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As the year winds down and the scramble to attain elite status revs up (myself included!), I’ve been getting flooded with emails asking whether it’s worth spending X to get Y status with Z airline. The answer to that question really depends on factors that vary from person to person, but it prompted me to think more specifically about how I value elite status in general, and my AAdvantage Executive Platinum status in particular.
I set out to quantify each of the benefits I get from American Airlines, and doing so made answering that initial question easier. It was a helpful exercise, so in this post I’ll share my analysis to help you decide whether pursuing elite status is worthwhile (either by qualifying normally or by paying). Today I’ll focus on American Airlines and the AAdvantage program, but keep an eye out for future posts on the value of elite status with other major US carriers.
When you’re trying to figure out what elite status is worth to you, ask yourself the following:
- How much do you plan to fly in the future with that status? If your travel drops off a cliff next year and you only fly four times, then it probably doesn’t make sense to pay $2,499 for Executive Platinum!
- How much cash do you have? If money is tight, it’s harder to justify a soft expense like elite status, especially if you’re paying for it outright. In this case, unless you can easily achieve status organically (without investing money or time you wouldn’t have spent otherwise), then it’s probably not worth the effort. Elite status is nice, but it’s far from a necessity.
- What’s the incremental value of one level of status over another? You might not have a use for every benefit at the next level of status; identifying the benefits you care about will help you figure out which status level to aim for.
In this post, I’ll peg a reasonable base value you can expect to get from each level of AAdvantage status, and I’ll compare that value to what you’d get at the next level. These valuations are my own opinions; it would be impossible to assign values that apply universally to the millions of different travelers out there. For example, short-haul complimentary upgrades (a new feature of the AAdvantage program in 2015) might mean the world to someone who flies round-trip between New York and Boston weekly, but are completely irrelevant to someone who only flies internationally.
2015 AAdvantage Program and Elite Status Levels
The AAdvantage and US Airways Dividend Miles programs will merge in the second quarter of 2015. The new AAdvantage program will have three tiers: Gold, Platinum, and Executive Platinum.
Below you’ll find my valuations for each level. Benefits that involve frequent flyer miles are assessed based on my latest monthly valuation of points and miles, which lists AAdvantage miles at 1.7 cents apiece. I also assumed that AAdvantage elites would fly roughly 20% over the number of base miles needed to maintain their present status. Finally, for the sake of simplicity and to err on the conservative side, I rounded my valuations of each level down to the nearest $50.
AAdvantage Gold ($1,450): This status level requires 25,000 miles or points, or 30 segments. You can also earn gold status through the American Airlines Business Extra program. Here’s how my valuation breaks down.
- 25% mileage bonus ($127.50): Assuming 30,000 miles flown, the 25% bonus yields 7,500 extra miles.
- Unlimited, auto-requested complimentary upgrades for flights of 500 miles or less ($200): Upgrades on short flights don’t hold a lot of value for me, since Gold elites can get free exit row seats anyway, which is basically the same as first class on a short flight. First class gets you a couple cocktails as well. Boost the value if you’re a frequent short-haul flyer (or if you really love free in-flight drinks).
- 500-mile upgrades ($600): You earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 10,000 elite qualifying miles you fly, so at 30,000 miles annually you’ll earn 12 E500 upgrades. You need 10 of them to upgrade round-trip JFK-LAX, for which you’d normally pay 15,000 miles and $75 each way. So the 500-mile upgrades in that case save you roughly $660. That breaks down to $66 each, plus you’d have two left over. On one hand, with that math you’d get more value out of them by upgrading on shorter flights. On the other hand, you’re unlikely to get maximum efficiency out of them, so I think around $60 each is fair value
- Elite phone line reps ($50): This is a benefit you’ll probably forget about until you really need it. Access to designated elite lines can save a lot of time, especially during weather delays or other major outages.
- Priority check-in ($25): These lanes often take longer than the regular lanes, and with the mobile check-in and kiosks, this benefit is less and less valuable to me.
- Oneworld priority check-in ($25): Same as above.
- 1 Free checked bag ($100): For round-trip domestic flights, you save $25 each way. Of course, the more you fly, the more valuable a free checked bag becomes. However, since it’s easy to get this benefit with a co-branded credit card, I’m capping the value at $100.
- Complimentary MoveUp on US Airways ($75): MoveUp lets you change to an earlier flight on your day of departure. If you fly US Airways and your schedule tends to change rapidly, this benefit could be useful, but the requirement that you have to be at the airport already means I’m unlikely to use it often.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($150): Gold members can move up to Main Cabin Extra (what American calls premium economy) for free at 24 hours prior to departure depending on availability, or can purchase the premium seats in advance at a 50% discount. This comes in handy when there’s no space available in premium cabins.
- Waived award ticketing and close-in booking fees ($100): Non-elite members pay at least $25 for award ticketing that isn’t done online, and $75 for award bookings less than 21 days prior to departure. I’ll credit one use of each fee waiver annually to the overall valuation.
For frequent flyers looking to requalify, American Airlines lets you pay to boost your elite status. The cost to buy up to Gold status ranges from $399 to $649 depending on how many EQMs you already have. At this point—given that there’s only about two weeks left to requalify and you probably don’t have many other options—buying up seems reasonable if you mostly agree with my assessment of AAdvantage Gold benefits. If the benefits are worth much less to you (for instance, if you don’t care about upgrades and you already get free checked bags as a credit card benefit), then I’d skip it.
AAdvantage Platinum ($3,500): Platinum status requires 50,000 miles or points, or 60 segments. You get all the similar benefits of Gold status (auto-upgrades for short flights, elite phone reps, priority check-in, MoveUp, and waived award fees) plus the following.
- 100% mileage bonus ($1,020): Assuming 60,000 miles flown, the 100% bonus yields 60,000 extra miles.
- 500-mile upgrades ($1,200): For flying 60,000 miles annually, you’ll earn 24 E500 upgrades, or twice as many as you would with Gold status.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($500): Unlike Gold elites, as a Platinum elite you get moved up to Main Cabin Extra automatically when you buy your ticket.
- Priority Baggage ($25): Getting your bags first out of baggage claim is nice, but ask yourself how often and how much you’d pay for this benefit if it was only offered à la carte? It’s worth something, but not much.
- 2 free checked bags ($200): This benefit might seem to be more than twice as valuable as having 1 free checked bag, since you can’t get it with a co-branded credit card. However, you’re probably not checking two bags most of the time. If you do check multiple bags and you fly often, then this benefit could be worth much more.
- Oneworld lounge access ($100): There are at least a few high quality lounges in the Oneworld network, including the new business lounge at LAX. If you tend to visit lounges often, this benefit could be worth much more.
The cost to boost up to Platinum status ranges from $699 to $1,199, again depending on how close you are to qualifying. Even if you have to pay the maximum, the bonus miles alone cover most of the fee, so again buying up seems reasonable if you agree with my valuations.
AAdvantage Executive Platinum ($8,100): Executive Platinum status requires 100,000 miles or points, or 120 segments. You get all the similar benefits of Gold and Platinum status, plus the following:
- 100% mileage bonus ($1,700): Assuming 100,000 miles flown, the 100% bonus yields 100,000 extra miles.
- Unlimited complimentary upgrades ($1,000): All upgrades, all the time. As with most benefits, the more you fly, the more valuable this is.
- 8 Executive VIP Systemwide Upgrades ($4000): I value these very highly, since you can use them at the time of purchase on any flight, anywhere in the world, and on other passengers. You can get $500 in value from each one easily.
- Free same day change on American and US Airways ($150): Same day changes normally cost $75, so conservatively I think the average frequent flyer would use this benefit twice annually. If you’re prone to making schedule changes at the last minute, this fee waiver could be worth much more.
- Complimentary snacks and beverages in the main cabin ($50): This benefit would be worth more, but I suspect that like me, most Executive Platinum elites take the majority of their flights in business or first class, where the food and drinks are already on the house.
- 3 free checked bags ($300): Following the same reasoning as above, this is a great benefit when you need it, but that won’t be often for most flyers.
- Waived award reinstatement fees ($300): Apart from award ticketing and close-in booking fee waivers, Executive Platinum members can also cancel awards and have miles fully reinstated without the usual $150 charge. Assuming an average of two waived fees annually, this benefit is worth $300.
The cost to boost up to Executive Platinum status ranges from $1,199 to $2,499. Even if you only value these benefits half as much as I do, boosting is a no-brainer. Still, it’s a big outlay, so if you’re on the fence, you should make your own valuations.
As I said at the outset, everyone values elite benefits differently. I hope this analysis has given you insight into how to think about elite status strategically, and will help you decide whether pursuing AAdvantage status makes sense for you. I expect a hearty debate on this subject, and as always, I look forward to reading your thoughts and valuations in the comments below.