Comparing Mid-Tier Elite Status on American, Delta and United
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If you’ve held elite status with an airline, you’ve probably experienced how it can make your travel life more rewarding and less stressful. Last month, I analyzed the elite tiers of the three major programs in the US: American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus. However, these posts didn’t compare the perks these carriers offer at similar levels. Today I’ll continue my series that addresses this gap. After starting with a comparison of low-tier elite status, I’ll now move onto the benefits offered to mid-tier elite members.
Let’s begin with an overview of how to earn these three status levels and look at the final value I found for each one:
- AAdvantage Platinum: The second tier in American’s program is AAdvantage Platinum, which is earned after completing 50,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or 60 elite-qualifying segments, plus $6,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs). I pegged this status at $2,460 in my valuation of AAdvantage elite status, which breaks down to 4.1 cents per EQM.
- SkyMiles Gold Medallion: The second tier in Delta’s program is Gold Medallion, which is earned after completing 50,000 Medallion Qualification Miles or 60 Medallion qualification segments, plus $6,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs). I pegged this status at $2,010 in my valuation of SkyMiles elite status, which breaks down to 3.35 cents per MQM.
- United Premier Gold: The second tier in United’s program is Premier Gold, which is earned after completing 50,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 60 premier-qualifying segments, plus $6,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs). I pegged this status at $2,455 in my valuation of MileagePlus elite status, which breaks down to 4.1 cents per PQM.
As you’ll notice, each tier has essentially identical qualification requirements, and the valuations are also quite similar. In fact, AAdvantage Platinum edged out United Premier Gold by just $5!
Comparing Mid-Tier Elite Benefits
However, does this similarity translate to the actual benefits as well? Here’s a table that looks at comparable perks across the three carriers’ mid-level elite status tiers:
|Benefit||AAdvantage Platinum||Delta Gold Medallion||United Premier Gold|
|Complimentary first-class upgrades||Unlimited on flights <500 miles;
using 500-mile upgrades on longer flights
|Yes (3 days before departure)||Yes (2 days before departure)|
|Valid on award tickets?||No||Yes||Only with a United credit card|
|Complimentary upgrades to premium economy||N/A||Yes (3 days before departure)||N/A|
|Complimentary/discounted extra legroom seats||Complimentary at booking||N/A||Complimentary at booking|
|Complimentary preferred seats||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Mileage bonus||60% (3 extra miles per dollar spent)||60% (3 extra miles per dollar spent)||60% (3 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)||Two free bags on domestic Delta flights (up to 70 pounds) plus one additional bag over the standard allowance||Two 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||Complimentary same-day changes; additional discounts on various award ticket fees|
|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 for SPG stays through the Crossover Rewards program||Extra saver award ticket inventory plus priority waitlisting and standby; Marriott Gold status|
As you can see, it isn’t just the criteria for qualification that are consistent across the three carriers; many of them offer very similar benefits to their mid-tier elite travelers. However, there are a few notable differences, so let’s take a closer look at those variations to help you decide which program is best for you. 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.
I think it’s safe to say that many elite travelers value upgrades quite highly, and each of the carriers handles upgrades a bit differently. For AAdvantage Platinum members, you’re only eligible for unlimited complimentary upgrades on flights less than 500 miles in length; for longer flights, you’ll need to redeem 500-mile upgrades to have a chance at riding up front. While this may seem like a negative, many loyal American flyers prefer this method to simply providing blanket upgrades on all short- and medium-haul flights to all elites. The theory is that you can prioritize the flights on which you’d like the upgrade rather than fighting with all other Platinums.
Delta makes things even more complicated by providing upgrades to first class but also requiring formal upgrades to the recently rebranded Comfort+. Gold Medallion members used to be able to select Economy Comfort on all Delta flights at the time of booking, but now you’d need to request an upgrade on many flights, and these won’t begin clearing until 3 days before departure (the same window for upgrades to first class). This even applies to certain international flights, though those to Europe still allow you to simply select a Comfort+ seat within 72 hours of departure.
Finally, United offers the most straightforward method for upgrades to Premier Gold travelers, as they (plus one companion) are eligible for complimentary upgrades to first class within 2 days of departure. You will be prioritized behind higher-tier elites, and this benefit doesn’t apply to award tickets without a United credit card like the United Explorer Card.
If you do not manage to clear into first class (or Comfort+ with Delta), you can still select seats that would normally cost extra money. American’s Main Cabin Extra is open to Platinum members at the time of booking, and if not available, you can select preferred seats (which, based on my recent booking experience, include most aisle and window seats on the plane). Delta also allows Gold Medallion travelers to select preferred seats at no charge at any time, while United’s Economy Plus is open to Premier Gold members at the time of booking as well.
Baggage Fee Waivers
If you frequently need to check multiple bags as a mid-tier elite, you’ll want to pay close attention to the differences in fee waivers for this baggage. American allows Platinum members to check two bags for free on all of its own flights; however, these are limited to 50 pounds apiece when traveling in economy. Delta, on the other hand, also allows Gold Medallion members to check two bags for free on domestic flights, but these can weigh up to 70 pounds each. They’ll also enjoy an extra free checked bag over the standard allowance on most international flights. This translates to three free bags on flights to Oceania, South America and Asia (for example). Finally, United follows Delta’s lead in allowing two 70-pound bags on domestic flights for Premier Gold members and three bags on select international flights.
Additional Fee Waivers/Discounts
Another key difference involves the set of fee waivers and/or discounts offered to mid-tier elites on the three carriers. American Platinum members have the same benefits as Gold members: free same-day standby and waived award-processing charges on last-minute award tickets (both of which cost non-elites $75). Delta also waives same-day standby fees for Gold Medallion members (normally $50) in addition to same-day confirmed fees ($50). Finally, United also waives its $75 same-day change fee (and doesn’t have a paid standby option). If you frequently need flexibility on your day of travel and want to avoid paying for said flexibility, American may not be the best option. However, keep in mind that both Delta and United require the original fare class to be available at the time of request, making it less likely that you’d be able to switch.
The real tie-breaker in this category comes in the form of additional discounts that United provides for its Premier Gold members; you’ll enjoy $50 discounts on award ticket change fees as well as fees charged on award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. As a result, if you value flexibility when it comes to redeeming your miles, United can provide mid-tier elites some nice added benefits beyond those offered by Delta and American.
A final important variation between the three programs comes not in benefits for flying but for staying at hotels. American doesn’t have any formal program along these lines, while Delta has the Crossover Rewards partnership with Starwood Preferred Guest. This allows Gold Medallion members to earn 1 bonus mile for every dollar spent at SPG properties. However, the most valuable benefit is conferred by United, as you’ll earn automatic Marriott Gold status thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership that launched back in 2013. The merger of Marriott and Starwood also means that you can match to SPG Gold status by linking your two accounts, an added perk to one that was already quite generous.
Naturally, the true value of this benefit depends entirely on how frequently you stay at Marriott and SPG properties. However, even just a handful of stays per year could make this a very rewarding perk. It’ll be interesting to see how these partnerships evolve over time, but for now, United clearly has the upper hand.
Picking the Best Program
Given these differences, which program is best for mid-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 Gold 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. Some perks of elite 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.
Traveling can be a hectic experience, so having airline elite status can be a big blessing. However, the three major domestic carriers offer many of the same perks to mid-tier elites, so it can be challenging to choose the best option. That being said, there are a few important distinctions between AAdvantage Platinum, Delta Gold Medallion and United Premier Gold, and hopefully this post has highlighted the major ones to help you decide which program should earn your loyalty for the coming year.
For a more detailed look at each elite level, see:
- What is American Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2017?
- What is Delta Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2017?
- What Is United Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2017?
Which mid-tier elite status are you going for in 2017?
Featured image courtesy of Jongcheol Park/EyeEm via Getty Images.
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