Skip to content

Travel Tuesday Top 10: Best Airline Elite Status Perks (And How to Get Them Without Being Elite)

June 19, 2012
10 min read
Travel Tuesday Top 10: Best Airline Elite Status Perks (And How to Get Them Without Being Elite)
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.

I've had elite status for so long, that it's sometimes hard to remember what life was like before being showered with endless perks. While pre-elite life is a distant memory, I do recall it being a lot less enjoyable. While some airlines are scaling back on elite benefits, like United recently did with stripping lower-level elites of some valuable perks, it's still undeniable that having elite status can be a lifesaver on multiple fronts. While it was hard to keep this list to 10, here are my picks on the best airline elite status perks.

Free checked luggage is a great money-saving perk.

1. Free checked bags. Even if you pack light, there will come a time when you need to check a bag - especially if you have children in tow and your travel burden increases exponentially. Most airlines these days charge around $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second.
Workaround without elite status: Fly Southwest which still provides two free checked bags per passenger or get an airline co-branded credit card like the Gold Delta American Express which entitles cardholders to the first checked bag free.

2. Priority Boarding. Most airlines board in zones these days, with the first being first class and second being elite status members. Even though these pre-boarding zones are swelling these days due to airlines selling advanced boarding, it still beats being the last on the plane and inevitably having to gate-check your bag, which could easily mean missing your connection.
Workaround without elite status: Get a co-branded credit card, like the United Explorer card or simply purchase it.

Priority boarding is a time-saving perk that also means not having to worry whether you'll find room for your carry ons.

3. Complimentary upgrades. Delta, United and US Airways give complimentary domestic upgrades to first class to all elites and American allows their Gold and Platinum members to earn upgrades for every 10,000 miles flown. Upgrades automatically process starting at a week ahead of a flight for top-tier elites and continue to be processed up until departure. While domestic first class isn't as nice as the international experience, it sure beats coach.
Workaround without elite status: Fly with an elite friend and get listed for a companion upgrade (though this will generally drag down your friend in the upgrade queue) or simply use miles to upgrade. United even gives preference to those using miles vs. their own elites.

4. Systemwide Upgrades. International upgrades to business and first class are among the hardest to score since most airlines don't give them out for free. However, if you reach top-tier status with the major North American airlines, you will get systemwide upgrades. But note not all are made the same. Here's my ranking:
American Airlines: Executive Platinum (100,000 elite miles) members get 8 one-way systemwide upgrades, eligible on any paid coach or business class fare and are transferable (so you can sponsor someone else, even if you aren't flying with them).
United: Premier 1K (100,000 elite miles) members earn 6 one-way systemwide upgrades at hitting 100,000 EQMs, and then 2 more for each additional 50,000 elite miles earned. These are not eligible on the cheapest coach fares- Z, P, S, T, K, L, G and N fare classes are excluded, but these are transferable to others and eligible on Copa flights as well.
US Airways: Chairman's Preferred (100,000 elite miles) members get 2 one-way systemwide upgrades, eligible on any paid coach fare class, but they are not transferable, though you can sponsor a companion on the same reservation as you.
Air Canada: Has a convoluted system of ecredit upgrades as optional select privileges for their top-tier members. Elites (35,000 elite miles) and Super Elites (100,000 elite miles) can choose upgrades that are eligible on international flights and the amount you need to use is based on the fare class and destination. A Super Elite can choose 60 ecredits, which would be enough for 4 one-way upgrades to business class from North America to Europe.
Delta: Upon achieving Platinum (75,000 elite miles) members can choose 4 systemwide upgrades, which are only applicable on flexible Y,B,M international fares and Y,B,M,H,Q,K on domestic/Hawaii/Caribbean itineraries. Upon achieving Diamond Medallion (125,000 elite miles), 6 more certificates can be selected. Perhaps the best redemption is on Air France flights purchased in Premium Economy (S,W fares) and upgraded to business class. These are not transferable, though you can sponsor a companion on the same reservation.
Workaround without elite status: Have a top-tier elite friend sponsor you or use miles to upgrade, though get ready to shell out cash since most airlines require hefty co-pays for international upgrades these days.

Though they can be hard to come by, upgrades are a valuable elite perk.

5. Better customer service/dedicated phone lines. When all hell breaks loose (think severe weather or storms), airlines get inundated and hold times can be obscene. However, the airlines generally prioritize elite members over the general public, so your status can get you to the front of the line when it matters most and get you home, while others are left stranded.
Workaround without elite status: Get lounge access so you can at least use one of the experienced lounge attendants instead of waiting in a mile-long line at a ticketing counter (see: Top 10 List on Ways to Get Lounge Access).

6. Discounted/free lounge access. Elite status members get discounted prices on airline lounge access. Delta discounts SkyClub access 11-33% for elites and even gives it to Diamond Medallions (125,000 elite miles) complimentary as part of their status benefits.
Workaround without elite status: Several credit cards give lounge access, including the American Express Platinum, Delta Reserve and United Club cards. Amex Platinum cardholders can also use the $200 airline fee rebate to purchase lounge access.

Elite flyers often get discounted or even free lounge access.

7. Mileage earning bonuses. Airlines award elite members with mileage bonuses for every mile they fly, and the bonuses can really increase the amount of miles you rack up. (Note: these bonuses do not count toward elite status qualification - only as redeemable award miles). In my opinion Delta and American are the most generous, giving their 50,000 elite mile flyers a 100% bonus on every mile flown, so a JFK- Los Angeles roundtrip would net an additional 4,950 bonus miles.
Airline: Elite mile level/ mileage bonus %
Air Canada: 25,000/ 25%, 35,000/ 50%, 100,000/ 100%
American: 25,000/ 25%, 50,000/ 100%, 100,000/ 100%
Delta: 25,000/25%, 50,000/ 100%, 75,000/100%, 125,000/ 125%
United: 25,000/25%, 50,000/ 50%, 75,000/75%, 100,000/ 100%
US Airways: 25,000/25%, 50,000/ 50%, 75,000/75%, 100,000/ 100%
Workaround without elite status: Airlines these days will let you buy extra miles when you fly, but they are not generally a good deal, so I don't recommend purchasing them.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

8. Access to preferred seating ahead of time. There's nothing worse than getting a dreaded middle seat in the back of the plane - it takes you longer to deplane (so you possibly miss a tight connection) and most standard economy seats these days are cramped - especially if you are a tall traveler. Airlines allow most elites to pre-select the best seats on the plane, including coveted exit rows and bulkheads. Note: United recently took away the ability for Premier Silvers to select premium seats in advance - now they can only select at check-in.
Workaround without elite status: Purchase premium seats in advance. Delta and United both offer premium economy products that can be purchased in advance. Other airlines open up premium seats at the 24-hour check-in mark, so if you are in a sub-par seat, keep checking starting at a week before your flight since premium coach seats become available once elite members begin getting upgraded to first class.

Elites often have advanced access to select seating such as United's Economy Plus.

9. Waived award fees. Creating the perfect award itinerary can be a difficult task, but it gets easier if you have the flexibility to change your award as better options become available closer to departure (as they almost inevitably do). However, most airlines will ding you with a change fee to adjust the dates of your award. Except, of course, if you are top-tier elite.
Workaround without elite status: If your itinerary gets changed by the airline and your flight time is shifted, you may be able to redeposit your mileage or change the award for free. Also, if you have a friend with top-tier status, you can transfer your Amex or Chase points into their account so in case you need to make changes, they will be free. Note: If you need to cancel the award, the miles will stay in their account, so only do this with someone you trust.

10. Free same-day changes. There's nothing more annoying than getting done with a meeting early, but then having to wait at the airport for 4 hours until your flight. I'd honestly give up a first class upgrade (on certain routes) to get home early, especially after an exhausting trip. Luckily, airlines will prioritize elites for standby and some even allow same day confirmed changes for free. See: How to Use Same Day Flight Changes to Your Advantage.
Workaround without elite status: Be nice to check-in and gate agents. I've had gate agents bend the rules for me plenty of times just because I've been friendly and succinct with what I need. They are humans too and they deal with a lot of entitled people, so when you are understanding and nice you can often get your way. Gate agents are generally focused on getting flights out on time and not generating revenue, so they may put you on that earlier flight just to get you out of their hair and give them room on the next flight (which might be oversold).

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

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers