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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express

Airline elite status, even at the lowest levels, can make a significant difference in how pleasant and rewarding your travel experiences are. Last month, I took a detailed look at the different elite statuses for each of the major three domestic carriers: American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus. However, these analyses didn’t allow for a side-by-side comparison of the different benefits these programs offer. Today I’ll start a new series that looks at each of the four levels of these programs to help you decide which would be best for you. My first subject: low-tier status.

In This Post

Let’s start with a quick overview of these statuses, including how you earn each and the final value I found:

  • AAdvantage Gold: The lowest tier in American’s program is AAdvantage Gold, which is earned after completing 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or 30 elite-qualifying segments, plus $3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs). I pegged this status at $1,005 in my valuation of AAdvantage elite status, which breaks down to 3.35 cents per EQM.
  • SkyMiles Silver Medallion: The lowest tier in Delta’s program is Silver Medallion, which is earned after completing 25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles or 30 Medallion qualification segments, plus $3,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs). I pegged this status at $815 in my valuation of SkyMiles elite status, which breaks down to 2.72 cents per EQM.
  • United Premier Silver: The lowest tier in United’s program is Premier Silver, which is earned after completing 25,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 30 premier-qualifying segments, plus $3,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs). I pegged this status at $920 in my valuation of MileagePlus elite status, which breaks down to 3.07 cents per PQM.

As you can see, the qualification requirements are identical across all three tiers, and even the valuations are quite similar, with just $200 separating the three levels.

Comparing Low-Tier Elite Benefits

But how do the benefits compare? Here’s a table that breaks down the various perks offered to low-tier travelers for each of these three programs:

Benefit AAdvantage Gold Delta Silver Medallion United Premier Silver
Complimentary first-class upgrades Unlimited on flights <500 miles; using 500-mile upgrades on longer flights Yes (1 day before departure) Yes (1 day before departure)
Valid on award tickets? No Yes Only with a United credit card
Complimentary upgrades to premium economy N/A Yes (1 day before departure) N/A
Complimentary/discounted extra legroom seats Free within 24 hours; 50% discount otherwise N/A Free at check-in
Complimentary preferred seats Yes Yes N/A
Mileage bonus 40% (2 extra miles per dollar spent) 40% (2 extra miles per dollar spent) 40% (2 extra miles per dollar spent)
Priority airport services Priority check-in, security and boarding Priority check-in and boarding Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling
Baggage fee waivers One free bag on American flights One additional bag over the standard allowance on Delta flights (up to 70 lbs.) One free bag on United flights
Priority phone line Yes Yes Yes
Fee discounts/waivers Waived award processing charge; waived same-day standby fee None Discounts on various award ticket fees
Partner benefits Oneworld Ruby status; priority check-in and boarding plus two free checked bags on Alaska SkyTeam Elite status; additional perks on various partner airlines Star Alliance silver status
Other perks None Bonus miles for SPG stays through the Crossover Rewards program Extra Saver award ticket inventory plus priority waitlisting and standby

 

As you can see, not just the qualification criteria are similar; many of the benefits are relatively consistent across the three carriers. Let’s take a closer look at some of the key differences that may help you decide which program is right for you. Note that this is not an exhaustive list of every minor variation but rather some of the larger ones that apply to a wide variety of travelers.

Upgrades

One of the most valuable perks of elite status is the chance of scoring complimentary upgrades. The way each carrier handles these upgrades, however, is quite different. United is probably the most straightforward; Premier Silver members (plus one companion) are eligible for complimentary upgrades to first class. These are prioritized behind all other United elites and their companions and will start clearing 24 hours before departure, if available. However, this won’t apply to award tickets without a United credit card like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.

Delta also allows Silver Medallions (plus a companion) complimentary first-class upgrades but recently made things more complicated with the introduction of Comfort+. Medallion members now need to request an upgrade to these seats on many flights, and both types of upgrades will only start clearing 24 hours before departure. The nice thing is that these upgrades do apply to award tickets as of October 2016, but Silver Medallions will fall below all other elites in the priority list.

American is an entirely different ballgame. AAdvantage Gold members can score unlimited first-class upgrades on flights under 500 miles, but on longer flights, they’ll need to use 500-mile upgrades to have a chance at riding up front. Many American loyalists claim that this is a good thing, since they can prioritize which flights they want to upgrade, and Gold members won’t automatically fall behind Platinum travelers on these longer flights (unless a Platinum is also trying to use 500-mile upgrades).

Even if you don’t score an upgrade to first class, you can still wind up riding in comfort on all three. Delta has its Comfort+ (detailed above), while American allows Gold members to purchase Main Cabin Extra seats at a 50% discount ahead of time or select them for free within 24 hours of departure. Even if not available, you can still choose preferred seats on each American flight. Finally, United also offers more legroom through Economy Plus seating, which Premier Silvers can access within 24 hours of the flight.

Airport and Baggage Services

Priority airport services can make traveling a lot less stressful, and all three carriers offer some combination of these benefits.

Another area with some notable differences involves the services you can expect at the airport. Delta is the most bare-bones, giving Silver Medallions just priority check-in and boarding (even that is Zone 1, which is the same perk offered to holders of a Delta credit card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express). American adds priority security to the list of perks offered to low-level elites, though that won’t be worth much if you already have TSA PreCheck and can bypass the regular security lines. United then also provides priority baggage handling, which made no difference on my most recent flight to Newark as a Premier Platinum.

You’ll see a much bigger difference when it comes to checked baggage benefits. American and United are quite similar, offering low-tier elite members a free checked bag of up to 50 pounds when traveling in economy. This is quite similar to the perk offered to holders of cards like the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. However, Delta offers Silver Medallion travelers an extra bag over the standard allowance on all Delta flights, and this bag can weigh up to 70 pounds on flights within the US and Canada. This could make a big difference if you regularly travel with a giant, overweight suitcase or frequently need to check more than one bag when traveling internationally.

Additional Fee Waivers/Discounts

A third key set of benefits that varies across the carriers involves fee waivers and discounts. For starters, Delta provides no additional fee reductions for Silver Medallions. American, however, will waive two key fees entirely: the $75 same-day standby fee as well as the $75 processing charge for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. If you frequently need to switch flights or make last-minute award bookings, these perks can be quite valuable.

United also provides some additional savings for Premier Silver members; you’ll enjoy $25 discounts on award ticket change fees as well as award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. This is on top of the added benefits for booking award travel, including priority waitlisting, standby when your desired booking class isn’t available and enhanced availability of Saver awards in economy.

Picking the Best Program

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

Given these differences, which program is best for low-tier elites? Unfortunately there’s no easy way to answer this, since everyone’s travel situation varies significantly. 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 Silver Medallion the best option, while needing to book several economy awards 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. As I mentioned above, several perks of low-tier status 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

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

As you’ve seen throughout my airline elite status series, each major carrier confers a variety of perks to different tiers of travelers. While these programs are quite similar at the lowest level, there are still some notable differences of which you should be aware. Hopefully this post has given you a framework to utilize if you’re trying to decide between earning low-tier status on American, Delta or United this year!

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

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

Featured image courtesy of Jongcheol Park/EyeEm via Getty Images.

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