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The start of a new year always brings an opportunity to evaluate (or reevaluate) your travel loyalties, and airline elite status can play an important role in this strategy. Last month, I took an in-depth look at the elite tiers of the three major US carriers: American, Delta and United. However, these analyses looked at each program in isolation rather than considering comparable levels across different programs. Today I’ll continue my series that focuses on specific status levels. My first two posts looked at low-tier and mid-tier status, so now I’ll shift gears and look at how the three programs reward their high-tier travelers.

In This Post

Let’s start by looking at how these levels are earned and review the overall value I pegged for each one:

  • AAdvantage Platinum Pro: The third tier in American’s program is AAdvantage Platinum Pro, which is earned after completing 75,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or 90 elite-qualifying segments, plus $9,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs). I pegged this status at $3,435 in my valuation of AAdvantage elite status, which breaks down to 3.82 cents per EQM. Note that this status is only available based on travel in 2017, so if you met these requirements (but didn’t quite reach Executive Platinum) in 2016, you’ll only be Platinum.
  • SkyMiles Platinum Medallion: The third tier in Delta’s program is Platinum Medallion, which is earned after completing 75,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) or 90 Medallion qualification segments, plus $9,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs). I pegged this status at $3,700 in my valuation of SkyMiles elite status, which breaks down to 4.11 cents per MQM.
  • United Premier Platinum: The third tier in United’s program is Premier Platinum, which is earned after completing 75,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 90 premier-qualifying segments, plus $9,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs). I pegged this status at $4,385 in my valuation of MileagePlus elite status, which breaks down to 4.87 cents per PQM.

As you can see, each one of these levels has essentially identical qualification requirements, but the valuations do vary a decent amount, with United Premier Platinum beating out AAdvantage Platinum Pro by almost $1,000.

Comparing High-Tier Elite Benefits

How is that the case? Here’s a table that breaks down the different perks offered to high-tier elites with each carrier:

Benefit AAdvantage Platinum Pro Delta Platinum Medallion United Premier Platinum
Complimentary first-class upgrades Yes (72 hours before departure) Yes (5 days before departure) Yes (3 days before departure)
Valid on award tickets? No Yes Only with a United credit card
Upgrade certificates No Available as a Choice Benefit (see below) 2 Regional Premier Upgrade (RPUs)
Complimentary upgrades to premium economy N/A Yes (shortly after booking) N/A
Complimentary/discounted extra legroom seats Complimentary at booking N/A Complimentary at booking
Complimentary preferred seats Yes Yes N/A
Mileage bonus 80% (4 extra miles per dollar spent) 80% (4 extra miles per dollar spent) 80% (4 extra miles per dollar spent)
Priority airport services Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling
Baggage fee waivers Two free bags on American flights (up to 50 pounds) Three free bags on domestic Delta flights (up to 70 pounds) plus one additional bag over the standard allowance Three free bags on United flights (up to 70 pounds)
Priority phone line Yes Yes Yes
Fee discounts/waivers Waived award-processing charge; waived same-day standby fee Complimentary same-day standby and same-day confirmed; waived award ticket redeposit/reissue fees Complimentary same-day changes; additional discounts on various award ticket fees; waived phone service fee
Partner benefits Oneworld Sapphire status; priority check-in and boarding plus two free checked bags and preferred seats on Alaska SkyTeam Elite Plus status; additional perks on various partner airlines Star Alliance Gold status
Other perks None Bonus miles and on-property perks for SPG stays through Crossover Rewards; Choice Benefit (including 4 regional upgrade certificates and bonus miles) Extra Saver award ticket inventory (economy and premium cabins) plus priority waitlisting and standby; Marriott Gold status

 

As you can see, both the qualification criteria and the benefits offered to high-tier elites are quite similar, regardless of whether you’re loyal to American, Delta or United. However, there are several perks that vary from one carrier to another, so let’s take a closer look at the key differences to help you identify which one is best for your travel patterns. Note that this is by no means an exhaustive list of every single difference but instead focuses on the more important ones that likely apply to many (or most) readers.

Upgrades

Complimentary upgrades typically rank near the top of frequent flyers’ lists of valuable benefits, and each of the three carriers handles these differently for high-tier elites. American’s new Platinum Pro status is a very nice step up over regular Platinum, as you’ll enjoy complimentary upgrades on all domestic flights as well as short- and medium-haul international flights (without having to use those pesky 500-mile upgrades). These will start clearing 72 hours in advance but are prioritized behind Executive Platinum members.

Delta’s upgrade scheme is a bit more complicated. Platinum Medallions can enjoy upgrades to first class beginning five days before departure, but there’s also a relatively new upgrade process to score a seat in the carrier’s recently renamed Comfort+ section of the plane. However, the Platinum upgrade window for these seats starts shortly after booking, so you have a pretty decent shot at enjoying these seats. Remember too that this applies not only to flights that allow first-class upgrades but also to certain international flights, though many others (including those to Europe) still allow you to simply select a Comfort+ seat at the time of booking.

Finally, United’s upgrade process is the most straightforward, as Premier Platinum travelers (plus one companion) are eligible for complimentary upgrades to first class within 3 days of departure. Like the other programs, you will be prioritized behind top-tier Premier 1K elites, and you’ll only be able to score an upgrade on an award ticket if you are a United credit cardholder (like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card).

Even if your upgrade doesn’t clear, all three carriers provide some additional benefit for high-tier elites that would cost non-status flyers extra money. American opens up Main Cabin Extra to Platinum Pro members at the time of booking on all flights, and if those seats aren’t available, you can select preferred seats (typically aisle and window seats in the front half of the economy cabin). Delta provides a similar perk to Platinum Medallion travelers when it comes to preferred seats, while United’s Economy Plus is open to Premier Platinum members at the time of booking as well.

Delta and United allow their high-tier elites to earn upgrade certificates to improve your shot at scoring an upgrade to first class.

One final aspect of upgrades for high-tier elites involve certificates, and there’s a sharp difference between the carriers. One (American) doesn’t provide any upgrade instruments to Platinum Pro members, so you’d be left using miles or hoping for a complimentary upgrade. The other two allow high-tier elites to earn upgrade certificates that can be used on flights eligible for complimentary upgrades, essentially bumping them to the front of the priority line. Delta gives Platinum members 4 Regional Upgrade Certificates as one option in its Choice Benefits program (Platinums select one choice upon qualifying). United, meanwhile, provides 2 Regional Premier Upgrade certificates to Premier Platinum members. While 4 sounds better than 2 on the surface, the big difference is that United’s are transferable to any MileagePlus member, while Delta’s are not.

Baggage Fee Waivers

Another big difference involves baggage fee waivers. American provides the same benefits along these lines to both Platinum and Platinum Pro members: two free bags weighing up to 50 pounds on all of its own flights. Delta, on the other hand, boosts its allowance to three free bags weighing up to 70 pounds on domestic flights plus an extra free checked bag over the standard allowance on most international flights. Finally, United follows a similar scheme to Delta lead in allowing three 70-pound bags on economy flights for Premier Platinum members. While many of us probably don’t need to check-in three bags, the 70-pound limit can be quite appealing.

Additional Fee Waivers/Discounts

United waives (or discounts) several fees for Premier Platinum members.

A third important distinction between the three programs involves the fee waivers and/or discounts that high-tier elites can utilize. Here again, American Platinum Pro falls short, as these travelers have the same benefits as Gold and Platinum members: free same-day standby and waived-award processing charges on last-minute award tickets (both of which cost non-elites $75). Delta, on the other hand, not only waives same-day confirmed fees and same-day standby fees for Platinum Medallions; it’ll also waive the $150 award redeposit and reissue fee when you need to modify or cancel an award ticket. I used this benefit quite frequently as a Platinum Medallion to lock in the perfect award routing, so it can wind up being quite valuable.

Finally, United takes a similar approach as that of Delta, waiving its $75 same-day change fee and offering additional discounts on award ticket change fees. You’ll pay nothing (instead of $75) for changing or canceling an award more than 60 days before departure and $50 (instead of $125) if you change or cancel an award within 60 days. This is in addition to waiving the last-minute award ticket fee of $75 and the phone service fee of $25.

As you can see, both Delta Platinum Medallion and United Premier Platinum provide a wealth of additional fee waivers and discounts, an area in which American Platinum Pro is sorely lacking.

Hotel Perks

Both Delta and United provide perks to high-tier elites at SPG properties like the St. Regis Maldives. Image courtesy of Starwood.

The final important difference between the three programs applies to hotel stays rather than flights. As I mentioned in the mid-tier status comparison post, American doesn’t offer any formal hotel perks to its elite members. Delta, meanwhile, has the Crossover Rewards partnership with Starwood Preferred Guest. Platinum Medallion members will earn 1 bonus mile for every dollar spent at SPG properties, but they’ll also receive a few benefits during those stays, including priority check-in, late checkout and upgrades to “enhanced” rooms.

However, United provides its high-tier elites with the most valuable benefit thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership: automatic Marriott Gold status. This perk became even sweeter last fall in the most significant development to date of the merger between Marriott and Starwood. Your Marriott Gold status can be matched to SPG Gold status by linking your two accounts, expanding the number of properties at which you’ll enjoy additional benefits.

American (once again) lags far behind in this category, and even with the added perks for Platinum Medallions at SPG properties, United is clearly the best option. The on-property benefits that Delta offers are also provided to SPG Gold members, so United equals that and provides Premier Platinum members with benefits at thousands of additional properties under the Marriott umbrella. Naturally these programs aren’t worth much if you’re fiercely loyal to Hilton or Hyatt, but it’s still a great way to enjoy some added value from your high-tier airline elite status.

Picking the Best Program

Deciding which benefits matter most to you is the best way to determine which high-tier status fits your travel needs.

Given these differences, which program is best for high-tier elites? Unfortunately there’s no easy way to answer this, since everyone’s travel situation varies significantly. While American falls behind in some key categories above, those may not matter much to you. In addition, if you live in (or near) a major hub like Atlanta or Houston, you may be “forced” into loyalty to the primary carrier out of that airport. However, if you do have some flexibility in choosing a preferred airline, there are a few things that can help you make the decision.

First, determine the benefit that matters most to you. Many of the perks outlined above are constant across airlines, but there are a few key differences. If all you need is a better seat with more legroom, you may not want to play the upgrade game with Delta. However, traveling with a lot of checked baggage could make Platinum Medallion the best option, while needing to book several award tickets might lead you to choose United thanks to the program’s better award availability. Identifying the benefit(s) that are most important to you is critical in choosing a program.

In addition, be sure to consider the service of each carrier (and their respective partners) from your primary airport. No sense in trying to earn status if you aren’t able to use the perks at least somewhat regularly!

Finally, ask yourself if any of these benefits are even worth going out of your way to earn. Some perks of high-tier status (like free checked bags or priority boarding) can be enjoyed by simply having the right travel rewards credit card. You also may get reimbursed for expenses like bag fees or have no need for the slim shot at an upgrade on the route you fly (especially if you’re flying in paid first class). If these perks aren’t important to you, you have the flexibility to book flights based on convenience and price rather than a loyalty program.

Bottom Line

High-tier elite status can be great to have on one of the three major domestic carriers.

If you’ve held elite status with American, United or Delta before, you’ve probably experienced how travel can be more rewarding and less stressful. However, it can sometimes be challenging to distinguish between the three programs, as the benefits they offer can be quite similar at comparable tiers of elite status. If you’re in the market for a new carrier in 2017 and plan to travel enough to earn high-tier status, I hope this post has given you some insight into which airline should earn your business for the rest of the year!

For a more detailed look at each elite level, see:

Which high-tier elite status are you going for in 2017?

Featured image courtesy of Hero Images via Getty Images.

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