Maximizing Elite Status: Comparing Low Level 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.

Elite status is a major part of flying these days—both in terms of perks and benefits, as well as mileage bonuses that can up your balances significantly. Even elite flyers at the lower levels stand to gain a lot in terms of waived fees and faster check-in, plus a shot at upgrades. Here’s a look at the benefits conferred upon elite flyers at the lowest level on the top four legacy U.S. airlines. Then 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 Gold United Airlines Premier Silver Delta Silver Medallion US Airways  Preferred Silver
Qualification Miles 25,000 25,000 25,000 25,000
Qualification Segments 30 30 30 30
Mileage Bonus 25% 25% 25% 25%
Domestic Upgrade Window on discounted economy Upgrades are not complimentary- but if you use an upgrade certificate you clear at 24 hours Day of departure 24 hours 48 hours
Companion Upgrades Yes Yes Yes Yes
Access to Preferred Seating Complimentary at time of booking Complimentary at check-in Complimentary at booking for Preferred Seats, discounted intl Economy Comfort Complimentary at time of booking
Priority Check-in, Security Screening and Boarding Yes Yes Yes, but not priority security with a purchased coach ticket Yes
Same Day Standby Flight Change Free. $50 to confirm change. $75 Not possible. $50 to confirm space. Free
Baggage Fees 2 free checked bags of current size and weight limits 1 free checked bag up to 50 lbs 1 free checked back up to 70 lbs 1 free checked bag of current size and weight limits
Lounge Discount $50 off annual fee, total of $450 $25 off annual fee, total $450 $50 off annual fee, total of $400 $75 off annual fee, total $375


Qualification: This is the threshold, in terms of miles or segments, at which elite status is achieved. You 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 always qualify on miles alone, but are on lots of flights.
Winner: Tie. All four airlines have the same requirements of either 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments. 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 35,000 miles on them this year, those first 25,000 would count to make you a Silver Medallion, but then those 10,000 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 15,000 miles to qualify for Silver status again.

Mileage Bonus: This is a bonus on base (redeemable) 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. So as an example, if you had low-level elite status with any one of these airlines, and flew 5,000 miles, you’d earn 6,250 miles total.
Winner: Again, this is a tie. All four offer their low-level elites a 25% bonus on base miles flown. If I had to choose I’d give it to United since I think their miles are the most valuable of the four.

Domestic Upgrade Window: Elite status will get you at least the possibility of free upgrades on 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. Your chances as a lower-level elite aren’t always the best, but you might score a seat on an out-of-the-way route.
Winner: US Airways…hey, at least they consider upgrading you a full 48 hours before your flight!

Companion Upgrades: If you’re an airline elite traveling with a companion (only one!) and you’re offered an upgrade on your seat, your companion will automatically be considered for an upgrade as well. Chances are it won’t happen at this level of elite status, but good to know.
Winner: Tie. All four offer a complimentary companion upgrade for a single travel companion on their domestic routes. Let’s be honest, as a low level elite getting your own upgrade is hard enough – very few people actually get to upgrade a companion as well.

Access to Preferred Seating: Almost all the domestic airlines these days have split their economy cabins into regular and preferred seating areas. On some, like United, 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 of the plane.
Winner: Delta, American and US Airways, that allow their elite flyers to reserve these seats at the time of booking. United probably used to be the best since their Economy Plus seats were not only closer to the front, but were also roomier. However, it looks like this benefit will only be available at check-in to Silver elites. A huge devaluation in that benefit for the program in 2012- I know I’d never want to risk waiting until check-in to get a good seat.

Priority Access and Baggage Fees: In this category, I included priority check-in, security screening and boarding. Elite status confers upon members, even in the lower tiers, access to priority check-in counters (usually the business 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. Not only do these benefits save (well, just a little, really) time, but they also save money on checked bags, so you can bring that extra pair of shoes.

Winner: American and US Airways. United is the only one that will allow just a single checked bag for free for its elite customers while the others allow two. Delta Silver Medallions get priority check-in, but are not classified as SkyPriority, so they don’t get preferred security.

Same Day Standby Flight Change: This situation comes up a lot for frequent travelers. Your schedule changes and you need to book an earlier or later flight home on your day of travel. A lot of airlines will let their elites change flights for free or discounted change fees.
: American Airlines and US Airways let their elite flyers change flights on their day of travel for free while United is going to charge its elites $75, and Delta doesn’t even allow Silver Medallions to standby on earlier flights – only to pay the $50 confirmed change fee is space is available (just like anyone without elite status).

Lounge Discounts: Especially for seasoned road warriors, the airline lounge can be a place of comfort, shelter and refuge. And at the very least, you can grab a drink and surf the web.
Winner: US Airways. Not only is the discount the most at $75, but the total price is also the lowest at $375. Plus, when you’re a US Airways Club member, you also have access to United and Star Alliance lounges, so why settle for United’s paltry $25 discount and $450 fee?

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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