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What is Airline Elite Status Worth in 2016?

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If you’re working toward elite status with an airline this year, it helps to know exactly how much value you’ll get for your hard-earned money. To help make the calculation easier, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen compares the various levels of status across the top US-based airlines.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve closely analyzed the elite status levels for the major US carriers. I started with the American AAdvantage program and then continued with Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus, Alaska Mileage Plan, Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue. While placing a value on each individual program is a useful exercise, it’s much more illuminating to compare results across carriers, so in today’s final wrap-up post, I’ll do just that to try to identify the most rewarding programs for your travels.

American Airlines first class seat featured
Airline elite status can bring you perks like upgrades to business or first class, but which is the best program out there?

Let’s start with a comparison of the absolute value for each of the programs I analyzed. Since some programs have four tiers, I will organize this into four categories: low, middle, high, and top. I have decided to keep JetBlue out of the first two analyses given that the TrueBlue program awards elite-qualifying points so differently than the rest. I did, however, include Southwest, though I added a disclaimer about the Companion Pass benefit for each table. Here’s how the programs stack up (the “winner” for each column is in bold):

Airline

Low

Middle

High

Top

American

$1,155

$2,840

n/a

$7,490

Delta

$790

$1,955

$3,650

$6,820

United

$970

$2,455

$4,335

$8,370

Alaska

$1,075

$3,675

n/a

$8,300

Southwest

$760

$2,960

n/a

$10,150*

* Since the Companion Pass is so lucrative and isn’t necessarily an elite status tier, I’m including it but also highlighting the “traditional” winner in the top-tier category.

As you can see, the numbers vary quite a bit, and there are different winners in the different categories. The best low-tier status is AAdvantage Gold, while Alaska MVP Gold is the clear winner in the mid-tier category. The high-tier category only has two players, and United Premier Platinum easily outstrips Delta’s Platinum Medallion, while United’s top-tier 1K status barely edges out Alaska’s MVP Gold 75K from the four “traditional” programs but falls short of Southwest’s Companion Pass.

However, just considering the absolute value of these different levels doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Instead, you must look at the relative values of each given the amount of flying that you’ll do to earn each status level. Here’s a breakdown of the different elite status tiers based on cents in value you’ll get per elite-qualifying mile/point:

Airline

Low

Middle

High

Top

American

3.85

4.73

n/a

6.24

Delta

2.63

3.26

4.06

4.55

United

3.23

4.09

4.82

6.98

Alaska

3.58

6.13

n/a

7.69

Southwest

1.8

3.52

n/a

9.23*

In this case, the numbers don’t change too drastically, as the low, middle and high tiers all have the same respective winners (AAdvantage Gold, Alaska MVP Gold, and United Premier Platinum). However, looking at the data this way does change the order of top-tier status levels: Alaska MVP Gold 75K status jumps ahead of United Premier 1K with a value of 7.69 cents per elite-qualifying mile, mainly due to the less flying required to earn it. However, it’s still well behind Southwest’s Companion Pass, which gives you a whopping value of 9.23 cents per Tier-qualifying point.

The final way to look at the data takes into account how much you spent to calculate the return you’d get on that spending with the corresponding elite status level’s perks. In other words, if you spend $5,000 and get $1,000 of benefits, you have a return of 20%. You’ll see some similar results in this table:

Airline

Low

Middle

High

Top

American

25.67%

31.56%

n/a

41.61%

Delta

17.56%

21.72%

27.04%

30.31%

United

21.56%

27.28%

32.11%

46.5%

Alaska

23.89%

40.83%

n/a

51.23%

Southwest

12.06%

23.49%

n/a

61.52%*

JetBlue

24.92%

n/a

n/a

n/a

As you can see, looking at the data this way gives you the same results as the value per elite-qualifying mile/point.

Overall Conclusions

I must admit that I’m a bit of a math nerd, so I love undertaking these type of mathematical analyses. When you look at the programs side by side, I think there are a few key takeaways:

  • Alaska has the best overall program — Alaska Airlines may not have the global footprint of a United or American, but its Mileage Plan program appears to offer the best overall value across all tiers. Alaska boasts the second most valuable low-tier status, the best mid-tier status (by a wide margin) and the second best top-tier status (though it is tops among the “traditional” programs). This actually makes a lot of sense. Alaska miles are incredibly valuable, and you can enjoy perks when traveling on both Delta and American. I recently status-matched to MVP Gold 75K status and have been very happy thus far.
  • Delta lags far behind its competitors  On February 1, I lost status with Delta for the first time in over 8 years. Part of this was due to a decrease in business travel in my new job, but much more of it was a result of the systematic destruction of the SkyMiles program. My upgrade percentage as a Platinum Medallion hovered around 50%, and the new upgrade process for Comfort+ seats is another slap in the face to elites. As you see from the above tables, Delta sits at or near the lowest spot across all four of its elite status tiers, and if history is any indication, it’ll only get worse from here.
  • The Companion Pass is in a league of its own — There are many lucrative perks included for elite members across the various carriers. Elite bonus miles are incredibly valuable (like the $2,700 worth of miles for Alaska’s MVP Gold 75K flyers) as are upgrade certificates ($2,000 and $2,800 for American and United, respectively). However, the Companion Pass stands above all others. I pegged this benefit at $6,000 based on 20 round-trip flights of $300 apiece. However, you can get a TON more value through more frequent usage, and since it can be used on both revenue and award tickets, it’s amazingly flexible as well.

Remember, though, that this series and the assumptions I used represent just one way to approach the valuation process. As you consider the different benefits, be sure to think about your typical travel patterns and how you value each perk. If scoring a complimentary first-class upgrade is all that matters to you, cross Southwest and JetBlue off right away. On the other hand, if traveling with a companion for free is most important, the Companion Pass is hard to beat.

brian valuations credit cards featured
Carrying the right credit card could also help with your elite status qualification.

In addition, all of these analyses doesn’t take into account co-branded credit cards that can help you qualify for elite status without meeting the requirements the hard way. Here’s a breakdown of these offerings:

  • American: Earn 10,000 EQMs when you spend $40,000 in a calendar year on the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard. You can also earn up to 10,000 additional EQMs by spending $40,000 on the Barclaycard Aviator Silver card, though this is only for those who held a US Airways MasterCard and thus isn’t open to new applicants.
  • Delta: Earn 10,000 MQMs after your first purchase on the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express; you can then earn 15,000 more MQMs after you spend $30,000 in a calendar year and another 15,000 MQMs after you spend $60,000 in a calendar year. You can also earn 10,000 MQMs when you spend $25,000 in a calendar year on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card plus another 10,000 MQMs when you spend $50,000 in a calendar year.
  • United: No current credit cards allow you to earn PQMs, but if you still hold the United MileagePlus Presidential Plus Card (a holdover from pre-merger Continental), you can earn 1,000 Flexible PQMs for every $5,000 you spend. These can be redeemed to help you earn up to Premier Platinum status.
  • Alaska: None
  • Southwest: All points earned on the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card count toward Companion Pass qualification (and can even be used to earn the pass for almost two years if timed correctly). While these points don’t count as TQPs for A-List or A-List Preferred qualification, you can earn 1,500 TQPs for every $10,000 spent on the card (up to a maximum of 15,000 TQPs per year).
  • JetBlue: None

Adding these to the mix can easily change the calculus, so be sure to take that into account when evaluating your own unique situations.

Bottom Line

Elite status carries a ton of perks, and it can be challenging to identify which frequent flyer program offers you the best bang for your buck. Going through this type of detailed analysis can be incredibly helpful in figuring out which program is best-suited for you and can also help you decide whether it makes sense to push for that next level. At the end of the day, however, earning any status can make your travel life a lot easier. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this series, but stay tuned! Next, I’ll go through a similar analysis for the major hotel chains.

What are you favorite airline elite status tiers?

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