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Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken a close look at elite status granted through six major carriers’ frequent flyer program: American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus, Alaska Mileage Plan, JetBlue TrueBlue and Southwest Rapid Rewards. In each post, I identified the various benefits offered to each elite status tier and tried to peg a value on each one. However, considering these programs in isolation doesn’t help you decide which one is best for you. Today I’ll remedy that by comparing tiers across each airline to crown one as the most valuable of all.

Each carrier’s elite status program can be valuable, but how do they stack up to one another?

A few disclaimers before getting into the analysis. For starters, I’ve done my best to match comparable elite status tiers across programs, recognizing that some programs have different thresholds and varied levels of status. JetBlue was probably the most challenging in this regard, as it only has one status level (Mosaic) and doesn’t exactly correspond to anything from the legacy carriers. I’ve included it in the “middle tier” category, though it probably falls more in between the “low” and “middle” categories.

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In addition, I have included the two Companion Pass “levels” I considered in the Southwest analysis: one through flying alone (top tier) and the other through a 50/50 split between flying and partner activities (high tier). However, the Companion Pass isn’t technically an elite status (in that you can earn it without ever setting foot on a Southwest plane and don’t automatically get A-List or A-List Preferred benefits for earning one). Even though it’s included in the tables below, just be aware that it doesn’t truly map to other airlines’ high or top-tier levels.

Finally, these calculations represent my personal attempt at identifying which program is the most rewarding. Feel free to adjust any of the numbers or assumptions I used based on your own valuations and/or travel situation.

Elite Status Valuations

Let’s start by taking a look at the numbers for each tier of elite status, with the most rewarding programs for each of the four categories (low, middle, high and top) highlighted in bold:

Program Low Middle High Top
American AAdvantage $1,005 $2,460 $3,435 $7,420
Delta SkyMiles $815 $2,010 $3,700 $7,850
United MileagePlus $920 $2,455 $4,385 $8,695
Alaska Mileage Plan $985 $3,465 n/a $7,390
JetBlue TrueBlue n/a $1,840 n/a n/a
Southwest Rapid Rewards $685 $2,935 $4,025 $8,930*

* Possible outlier; details below

As you can see, a different airline’s program earns the top spot for each category, though United would snag a second #1 if you ignore the Companion Pass and the fact that it isn’t a true elite status.

However, there’s a key bit of information missing here: how much you actually need to fly to earn that status.

Value per Elite-Qualifying Point/Mile

Let’s take a look at these numbers in a different way… by dividing these values by the number of elite-qualifying miles/points I used in my analyses. Here’s a look at how each program stacks up by value per elite-qualifying mile/point:

Program Low Middle High Top
American AAdvantage 3.35 4.1 3.82 6.18
Delta SkyMiles 2.72 3.35 4.11 5.23
United MileagePlus 3.07 4.1 4.87 7.25
Alaska Mileage Plan 3.28 5.78 n/a 6.84
JetBlue TrueBlue n/a 10.2* n/a n/a
Southwest Rapid Rewards 1.63 3.49 6.1* 6.77

* Possible outlier; details below

Right off the bat, you’ll notice some interesting things. For starters, JetBlue Mosaic comes in with a shockingly high value of 10.2 cents per elite qualifying point. However, it’s important to remember that JetBlue awards just 3 base points per dollar spent (Southwest, on the other hand, gives at least 6 for Wanna Get Away fares and up to 12 for Business Select fares). As a result, the value per point may appear to be high, but as you’ll see in our third table, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a better return on spending. As a result, I have highlighted the runner-up (Alaska MVP Gold) as an alternate program for the best middle tier status.

In addition, the best top-tier status is technically Southwest’s Companion Pass earned through a combination of flying and partner activity. However, because this isn’t a true elite status, I’ve again highlighted the runner up (United Premier Platinum).

Return on Spend

A third way to look at the data is return on spend. For each of the six carriers, I assumed that you spent an average of 15 cents per elite-qualifying mile or point, so each tier of status was earned with an assumed level of both flying and spending. Here’s the return you’d get on that spending for each one:

Program Low Middle High Top
American AAdvantage 22.33% 27.33% 25.44% 41.22%
Delta SkyMiles 18.11% 22.33% 27.4% 34.89%
United MileagePlus 20.44% 27.28% 32.48% 48.3%
Alaska Mileage Plan 21.89% 38.5% n/a 45.6%
JetBlue TrueBlue n/a 30.67% n/a n/a
Southwest Rapid Rewards 10.87% 23.29% 40.66%* 45.1%

* Possible outlier; details below

On the whole, these numbers tell a similar story as the two preceding charts. If you take out the possible outliers with JetBlue and Southwest, there are four statuses that are unanimously the most valuable:

  • Low: AAdvantage Gold
  • Middle: Alaska MVP Gold
  • High: United Premier Platinum
  • Top: United Premier 1K

Value When Starting From Scratch

There’s a final way to look at this analysis, a consideration that I attempted to include in each of the six posts: Which program is most valuable if you’re starting from scratch? Obviously the answer to this query depends on how much you fly, bearing in mind that you won’t get any benefits until you qualify for low-level status. Using the Excel spreadsheets I created for each carrier (an example can be accessed here), I went through and calculated the values you’d get for reaching different thresholds of 20,000 elite-qualifying miles/points, leaving out JetBlue due to the carrier’s unique qualification formula.

Here’s what I found:

Program 40,000 60,000 80,000 100,000 120,000 140,000
American AAdvantage $502.50 $1,247.50 $2,053.33 $2,816.67 $4,053.33 $5,290
Delta SkyMiles $407.50 $1,014.17 $1,722.22 $2,544.44 $3,366,67 $4,357.22
United MileagePlus $460 $1,175.83 $2,033.19 $3,007.64 $4,456.81 $5,905.97
Alaska Mileage Plan $492.50 $1,398.33 $2,553.33 $3,815.09 $5,183.61 $6,522.13
Southwest Rapid Rewards $81.55 $407.74 $920.24 $2,295.56 $4,347.40 $6,399.24

 

As you can see, the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program is the big winner here, due primarily to the huge value you’d get as an MVP Gold Member. Even though United’s high and top tiers are more rewarding once you’ve reached them, Alaska’s program provides greater benefits to its lower-level elites, thus making it a better option when starting from scratch.

United’s elite status program rewards loyal flyers quite well.

Overall Takeaways

So given all of these calculations, what are some key things that jump out to me? In no particular order:

  1. Alaska and United offer the most valuable benefits to their elite members. While there are other carriers that earn top billing in certain categories, Alaska and United consistently offer the best value across the elite status spectrum. We may bemoan devaluations like Alaska’s Emirates first-class debacle, but these programs recognize and reward their loyal travelers.
  2. American should consider improvements to Platinum Pro. The 2017 AAdvantage program included this new tier between Platinum and Executive Platinum. However, based on my analysis, this new level offers a lower return than that of Platinum status (both in cents per EQM and on a percentage basis). In other words, because Platinum Pro doesn’t offer a ton of additional benefits beyond those offered to Platinum members, the incremental value of pushing for the higher status isn’t there. This is the only example of this dip, as all of the other carriers provide progressively more value as you climb their elite status ladders.
  3. Delta lags far behind. The Delta SkyMiles program has long been regarded with disdain by many in the frequent flyer world (and who can blame them given actions like removing award charts from Delta.com?). While I was always treated well as a Medallion member, my analysis shows that Delta’s elite program is solidly behind the other major carriers in terms of the overall value it provides.

Remember, though, that all of the assumptions I used in my initial analyses and the calculations above represent one way of determining which carrier’s elite status program is best for you. There are many other factors that come into play besides just value, including where you live, where you typically travel, and even corporate contracts that “force” you into booking a specific airline. As always, feel free to adjust any of my reasoning to make the numbers work for your individual situation.

Finally, bear in mind that none of my analyses include credit cards that can help with elite status qualification (with the exception of Southwest and earning the Companion Pass). However, there are several that can come in handy if you’re short of a given status level and need a boost to get there:

  • 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 from American Express 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 Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit 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 personal and business versions of the Rapid Rewards Premier Card (up to a maximum of 15,000 TQPs per year).
  • JetBlue: Both the JetBlue Plus Card and JetBlue Business Card allow you to earn Mosaic status by spending $50,000 on the card each year.

Be sure to factor these into your analysis if you have (or are planning to open) one of them to help you attain your elite status goals.

Bottom Line

Elite status can make your travel experience less stressful and more rewarding, but it’s up to you to determine which airline (if any) is best for you!

As you’ve hopefully seen, airline elite status can be quite rewarding thanks to the array of perks the carriers offer. From bonus miles and points to complimentary upgrades and a variety of fee waivers, it may be worth your while to pursue status with a given carrier. However, be sure to analyze your current travel situation to make sure it makes sense for you to stay loyal to a single airline. Hopefully my series (and this wrap-up post) has given you a framework to use as you make plans for 2017!

Which airline elite status do you think is most valuable?

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