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If you only travel a few times a year, you might wonder why some people — never you — always seem to get upgraded to business class. Perhaps you’ve noticed a fellow passenger getting a free glass of wine and snack in economy while you got charged for the same. Or maybe you didn’t understand why you suddenly dropped from #4 to #7 on the standby list.

These perks come with “elite status” and many people who fly regularly go to extreme lengths to gain or improve their status at their preferred airline. Think: mileage runs, status matches and hitting minimum spending requirements. But do these sacrifices really pay off if you do all the math? And is it worth it for the infrequent flyer to chase even the lowest level of elite status?

The Points Guy set out to answer these questions and to find the objectively “best” airline elite status program. We took a comprehensive look at every bit of data we could get our hands on in order to produce quantitative analyses of every possible perk at every existing tier of loyalty. Put another way: we came up with a mathematical “score” for each level of elite status, then compared those scores across airlines. In doing so, we determined just how much real value you can get from a specific elite program . . . which may upend your long-standing belief that you’re better off with your beloved [insert carrier name here].

In This Post

The Candidates

Narrowing down the candidates for this analysis was a critical first step in the process. To ensure it was always an apples-to-apples comparison, we chose to focus solely on US-based airlines with either a large domestic route network or partner carriers. This includes the following six airlines, shown alphabetically below with their corresponding elite status program names:

 

Airline
(listed alphabetically
here)
Low-Tier Status Mid-Tier Status High-Tier Status Road-Warrior Status
Alaska MVP MVP Gold MVP Gold MVP Gold 75K
American AAdvantage Gold AAdvantage Platinum AAdvantage Platinum Pro AAdvantage Executive Platinum
Delta Silver Medallion Gold Medallion Platinum Medallion Diamond Medallion
JetBlue (no elite status at this level) Mosaic Mosaic Mosaic
Southwest (no elite status at this level) A-List A-List Preferred A-List Preferred (with Companion Pass)
United Premier Silver Premier Gold Premier Platinum Premier 1K

We excluded some airlines on the following grounds:

  • Frontier: Its network is primarily point to point, with limited connecting options
  • Hawaiian: This is a limited network outside the Hawaiian Islands
  • Spirit: Again, a network primarily point to point, with limited connecting options
  • Sun Country: Limited for those outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area
  • Virgin America: Merging with Alaska (which is included in this report)

The Criteria

We incorporated every elite-status perk we’ve ever heard of into eight broad categories. We also indicated the weighting of each category that we used in our calculations.

Airport Perks (10%): Includes priority check-in/security/boarding/baggage handling and lounge access

Reservation Perks (5%): Includes priority phone line and enhanced award inventory

In-Flight Perks (25%): Includes upgrades, preferred seats and free drinks/snacks/entertainment/Wi-Fi

Fee Waivers (20%): Includes checked bag, flight changes, same-day confirmed/standby, ticketing and processing 

Bonuses (20%): Includes extra points/miles

Partner Perks (5%): Includes the same benefits as in Airport Perks, In-Flight Perks and Fee Waivers — but focusing on the extent to which you can use them on partner airlines

Flexible Perks (10%): Includes benefits you can either choose or transfer to other passengers

Non-Flying Perks (5%): Includes the RewardsPlus program with United/Marriott, the Crossover Rewards program with Delta/SPG and perks with car rental companies

Recognizing that everyone’s spending and flying habits differ, we’ve weighted the criteria in ways that make the most sense to us, but you’ll have the chance to adjust these weightings to meet your unique travel needs with an interactive tool at the end of this article.

To learn more details about elite status in general, visit our overview of airline elite status programs.

The Methodology

After identifying the six candidates and eight criteria, it was then time to add data to the mix. Each perk carries some inherent value to the average traveler, so we set out to peg values to key perks, much like I did in my airline elite status valuation series from earlier in the year. However, for this analysis, we were comparing across airlines rather than looking at them in isolation. As a result, we made sure that identical perks offered by two or more carriers were valued equally, but also made sure that similar perks with small differences reflected those differences in the valuations.

It’s important to note that earning and enjoying the perks of airline elite status is all based on how much you fly and/or spend with a given carrier. Some programs offer a large boost whenever you reach the next level, while others don’t offer added any incentives after reaching a certain level. To account for these differences, we decided to look at four different levels of traveling and spending over the course of a year. These are the specific models we used when assessing elite status programs:

  1. Low-Tier Elite Status: 25,000 miles flown and $3,000 spent
  2. Mid-Tier Elite Status: 50,000 miles flown and $6,000 spent
  3. High-Tier Elite Status: 75,000 miles flown and $9,000 spent
  4. Road-Warrior Elite Status: 125,000 miles flown and $15,000 spent

What if none of these scenarios describes you? No problem: You’ll be able to enter the specific amount of miles you fly and money you spend when you get to the interactive tool later in this article. And what if you don’t anticipate flying even 25,000 miles in a year or spending $3,000? In that case, you probably won’t benefit from elite status programs and should look into airline co-branded credit cards, which offer perks for even occasional flyers (see also the “Casual Flyer” section of this article).

(NOTE: Since Southwest awards different numbers of tier-qualifying points depending on the fare you’re purchased, we had to assume an average to include the carrier in this analysis. We landed on 8 qualifying points per dollar spent, which equals roughly 60% of Southwest’s Wanna Get Away fares, 30% Southwest Anytime fares and 10% Southwest Business Select fares.)

In all cases, we’re looking at the benefits conferred by elite status in comparison to what you’d experience with no elite status. If there’s a perk included for all travelers on a given carrier, it’s part of that airline’s overall value proposition and thus not a value-add for elite travelers. The best example of this is baggage fees, which do not apply for your first two bags (up to 50 pounds) on Southwest. We’ve included a value for this perk with the other carriers in this analysis, which you may feel unfairly punishes Southwest. However, since that’s built into the package for all travelers, there’s no added value there for pursuing elite status with Southwest.

A few technical notes: All raw (monetary) valuations of the eight categories were converted into scaled scores of 0-100 to normalize the data. The most valuable perk in each category was assigned a score of 100, while the lack of a perk was assigned a score of 0. All intermediate values were then scaled accordingly. For example, if the best airline in the Airport Perks category had a value of $500 and the lowest had a value of $0, the best airline would receive a score of 100, while the lowest one would get a score of 0 and an airline with a value of $300 would get a score of 60. These scores are then weighted using the aforementioned percentages; in theory, a “perfect” elite status program would receive a score of 100 in each of the 8 categories and thus a 100 overall after the weighting was taken into account.

As you’ll see, no such program exists!

The Results: Best Airline Rewards Programs in the US

  • Low Tier: Alaska MVP
  • Mid Tier: Alaska MVP Gold
  • High Tier: Alaska MVP Gold
  • Road Warrior: United Premier 1K
  • Overall: Alaska

Here are your winners in each category, so how do other airlines stack up in each category? Let’s start with the low tier of elite status. As a reminder, this level is based on 25,000 miles of flying and $3,000 of spending in a calendar year. Here’s the ranking.

LOW TIER

TPG_AmericanEliteStatus_LowTier_091817

There’s a clear winner here: Alaska Mileage Plan MVP, which came in almost 10 points higher than its nearest competitor. The main reason for the success? The fact that Alaska still awards miles based on flying rather than on spending. As an MVP member, you’ll enjoy a 50% bonus on flights, so with 25,000 miles in a year, that equals an additional 12,500 miles. This bonus is worth $237.50 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.

That said, Alaska’s elite status program may not be best for everyone. It would be wrong for you, for example, if the majority of your travel is east of the Mississippi — because most Alaska flights (even after the merger with Virgin) originate from the West Coast.

Unfortunately, the three legacy carriers fall woefully behind Alaska in this low-tier category due to their shifts to revenue-based schemes for awarding miles. All three give their low-level elite travelers an extra 2 miles per dollar spent, so for $3,000 in spend, you’ll only get 6,000 bonus miles (less than half of what you’d earn on Alaska). Here’s how those bonuses compare. Note: We’re multiplying the number of miles awarded by the airline by the TPG valuation of those miles.

  • American: 6,000 AAdvantage miles x 1.4 cents/mile = $84
  • Delta: 6,000 SkyMiles x 1.2 cents/mile = $72
  • United: 6,000 MileagePlus miles x 1.5 cents/mile = $90

For comparison sake, Alaska’s math looks like this:

  • Alaska: 12,500 MileagePlan miles x 1.9 cents/mile = $237.50

Bonus miles alone jump Alaska far to the front of the pack (a trend that will continue as you’ll see in a few moments).

The #2 spot for low-tier flyers goes to American’s AAdvantage Gold level, just edging out Delta Silver Medallion. A couple of small (yet significant) differences make this possible. For starters, American is one of only two carriers to offer priority security to its lowest-level flyers. More importantly, American also waives same-day standby fees (normally $75) and award-processing charges for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure ($75) for its lowest-level elites. These added perks for Gold travelers earns the AAdvantage program second place for low-tier elites.

Finally, it’s worth noting that neither JetBlue nor Southwest provide elite status based on this level of spending, though you can adjust the numbers in the interactive tool later in this article if you typically spend more on your flights.

MID TIER

Next is mid-tier status, which is based on 50,000 miles of flying and $6,000 of spending. Here’s how the airlines land for mid-level elites:

 

TPG_AmericanEliteStatus_MidTier_rev091817

Once again, Alaska comes out on top, by an even larger margin this time. There are a few key factors driving this jump, the first of which is the same bonus mile phenomenon noted above. Once you hit 50,000 miles, you earn MVP Gold status in the Mileage Plan program, and your bonus jumps to 100%. This means that you’ll take home 50,000 extra miles, worth a whopping $950. This again bests the legacy carriers, which offer 3 extra miles per dollar spent (or 18,000 miles in total based on $6,000 in annual spend). JetBlue actually makes a solid showing in the bonus category as well, awarding the same 3 extra miles to its Mosaic elite status members (which is roughly equivalent to mid-tier status at the other airlines), but also providing 15,000 bonus points upon qualification. However, even that combination doesn’t come close to Alaska.

Another key perk that helps both Alaska and JetBlue at this level are their Fee Waivers. Once you’ve earned MVP Gold on Alaska or Mosaic status on JetBlue, you no longer need to pay a change or cancellation fee when you adjust your plans, even right up until the moment before departure. Changes made 60 or more days prior to departure are actually free for all Alaska Mileage Plan members, but it’s often the last-minute changes that are necessary (and expensive on most other carriers).

The third big differentiator for Alaska is in the Flexible Perks category — thanks to the fact that MVP Gold members are awarded four one-way Gold Guest Upgrades upon qualification. These are valid for an upgrade from most economy tickets to first class and can be transferred to other travelers, even when you aren’t traveling with them. When you combine these with the bonus miles and fee waivers, Alaska stands well above the others.

United isn
United’s business-class seats, which turn into 180-degree flatbeds, are worth being loyal for.

United earns the second spot here by edging out Delta, but there isn’t really a single added perk that makes this possible. Instead, it’s a solid combination of benefits that allow Premier Gold to beat out American Platinum and Delta Gold Medallion, including better availability for saver economy award tickets, two checked bags up to 70 pounds apiece and free same-day confirmed flight changes. One of the unique perks United offers at this level is free Marriott Gold status through the RewardsPlus partnership, boosting United’s Non-Flying Perks score significantly.

Delta comes next and places ahead of American thanks mainly to the In-Flight Perks. AAdvantage Platinum members must redeem 500-mile upgrades for a shot at first class on flights longer than 500 miles in length, whereas Delta Gold Medallion travelers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on all domestic and short-haul international flights. Some might view this as a positive feature of American’s program, as it helps keep upgrade lists shorter by requiring Platinum (and Gold) members to prioritize the flights on which they want to ride up front. However, for this analysis we’re viewing the less flexible nature of the program as a negative.

This is also where JetBlue Mosaic and Southwest A-List make their first appearances, though they fall well below the other four. It’s worth noting that JetBlue does do well in Bonuses and Fee Waivers, as mentioned above, while we give credit to Southwest for Airport Perks thanks to priority check-in and priority boarding. I’ve frequently seen very long check-in lines for Southwest flights thanks to the carrier’s free checked bags policy, and priority boarding is especially valuable to avoid having to check in right at the 24-hour mark in an attempt to be at the front of the line during Southwest’s cattle-call boarding procedure.

There are two main categories that lead to these (JetBlue and Southwest’s) disappointing performances: In-Flight Perks and Partner Perks. Neither of the carriers provide a first class or premium economy product to which elite members can upgrade (JetBlue Mint and Even More Space seats are never complimentary for Mosaic customers), and you’ll also receive no recognition for carrying status when you fly on partner airlines. These two categories really hold the two airlines back from seriously contending across all tiers.

HIGH TIER

Let’s move onto high-tier status now, which is based on 75,000 miles of flying and $9,000 of spending. You’ll see a familiar name at the top:

TPG_AmericanEliteStatus_HighTier_rev091817 (1)

Once again, Alaska comes out ahead of the other carriers, even though this level of travel and spending on the airline earns you the same status as the middle tier above (MVP Gold). Once again, the bonus miles provide the necessary boost, as you’d take home almost $1,500 worth of extra miles (75,000). Other airlines start to offer Flexible Perks at this level, so Alaska’s Gold Guest Upgrades are no longer a huge differentiator. It all comes down to awarding miles based on miles flown rather than dollars spent. In fact, if Alaska switched to a revenue-based program similar to the Big 3 (which as of last year wasn’t in the cards), it would fall to third place.

Second place goes to Delta, just a hair ahead of United. A couple of important distinctions between the two make this possible. The first involves In-Flight Perks, where Delta offers a wider upgrade window (120 hours vs. 72 hours before departure), an extra-legroom economy seat with added perks other than just more legroom, upgrades on award tickets and complimentary access to preferred seats. In addition, in the Flexible Perks category, Delta’s Choice Benefits for Platinum Medallions offer a slightly better value than the two Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) awarded to United Premier Platinums. Finally, while Marriott Gold via United’s RewardsPlus partnership is still the most valuable Non-Flying Perk out there, Delta narrows the gap with the Crossover Rewards partnership with SPG, which gets Platinum and Diamond Medallion members perks such as late checkout and upgrades to preferred rooms at Starwood properties.

American AAdvantage Platinum Pro, the airline’s newest elite status level, comes in a distant fourth, and there are a few key categories that lead to this poor showing. The first is Fee Waivers, where Platinum Pro members can’t make same-day confirmed changes for free and also must pay the full fee to change or cancel award tickets. The baggage allowance also falls short of those at United and Delta; even though you’re able to check two bags for free, they must weigh 50 pounds or less. The other two legacy airlines allow high-tier elites three bags of up to 70 pounds each, a small yet significant difference.

IMG-elite-status-hotel
One of the more enviable non-flying perks for Delta elites is upgrade access to preferred rooms at hotels like the St. Regis Princeville, pictured here.

There are two other important categories in which American falls behind the others in the high-tier: Flexible Perks and Non-Flying Perks. As noted above, Alaska, Delta and United all give their 75,000-mile flyers some type of flexible perk. However, American does not. In addition, Platinum Pro (which launched this year) members don’t enjoy any non-flying perks, while both Delta and United offer partnerships with hotel chains and/or car rental companies for these high-tier elites. So in this case, newest doesn’t equate to best when it comes to elite status.

JetBlue and Southwest again bring up the rear. Even though they’re both strong in the same areas noted above for mid-tier elites (Airport Perks and/or Fee Waivers), neither of them provides enough value in the other categories to give the other carriers a run for their money.

ROAD WARRIOR

Finally, let’s shift our attention to top-tier elites, which we’ll term “Road Warriors.” At this level, we’re using 125,000 miles and $15,000 as the threshold to count as a road warrior. Note, however, that only Delta requires this level of flying to earn top-tier status. The others are a bit lower:

  • Alaska MVP Gold 75K: 90,000 miles (or 75,000 if flying exclusively on Alaska)
  • American AAdvantage Executive Platinum: 100,000 miles and $12,000 spent
  • United Premier 1K: 100,000 miles and $12,000 spent
  • Southwest A-List Preferred: 70,000 Tier Qualifying Points (or $8,750 in spending based on the assumed 8 cents/TQP noted above)
  • Since JetBlue only has a single elite status there are no differentiated perks for road warriors

If you typically fly less than 125,000 miles but more than 100,000, be sure to use the interactive tool below to ensure that you’re comparing Delta Platinum Medallion to these other top tiers.

So which program is most rewarding to road warriors? Here’s how they land:

TPG_AmericanEliteStatus_RoadWarrior_091817

Once you reach these heights of elite status, the previous pecking orders are blown to smithereens. Taking the top spot is United and its Premier 1K status. As we saw above with the carrier’s Premier Gold status and with its second-place mid-tier showing, there isn’t a single benefit that pushes it to the top. Instead, it’s simply a consistently rewarding status across all categories, landing in the top three for seven of our categories (and never worse than fourth). Some highlights at this level: enhanced award availability in both economy and premium cabins, a complimentary drink and snack on board and a total of 6 Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and 6 Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs).

American Executive Platinum slides into the second slot, thanks in large part to the Fee Waivers. Members of this elite status level will avoid paying just about any fee the carrier charges, including checked bag fees, same-day standby/same-day confirmed fees, award-processing charges and award ticket change/cancellation fees. Another small but still important distinction: Executive Platinum travelers earn Oneworld Emerald status, giving them access to first-class lounges when traveling internationally on a Oneworld carrier. This boost in the Partner Perks category helps elevate American past Delta.

It was a perfect night out on the Sky Deck.
Delta Diamond elites can get a membership to the Delta Sky Club lounge network as one of their free Choice Benefits.

Delta’s top-tier Diamond Medallion comes in third, ahead of Alaska’s MVP Gold 75K status. Delta gets a significant boost from the Flexible Perks category, as you’re able to select one Choice Benefit upon reaching the Platinum Medallion threshold (75k miles and $9,000) and then another three when you reach Diamond Medallion status (125k miles and $15,000). Your Diamond Choice Benefits options include four Global Upgrade Certificates (GUCs), individual Sky Club membership and the ability to gift Gold Medallion status to a friend or family member.

Alaska falls to fourth place here, despite the incredibly valuable Bonuses offered to MVP Gold 75K members (a 125% bonus plus an extra 50,000 miles upon qualification). The carrier is hurt mainly by limited Partner Perks and Flexible Perks.

Once again, JetBlue and Southwest bring up the rear, though Southwest does jump to fifth place thanks to the Companion Pass. Assuming that you’re earning 8 points per dollar spent, you’d earn this incredibly valuable perk after spending $13,750 in a calendar year. You can then bring a designated companion on all Southwest flights, including both paid and award tickets. However, while this perk does help Southwest leapfrog JetBlue, it isn’t enough to threaten the other four carriers.

The Overall Winner

Now it’s time to combine all four of our results and crown an overall victor. The approach here is simple: We’ve averaged the four scaled scores across the four tiers identified above for each airline. The highest average indicates the carrier provides the best combined benefits to its elite members.

So which airline comes out on top? Drum roll please…

Not surprisingly, Alaska Airlines grabs first place, as it came out on top in three of the four tiers. As mentioned above, a large part of this is due to the way the program awards bonus miles, a key benefit that differentiates the Mileage Plan program from the others on the list. We have to wait and see if the carrier goes down the revenue-based path, especially once things settle down with the Virgin America merger.

United earns second place on the overall list thanks to a solid showing at the middle, high and road warrior levels, and Delta comes in at a close third due to never falling below third place across any of the tiers. American brings up the rear of the “traditional” carriers followed by JetBlue and Southwest at the bottom.

It’s Your Turn

Of course, all of these calculations are based on set levels of flying and spending that may not fit with many readers’ typical travel patterns. Maybe you fly fewer miles but spend a good amount more on tickets, or maybe you frequently book on partner airlines. Whatever your own unique situation is, we want to give you the chance to adjust the numbers yourself. The interactive tool below allows you to input your miles flown and dollars spent in a year and then adjust the weighting of the eight categories to see which elite status program is best for you. If the amount of miles you fly and/or amount you spend are lower than the minimum thresholds for elite status at any of the airlines, there will be no corresponding lines for those airlines.

The final rankings should be viewed through the lens of practicality. It’s up to you to determine if your top carrier is truly a reasonable travel option. If your analysis winds up with United at the top but your home airport is one that United doesn’t serve, you’re probably best off going with another airline on the list.

The Casual Flyer

It’s also possible that you’re a more casual flyer and can’t reach any of the thresholds outlined above. Does that mean that you’re out of luck? Fortunately not, since there are a number of credit cards that offer elite-like perks on different airlines. Here’s a quick rundown of one solid option for each of the carriers above:

  • Alaska: The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card offers a free checked bag on all Alaska and Virgin America flights for you and up to six travel companions.
  • American: The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard offers a free checked bag on all domestic American Airlines itineraries along with preferred boarding.
  • Delta: The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express offers a free checked bag on all Delta flights plus priority boarding, a reduced entry fee for Delta Sky Clubs and a 20% discount on in-flight purchases.
  • United: The United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers a free checked bag on United flights (as long as you pay for the ticket with the card) along with priority boarding and two one-time United Club passes each year.
  • JetBlue: The JetBlue Plus Card provides a free checked bag on all JetBlue flights plus a 50% discount on eligible in-flight purchases; you can also spend your way to Mosaic status by making at least $50,000 in purchases on the card in a calendar year.
  • Southwest: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card doesn’t include any perks but does allow you to earn 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) for every $10,000 you spend, up to 15,000 TQPs in a year. This puts you almost half way to the airline’s A-List status, which falls in the mid-tier category in our analysis. In addition, all points you earn on the card (including sign-up bonuses) will count towards earning the Companion Pass each year.

While these cards won’t get you all the perks of elite status, it’s nice to have at least something for your next trip.

What It All Means

Choosing which airline earns your loyalty is a very personal decision, and many factors come into play. The six carriers we analyzed do a variety of things to get your business, both in their overall value propositions as well as in the different benefits conferred to their most frequent travelers. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle: An airline gives you a perk, which makes you more likely to fly that airline again, which leads to additional perks, and so on.

As consolidation continues in the industry, it’ll be interesting to see if elite status benefits begin to erode even more than they already have. After all, airlines are in the business of making money, so why should they give away first-class seats for free when they could sell those upgrades to another flyer for $69 or $99? This is a delicate balancing act, as letting these elite status perks dry up could eventually reach a tipping point, causing loyal flyers to depart for other airlines. In fact, some people argue that tipping point has already been reached, though the airlines don’t seem to agree. Only time will tell if the current approach to rewarding elite travelers will persist. In the meantime, now you have some objective numbers and detailed data to help you decide which airline is most deserving of your loyalty.

Graphics by Dorothy Cury. Interactive tool by Josh Bricel.

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