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Comparison of Airline Elite Status – Which Program Is Best?

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It has been a long time since we compared the elite status programs of US airlines. But with news on the combined elite status program of American Airlines and US Airways, we asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to give us a snapshot of the various airlines’ elite programs as they stand and which ones stand out for what.

American Airlines Saver level awards *should* show up in US Airways' system - but sometimes they don't.
The big news this week was that American and US Airways will merge elite status programs next year.

News broke Tuesday about how the new combined elite status program of American Airlines and US Airways will look as the merger progresses – just another step in a long process, but one that has thankfully answered some flyers’ most pressing questions. With all that in mind, let’s look at the programs of the following airlines:

  • American Airlines/US Airways (starting in 2015)
  • Delta
  • United
  • JetBlue
  • Southwest
  • Virgin America

Taking into consideration the following factors:

  • Flying qualification requirements
  • Spending qualification requirements
  • Mileage bonuses
  • Upgrade benefits
  • Other benefits

We have done detailed series in the past on the elite status programs of each of these airlines, so if you are looking for in-depth explanations of each benefit, I would encourage you to look at those instead:

However, this is just a big-picture overview with simple benefits listings to give you a snapshot of each program and how it compares to the rest.

Benefits can vary greatly not only from airline to airline, but also among each individual airline’s status tiers, so it pays to know what you are entitled to if you hit one of these levels, and which program’s benefits might be the best fit for you.

Here is a quick overview table, then read on below to see the specifics on each airline.

  Number of Tiers Spending Requirements Complimentary Upgrades Fee Waivers Standout Benefit
American/US Airways 3 No Yes Yes Systemwide upgrades, fee waivers
Delta 4 Yes Yes Mostly discounts Choice Benefits
United 4 Yes Yes Mostly discounts Checked bags
JetBlue 1 Yes No Yes Slightly roomier economy seats
Southwest 2 No No No, but no fees to begin with Free WiFi
Virgin America 2 Yes Limited Yes Main Cabin Select upgrades
American and US Airways will be combining elite programs next year.
American and US Airways will be combining elite programs next year.

AMERICAN AIRLINES / US AIRWAYS

As I mentioned, the big news this week in the airline world was American Airlines’ and US Airways’ announcement about what their combined elite status program would look like moving forward – estimated to be in place by the second quarter of 2015.

I wont’ get into all the details because you can find them in our post about it, but here is what it is important to know:

“For customers who have an account in both programs and have matched their accounts early in the year, American will move their current Dividend Miles elite-qualifying activity and award mileage into their existing AAdvantage account in the second quarter of 2015. Elite status for 2015 will then be based on a member’s combined elite-qualifying activity from 2014. The same will be true for 2016 elite status, which will be based on combined elite-qualifying activity from 2015. If you’re a current Dividend Miles members who doesn’t have an AAdvantage account, one will automatically be created in the second quarter of 2015.”

The program will keep American’s current three-tier system. Here are the rest of the details about qualification and benefits.

American and US's new elite status qualification requirements.
American and US’s new elite status qualification requirements.

AAdvantage Gold

  • Flying Requirements: 25,000 miles or points, or 30 segments
  • Spending Requirements: None
  • Mileage Bonus: 25%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on flights under 500 miles, 500-mile upgrades on others, along with one companion. Clear 24 hours in advance on American. On US Airways, unlimited complimentary upgrades clear up to 2 days before departure.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats, 50% off Main Cabin Extra (complimentary within 24 hours), waived award processing fee within 21 days of departure, 500-mile minimum, priority screening and boarding, one free checked bag, discounted Admirals Club membership, complimentary same-day standby

AAdvantage Platinum

  • Flying Requirements: 50,000 miles or points, or 60 segments
  • Spending Requirements: None
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on flights under 500 miles, 500-mile upgrades on others, along with one companion. Clear up to 72 hours in advance on American. On US Airways, unlimited complimentary upgrades clear up to 3 days before departure.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra, waived award processing fee within 21 days of departure, 500-mile minimum, priority screening and boarding, two free checked bags, discounted Admirals Club membership, complimentary same-day standby.

AAdvantage Executive Platinum

  • Flying Requirements: 100,000 miles or points, or 120 segments
  • Spending Requirements: None
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary auto-requested upgrades clear up to 100 hours in advance on American or 4 days on US Airways, along with one companion. 8 systemwide upgrades good on basically any paid, published fare.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra, waived award processing fee within 21 days of departure, 500-mile minimum, priority screening and boarding, three free checked bags, discounted Admirals Club membership. Complimentary same-day standby and same-day flight change on American. Waived ticketing service charge, guaranteed economy availability, waitlist priority for purchased first or business class. Expanded award seat availability on American, AAdvantage award change and reinstatement charge waived.

Standout features: This program has some of the best things going for it including the fact that there are no spending requirements, it has not devalued or changed its award chart significantly, and mid-tier elites stand to get more upgrades once these changes go through. The 8 systemwide upgrades are also a unique and potentially very valuable benefit. All in all, American/US Airways looks to be leading the bunch…for now.

Delta recently raised its spending requirements for elite status.
Delta recently raised its spending requirements for elite status.

DELTA

Along with massive mileage program changes and award devaluations, Delta has also changed its elite benefits significantly this year. Some of the biggest changes include increasing Medallion spending requirements, instituting new upgrade policies, and changing its same-day confirm policy. Here’s how you qualify now and what you can expect benefits-wise.

Note: The MQDs requirement for the qualification year will be waived if you make $25,000 or more in eligible purchases in that year with your Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. That spending is tracked everywhere you see your MQDs.

Silver Medallion

  • Flying Requirements: 25,000 MQM’s or 30 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $3,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 25%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on Y fares at time of booking, other fares (excluding E class) up to 1 day in advance, along with companion.
  • Other Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on Y fares at time of booking, other fares (excluding E class) up to 1 day in advance, along with companion.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats, discounted Economy Comfort seats and priority waitlisting. Priority check-in and boarding. One waived bag fee for Silver Medallion and up to 8 companions on same reservation.

Gold Medallion

  • Flying Requirements: 50,000 MQM’s or 60 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $6,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on Y fares at time of booking, other fares (excluding E class) up to 3 days in advance, along with companion. Unlimited complimentary upgrades on award and pay-with-miles tickets.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats and Economy Comfort within US. Discounted Economy Comfort for international travel. Priority waitlist. Two free checked bags for Medallion and up to 8 companions on same reservation. Waived same-day confirmed fees (with a lot of conditions), waived same-day standby fees and direct ticketing charges. Discounted SkyClub membership, SkyTeam lounge access. Priority check-in, security and Sky Priority boarding.

Platinum Medallion

  • Flying Requirements: 75,000 MQM’s or 100 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $9,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on Y fares at time of booking, other fares (excluding E class) up to 5 days in advance, along with companion. Unlimited complimentary upgrades on award and pay-with-miles tickets. Choice of 4 Regional Upgrade certificates (details here) excluding BusinessElite with Choice Benefits.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats and Economy Comfort seats. Priority waitlist. Two free checked bags for Medallion and up to 8 companions on same reservation. Waived same-day confirmed fees (with a lot of conditions), same-day standby, and direct ticketing charges. Waived award redeposit/reissue fees. Discounted SkyClub membership, SkyTeam lounge access. Priority check-in, screening and Sky Priority boarding.

Diamond Medallion

  • Flying Requirements: 125,000 MQM’s or 140 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $15,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 125%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Unlimited complimentary on Y fares at time of booking, other fares (excluding E class) up to 5 days in advance, along with companion, with priority. Unlimited complimentary upgrades on award and pay-with-miles tickets. Choice of 4 Global Upgrade or 8 Regional Upgrade certificates (details here) with Choice Benefits.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary preferred seats and Economy Comfort. Priority waitlist. Three free checked bags for Medallion and up to 8 companions on same reservation. Waived same-day confirmed fees (with a lot of conditions), waived same-day standby fees. Waived award redeposit/reissue fees. Complimentary SkyClub membership, SkyTeam lounge access. Priority check-in, screening and boarding with Sky Priority.

Standout features: Two of the more interesting features of Delta’s Medallion program are that you can rollover from year to year any MQM’s above and beyond the qualification threshold of your status if you do not reach the next. That makes requalification a lot easier for some folks. The other interesting element are Choice Benefits where Platinum and Diamond Medallion get their choice of gifts like bonus miles, upgrade certificates or gifting elite status to a friend.

United has both flying and spending requirements for elite status.
United has both flying and spending requirements for elite status.

UNITED

Like Delta, United instituted a massive award chart devaluation, will convert its frequent flyer program into a revenue-based system next year, and instituted spending requirements for elite status. Here is what you need to qualify and what you get when you do at each level. Note: the PQD requirement is waived for Premier Silver, Premier Gold and Premier Platinum (not 1K) qualification if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You spend at least $25,000 in Net Purchases in 2014 on a MileagePlus co-branded credit card issued by Chase Bank USA, N.A.
    OR
  • You hold a United MileagePlus Presidential Plus℠ Card

Premier Silver

  • Flying Requirements: 25,000 miles or 30 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $2,500
  • Mileage Bonus: 25%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary upgrades for Premier and companion as early as day of departure. Instant upgrades on Y or B full-fare economy.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in. 500-mile minimum, priority check-in, screening, boarding. 1 free checked bag, discounted United Club membership. Priority award waitlisting, standby for international awards, better award availability, discounted close-in booking and change fees, waived award change fee more than 21 days in advance. Discounted award redeposit fee. Star Alliance Silver status.

Premier Gold

  • Flying Requirements: 50,000 miles or 60 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $5,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 50%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary upgrades for Premier and companion as early as 48 hours before departure. Instant upgrades on Y or B full-fare economy.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to Economy Plus at booking. 500-mile minimum, priority check-in, screening, boarding. 3 free checked bags, discounted United Club membership. Priority award waitlisting, discounted same-day flight changes, standby for international awards, better award availability, discounted close-in booking and change fees, waived award change fee more than 21 days in advance. Discounted award redeposit fee. Star Alliance Gold status (and lounge access when traveling internationally).

Premier Platinum

  • Flying Requirements: 75,000 miles or 90 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $7,500
  • Mileage Bonus: 75%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary upgrades for Premier and companion as early as 72 hours before departure. Instant upgrades on Y or B full-fare economy. Regional Premier Upgrade eligible.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to Economy Plus at booking. 500-mile minimum, priority check-in, screening, boarding. 3 free checked bags, discounted United Club membership. Priority award waitlisting, discounted same-day flight changes, standby for international awards, better award availability in premium cabins, discounted close-in booking and change fees, waived award change fee more than 21 days in advance. Discounted award redeposit fee. Star Alliance Gold status (and lounge access when traveling internationally). Global Entry application fee reimbursement.

Premier 1K

  • Flying Requirements: 100,000 miles or 120 segments
  • Spending Requirements: $10,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary upgrades for Premier and companion as early as 96 hours before departure. Instant upgrades on Y or B full-fare economy. Regional Premier and Global Premier Upgrade eligible.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to Economy Plus at booking. 500-mile minimum, priority check-in, screening, boarding. 3 free checked bags, discounted United Club membership. Priority award waitlisting, discounted same-day flight changes, standby for international awards, better award availability in premium cabins. Waived fees for close-in booking and changes, award change and cancellation fees, telephone award booking fees. Star Alliance Gold status (and lounge access when traveling internationally). Global Entry application fee reimbursement. $60 statement credit for MileagePlus Chase credit cardmembers.

Standout features: United has gotten pretty stingy with elite upgrades, and even those at the middle and higher tiers don’t get full fee waivers on things like same-day changes or award changes.

JetBlue introduced Mosaic back in 2012.
JetBlue introduced Mosaic back in 2012.

JETBLUE

JetBlue launched its elite Mosaic program back in July of 2012. Here are the details.

Mosaic

  • Flying Requirements: 30 segments plus 12,000 base flight points, or 15,000 base flight points
  • Spending Requirements: $4,000-$5,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 3 bonus points per $1
  • Upgrade Benefits: Ability to redeem TrueBlue points for Even More Spaceseats, andsix free Even More Space seat upgrades(seats
  • Other Benefits: Free second checked bag for everyone flying on the member’s reservation, free Even More Speed expedited security screening. Early boarding.

Standout features: To be honest, this is a pretty barebones program, but that’s in keeping with JetBlue’s proletariat aesthetic. What would make Mosaic more interesting are some perks that will get you into the airline’s new Mint business class.

Southwest has two elite tiers.
Southwest has two elite tiers.

SOUTHWEST

Southwest has a simple elite program called A-List. Here are the details.

A-List

  • Flight requirements: 25 one-way flights or 35,000 tier-qualifying points (this is really a spending requirement)
  • Spending requirements: Between $2,917-$5,834 depending on the fares you buy.
  • Mileage Bonus: 35%
  • Upgrade Benefits:
  • Other Benefits: Priority boarding, standby priority, priority check-in and security

A-List Preferred

  • Flight requirements: 50 one-way flight or 70,000 tier-qualifying points (this is really a spending requirement)
  • Spending requirements: Between $5,834-$11,667 depending on the fares you purchase.
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: None.
  • Other Benefits: Priority boarding, standby priority, priority check-in and security, free in-flight WiFi.

Standout features: Nothing too fancy here, just like the airline, though free WiFi for A-List Preferred members is a nice perk.

You have to spend at least $4,000 to earn Virgin's basic elite status.
You have to spend at least $4,000 to earn Virgin’s basic elite status.

VIRGIN AMERICA

Virgin America launched its two-tier elite status program in July 2012 as well. Here is what it takes to earn Silver and Gold, and what flyers benefit from at each level.

Elevate Silver

  • Flying Requirements: 20,000 status points
  • Spending Requirements: $4,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 25%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary space-available upgrades to Main Cabin Select 12 hours in advance. Expanded 12-hour advance-purchase upgrade window for First Class.
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to preferred seating within Main Cabin, enhanced digital/social media rewards (such as bonus points for checking in online), 15% discount on Main Cabin tickets once per year. 1 free checked bag.

Elevate Gold

  • Flying Requirements: 50,000 status points
  • Spending Requirements: $10,000
  • Mileage Bonus: 100%
  • Upgrade Benefits: Complimentary space-available upgrades to Main Cabin Select 24 hours in advance. Expanded 24-hour advance-purchase upgrade window for First Class
  • Other Benefits: Complimentary access to preferred seating within Main Cabin, enhanced digital/social media rewards (such as bonus points for checking in online), 15% discount on Main Cabin tickets twice per year. Waived Elevate points redeposit fee. 3 free checked bags.

Standout features: Another relatively barebones, but also easy-to-understand, elite system. The best features are those points-earning bonuses that can add up to award flights much faster, and Main Cabin Select advanced access since those seats can be hundreds of dollars more expensive than regular Main Cabin seats.

So Which Program Is Best?

Which of these elite programs is best really depends on your flying and spending habits, and what you hope to get out of an airline. One of the simpler programs like Southwest’s or Virgin America’s might be the right choice for you if you stick to those airline’s more limited routes, want just a few easy-to-use perks, and put those bonus points you earn to use.

When it comes to the legacies, things get a bit tougher to gauge. If you fly a ton and spend a lot on airfare each year and would not have trouble reaching United and especially Delta’s high spending requirements, you might find that you are actually earning more miles with their new revenue-based programs starting next year and enjoying the rarefied upper echelons of their elite status programs. That said, United has been getting stingier with upgrades, even for top-tier elites, and Delta keeps making changes to elite benefits without warning, so that is something to consider.

For now, it looks like the clear winner is probably American Airlines and US Airways’ soon-to-be-merged program. The flying requirements are in line with the industry, they have not instituted any spending requirements, and when you reach the upper tiers, you get some great benefits like complimentary upgrades, super valuable systemwide upgrades, decent mileage-earning bonuses even at the middle tier and more. That said, combining two frequent flyer programs is bound to present some headaches next year. It will likely mean that elites are competing with a lot more flyers for upgrades, and those priority check-in, screening and boarding lines are bound to get a lot longer. Still, for actually rewarding flying without imposing huge spending requirements and actually waiving many pesky fees as well as giving flyers upgrades they can actually put to use fairly easily, American looks to be the top all-round pick for the moment.

What is your elite status program of choice and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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