways (and United) clubs. As a Star Gold you’d already have access to the non-US/UA lounges anyway, so the “new” lounges that the club membership provides (assuming you’re mid-tier elite) are just the UA and US clubs, when on domestic itineraries or non-alliance flights.

    If you’re a lower-level elite without any mid-tier status on Star, then the membership delivers quite a bit more, but the discount is less.

  • avi404

    TPG & other experts,

    Do you have any tips on how one can earn EQMs on United, besides flying? I am “quite close” (~3K miles) to earning premier gold status on united.

    TPG, I read your article (http://thepointsguy.com/2011/10/sunday-reader-question-how-can-you-spend-your-way-to-elite-status/) but nothing so far that will get me the 3K miles that I need.

    Do Chase UR transfers count as EQMs?

    What about points earned through the Gilt City promo?

    Any other suggestions on how to earn United EQMs?

  • Danray

    You didn’t mention anything about companion upgrades. As a 1K member I really don’t understand how that works so my wife and I rotate upgrades that I get since she doesn’t have any airline status.

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