What is the Best Frequent Flyer Program for Transcontinental Travel?

Apr 20, 2014

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Major airlines battle each other for customers on the US’s most popular transcontinental routes. With this in mind, TPG reader Marco tweeted me to ask:

@thepointsguy: What’s the best frequent flyer program for coast-to-coast travel?”

That’s a good question, and one common among business travelers as the transcontinental US routes are some of the busiest and most competitive in the world. The major US carriers are all highly competitive with each other for transcontinental customers on those lucrative routes between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO). Many of these airlines have begun elevating their transcontinental premium cabins to simulate business and even first class on international routes, as well as retrofitting their planes with lie-flat beds, high-end meal service and more.

On to Marco’s question. When deciding which airline has the best frequent flyer program geared towards transcontinental travel, my main consideration is each program’s upgrade policy, as well as mileage accrual and elite status. In terms of earning, let’s assume you are buying an economy ticket and earn 5,000 miles roundtrip and the average airfare is $400. With that in mind, here’s how I would rank the major transcontinental carriers:

My seat in the business class cabin.
American’s new A321T Transcon business class seats.

1. American Airlines AAdvantage: In terms of upgrades, I find it hard to beat American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum status, which requires 100,000 miles or 100 segments flown in a calendar year. The airline offers complimentary upgrades to Executive Platinum members up to 72 hours before a flight – and over the years, I’ve personally had a lot of success with this process. Gold (25,000 EQMs/30 segments) and Platinum (50,000 EQMs/60 segments) AAdvantage flyers earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 10,000 miles flown; these upgrades can be used on premium routes, but upgrading on a JFK-LAX itinerary requires five 500-mile upgrades, and JFK- SFO requires six 500-miles upgrades, and are prioritized below Executive Platinum Systemwide Upgrades (EP’s get 8 a year) and complimentary upgrades.

Non-elite status members or elites who want to upgrade in advance can upgrade from coach to business class by either buying 500-mile upgrades at $30 each or using miles and a cash copay. For most fares, an upgrade from coach to business class costs 15,000 miles and $75. Full fare economy (Y and B fare classes) to business only requires 5,000 miles each way. You can also upgrade from business to first class for 15,000 miles and $175 or only 15,000 miles if booked into full fare business class (J,D and R fare classes).

If you buy an economy ticket on this route, you’d earn 5,000 EQM’s and 2 elite-qualifying segments. Five roundtrips would get you Gold status and 10 would be Platinum, while for Executive Platinum, you’d need 20. Pretty clear cut.
BusinessFirst seats aboard United's transcontinental Premier Service (p.s.)
BusinessFirst seats aboard United’s Premier Service (p.s.)

2. United Premier. United Premier Platinum is probably the best mid-tier elite status, as the airline makes it easier to get complimentary upgrades up to 72 hours before a flight. However, in terms of transcontinental routes, upgrades can be hard to get, and no complimentary Premier upgrades on their Premier Services (p.s.) flights.

United Premier members who want to upgrade on a p.s. flight can use either Regional Premier Upgrades or Global Premier Upgrades. Premier members will earn two Regional Premier Upgrades when they reach 75,000 Premier-qualifying miles or 90 Premier-qualifying segments, plus two more for each 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS earned thereafter.

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 valid on any fare class and are transferable to others and eligible on Copa flights as well. You will also earn two more for each 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS earned after reaching Premier 1K. Each global premier upgrade is valid for a single one-way, one-cabin upgrade so you can’t upgrade from economy to first, only economy to business, or business to first. In the case you have both Regional Upgrades and Global Upgrades it makes more sense to use a Regional Premier Upgrade on this route.

In terms of earning, you’d get 5,000 Premier-qualifying miles and 2 segments on a roundtrip plus $400 Premier Qualifying Dollars – United’s new elite status revenue requirements. At that rate, you’d need 5 roundtrips in terms of mileage for Silver status, but over 6 roundtrips in terms of PQD’s. Gold status would require 10 roundtrips for mileage requirements, but 13 for the Premier Qualifying Dollars necessary for that status. Platinum would be 15 roundtrips for mileage but 19 for PQD’s, and 1K would be 20 roundtrips for mileage but 25 for PQD’s.

Virgin America First Class cabins feature 8 white leather seats
Virgin America First Class cabins feature eight angle-flat white leather seats

3. Virgin America Elevate. Virgin’s Elevate elite status permits complimentary space-available upgrades from Economy to Main Cabin Select and advance-purchase upgrades to First Class. (For the airline’s long-haul transcontinental routes, the price to upgrade from Main Cabin to First Class is $399 each way.) Beginning six hours prior to departure, you can upgrade when you check-in online or at the airport (either at a kiosk or the counter). Additionally, once onboard, if you see an empty First Class seat, confirm its availability with your flight attendant and then he or she should be able to upgrade you by swiping your credit card through RED, the airline’s seat-back personal entertainment system.

Elevate is a revenue-based program, so in order to achieve Silver status, you’d need to spend $4,000 – approximately 10 roundtrips – and $10,000 for Gold status – 25 roundtrips based on the earning rate of 5 base Elevate points per $1 on airfares.

A seat in JetBlue's new Mint  business class
A seat in JetBlue’s new Mint business class

4. JetBlue’s True Blue Mosaic. Mosaic members have the ability to redeem TrueBlue points for Even More Space seats, and also receive six free Even More Space seat upgrades. However, the one thing to note here is that Mosaic status will not get you complimentary upgrades to the airline’s new Mint business class, so you will have to purchase those seats outright – and they’ll cost upwards of $599 each way.

Delta's Business Elite seats on long-haul flights are 21" wide and lie-flat, but you can no longer get a complimentary upgrade to them
Delta’s Business Elite seats are 21″ wide and lie-flat, but you can no longer get a complimentary upgrade to them

5. Delta SkyMiles Medallion program now rests at the bottom of the pack because they recently got rid of their complimentary Medallion upgrades on transcon routes, and you’ll now need to be a Diamond in order to select systemwide Global Upgrades to use to upgrade on these routes. Though they are good on any paid published fare class, there have been far fewer Medallion upgrades on transcons since these rules went into effect a couple months ago.

With Delta’s new revenue-based elite requirements in effect, you would have to fly 5 roundtrips but pay for 7 to earn Silver Medallion status, 10 roundtrips but pay for 13 for Gold, 15 roundtrips but pay for 19 for Platinum, and 25 roundtrip flights but pay for 32 to earn Diamond Medallion status.

To learn more about each carrier’s frequent flyer program and transcontinental amenities, check out these related posts:

Transcontinental Series: American Airlines
Transcontinental Series: Delta
Transcontinental Series: JetBlue
Transcontinental Series: United
Transcontinental Series: Virgin America
How to Upgrade from Coach to Business Class on Transcontinental Flights
Maximize Monday: Transcontinental Comparison – Worth It To Switch To JetBlue?

Let me know if you have any other questions by messaging me on Facebooktweeting me or emailing me at info@thepointsguy.com.

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