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If you’re a road warrior, selecting an airline to which you remain loyal is a critical yet difficult decision to make. Unless you’re a hub captive and “forced” onto a specific carrier, many travelers can pick an airline based on the perks it offers elite status members, including bonus miles, lounge access, priority airport benefits and many others.
Today, I’m kicking off a revision of last year’s series that crunches the numbers to see which status makes the most sense for you. Like in previous iterations, I’ll consider the various benefits of each tier of the major programs and try to quantify the value of each. Our first subject: the American Airlines AAdvantage program.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that this series is not meant to replace or detract from the airline elite status analysis I completed in fall 2017. That analysis looked not only at the value of the various perks offered to elite members but also the importance of those perks to travelers. In addition, it didn’t go into details for the individual airlines, instead offering a comparison across the major airlines here in the US. Today’s analysis (and the entries that follow) will do just that.
Before we get to the details of the elite status tiers of the AAdvantage program, a couple of disclaimers. First, it’s important to note that these mathematical analyses represent just one way of calculating the value you’d get out of a given elite status level. Everyone has his or her own way of valuing the various benefits of loyalty programs; some may always pay for first and business class and thus have no need for complimentary upgrades, while others may travel exclusively in the US and don’t care about free lounge access on international itineraries. As a result, feel free to adjust the numbers I use to make it more relevant to your own personal valuation.
Second, these numbers are all based on the benefits you’d enjoy after achieving the given status level and continuing to qualify each year thereafter. If you’re starting from scratch, these values are a bit skewed, since the first 25,000 miles you fly will provide no benefits. I’ve provided some analysis for those of you in that position toward the end of the post, including an Excel spreadsheet to help with your estimates.
This brings me to the third and final critical part of this analysis: the underlying assumptions I’m making. To really hit a value for benefits, I have to assume a certain amount of flying and a corresponding amount of spending. For the sake of the airline portion of the series, I’m making the following assumptions:
- You earn 20% more Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) than the minimum required for the given status level.
- You spend an average of 15 cents per EQM.
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. Those who travel exclusively in the US may spend less than $0.15 per mile, while those who travel in paid first or business class internationally likely spend significantly more. You also may qualify on segments rather than miles, and you may have heavier travel in certain parts of the year.
Two final bits of information: For the sake of this analysis, I’m valuing any bonus miles earned based on TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents apiece. In addition, I’m rounding all of the individual benefit valuations to the nearest $5 to make the math a bit simpler.
So … all that being said, where do the four elite levels of the AAdvantage program land? Here’s my analysis:
AAdvantage Gold ($970)
The lowest tier in American’s program is AAdvantage Gold status, which normally requires 25,000 EQMs or 30 elite-qualifying segments plus $3,000 Elite-Qualfying Dollars (EQDs). For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 30,000 EQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $4,500).
- Upgrades on flights under 500 miles ($75): As an AAdvantage Gold member, you’ll enjoy unlimited complimentary upgrades on flights that cover a distance less than 500 miles. This doesn’t give you a ton of time to enjoy the perks, but it’s certainly better than nothing!
- 500-mile upgrades ($200): Gold members can also get into first class by using 500-mile upgrades for flights longer than 500 miles in distance. You’ll need one upgrade for every 500 miles you fly, and Gold members will earn 4 for every 12,500 EQMs they earn. With the assumed flying from above, you’d get 8 of them in 2018. You can actually purchase additional upgrades for $40 each, but I’ll value these at a more conservative $25 apiece.
- 40% mileage bonus ($125): With American’s switch to a revenue-based model for earning miles in August 2016, Gold members now earn 7 miles for every dollar spent on flights, 2 miles more than a non-status flyer. Based on the assumed flying above, that would give you an additional 9,000 miles, worth $126.
- Priority check-in, security and boarding ($100): Gold members can also utilize priority services at the airport, with elite lines for check-in and security plus early boarding. These can be helpful if you’re running late but certainly aren’t the most valuable benefit out there.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($95): As a Gold member, you’re allowed to check one bag for free on all American flights, a privilege that costs regular travelers $25 per flight. The savings can really add up if you frequently need to check bags, but since this perk is also available on the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard (for a $95 annual fee which is waived for the first 12 months), I’m going to cap it there.
- Complimentary same-day standby ($75): Gold members also don’t have to pay the $75 fee to standby for an earlier or later flight. I’ll assume that you use this benefit once per year, but if you frequently need to change your plans, it can be worth much more.
- Priority phone line ($50): Getting priority access to phone agents can be helpful during storms or other major problems, but it’s not the best perk out there.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($150): As a Gold member, you can access preferred seats at the time of booking, and you can also book Main Cabin Extra seats at a 50% discount (they become free within 24 hours of departure, if they’re still available). It’s hard to pin an exact value on this, since each flight charges different fees for these seats, so I’ll stick with a conservative $150 valuation.
- Waived award-processing charge ($75): Another fee you wouldn’t need to pay as a Gold member is the waived processing charge on award tickets booked within 21 days of departure. I’ll assume the same once-per-year utilization as I did for same-day standby.
- Partner benefits ($25): American belongs to the Oneworld alliance, and Gold members will enjoy Oneworld Ruby status, though this only provides priority check-in and standby. Unfortunately, the AAdvantage program no longer provides elite members with benefits on Alaska Airlines since the two carriers slashed their partnership.
AAdvantage Platinum ($2,185)
The second tier in American’s program is AAdvantage Platinum status, which normally requires 50,000 EQMs or 60 elite-qualifying segments plus $6,000 EQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 60,000 EQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $9,000).
- Upgrades on flights under 500 miles ($200): Like Gold members, Platinum travelers will enjoy complimentary upgrades on short flights. I’ve bumped the valuation here based on double the flying and the fact that Platinum upgrades are more likely to clear than Gold ones.
- 500-mile upgrades ($480): Platinum members will also earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 EQMs they travel, giving you 16 of them based on the assumed flying above. However, I’m bumping the value of each to $30 to reflect the fact that Platinum members have priority over Gold travelers.
- 60% mileage bonus ($380): As a Platinum member, you’ll earn an extra 3 miles per dollar spent when compared to non-status flyers. With $9,000 of spending, that equates to 27,000 extra miles, worth $378.
- Priority check-in, security and boarding ($200): These perks are the same as those offered for Gold members, but I’m doubling the valuation based on twice as much flying.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($200): Platinum members can check two bags for free on all American flights, giving additional savings over the benefit offered to Gold members. If you regularly travel with a ton of gear or take many international flights in economy, this can be a very useful perk.
- Priority baggage delivery ($25): Of all the elite status perks I’ve used, this is probably the most sporadic. On my last trip with American, our bags were almost last to come out after traveling home in business class from Madrid. Nevertheless, if it works and you’re in a rush, it can be nice to have.
- Complimentary same-day standby ($150): Same benefit as Gold members, but I’ll assume that you use this twice per year.
- Priority phone line ($100): Same benefit, twice the utilization.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($300): Platinum members can select both preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking. Depending on the flight length, this can save quite a bit of money.
- Waived award-processing charge ($75): I’m sticking with the assumption I used for Gold members, that you’d utilize it once per year (I don’t think many mid-tier elite travelers will book more than one award ticket that last-minute).
- Partner benefits ($75): Platinum travelers will be granted Sapphire benefits when traveling on Oneworld airlines, including the same priority check-in and standby offered to Golds plus priority boarding and lounge access when traveling internationally.
AAdvantage Platinum Pro ($3,430)
The third tier in the AAdvantage program is Platinum Pro, which normally requires 75,000 EQMs or 90 elite-qualifying segments plus $9,000 EQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 90,000 EQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $13,500).
- Upgrades on flights under 500 miles ($300): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Upgrades on flights over 500 miles ($800): One of the biggest differences between Platinum and Platinum Pro involves upgrades. Platinum Pro travelers will enjoy unlimited, complimentary upgrades on all flights eligible for 500-mile upgrades (generally those within the US and between the US and the Caribbean/Central America). You’ll still be prioritized behind Executive Platinum travelers, but it’s definitely a step up from needing to use 500-mile upgrades.
- 80% mileage bonus ($755): Platinum Pro members will earn an extra 4 miles per dollar spent over non-status travelers. With $13,500 of spending, that equates to 54,000 extra miles, worth $756.
- Priority check-in, security and boarding ($300): Same perks, more frequent utilization.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($250): Same perk as Platinum members but with slightly more frequent utilization.
- Priority baggage delivery ($25)
- Complimentary same-day standby ($150): Platinum Pro flyers will enjoy the same standby perks as lower-level elite members, but I’ll keep this at twice per year thanks to the following perk…
- Complimentary same-day flight change ($150): This is a new addition to the Platinum Pro level, as you’re now eligible for free same-day flight changes as of February 1, 2018. I’ll assume that you use this twice per year, though if you regularly need to adjust your plans on the day of your flight, you could get significantly more value from it.
- Priority phone line ($150): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($350): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Waived award-processing charge ($75)
- Partner benefits ($125): Same benefits, more frequent utilization.
AAdvantage Executive Platinum ($7,360)
The final tier in the AAdvantage program is Executive Platinum status, which normally requires 100,000 EQMs or 120 elite-qualifying segments plus $12,000 EQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 120,000 EQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $18,000).
- Complimentary upgrades ($1,500): Like Platinum Pro members, Executive Platinum travelers will enjoy unlimited, complimentary upgrades on all short- and medium-haul flights, though Executive Platinums will be given priority on the upgrade list.
- Systemwide Upgrades ($2,000): When you qualify for Executive Platinum status, you’ll receive four systemwide upgrades (SWUs). These can be used to upgrade any paid ticket on American metal of up to three segments. These can also be transferred to family members or friends. You do need to find upgrade inventory for your desired flights (C for domestic first class or international business class and A for international first class). I’d strongly recommend using ExpertFlyer to set alerts if there aren’t seats at the time of booking. You can also earn 2 additional SWUs by reaching 150,000 EQMs and two more for reaching 200,000 EQMs. I’ll peg these upgrades at $500 apiece.
- 120% mileage bonus ($1,510): Executive Platinum members will earn an extra 6 miles per dollar spent over non-status travelers. With $18,000 of spending, that equates to 108,000 extra miles, worth $1,512.
- Priority check-in, security and boarding ($400): Same perks, more frequent utilization.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($350): As an Executive Platinum member, you can check up to three bags for free on all American flights. While most travelers probably aren’t checking three bags on every flight, it’s still nice to have that option.
- Priority baggage delivery ($25)
- Complimentary same-day standby ($150): Same benefit as Gold, Platinum and Platinum Pro, but I’ll assume the same twice per year utilization because of…
- Complimentary same-day confirmed ($225): Like Platinum Pro flyers, Executive Platinum members can switch to a different flight on the same day without incurring the $75 fee. I’ll assume that you’d utilize this three times.
- Priority phone line ($200): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary preferred seats ($400): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary drink and snack in the Main Cabin ($50): As an Executive Platinum, you’d hopefully be riding in first class for most of your trips, but if not, you can pick a drink and snack for free.
- Waived award-processing charge ($75)
- Waived award change and cancellation fees ($300): American is one of the most generous when it comes to fee-free changes to award tickets, allowing date and routing changes to all members. However, Executive Platinum members can avoid the $150 fee that would be incurred if you change the airline(s), award type or origin/destination. This is one of my favorite perks of top-tier status, as you can adjust your award itineraries to ensure the best possible redemption.
- Partner benefits ($175): Executive Platinum members enjoy Oneworld Emerald status, giving access to first and business-class lounges plus extra baggage allowance.
What if I’m starting from scratch?
As I mentioned at the outset, these numbers are based on the benefits you’d enjoy by spending a full year with the given status. However, if you’re starting from scratch, the calculations become a bit more complicated, since you won’t start to enjoy any benefits until you hit the 25,000-mile mark and earn Gold status. To help modify the analysis for those individuals, I’ve taken the above valuations and converted them to a value per EQM, as follows:
- AAdvantage Gold: $970 / 30,000 EQMs = 3.23 cents per EQM
- AAdvantage Platinum: $2,185 / 60,000 EQMs = 3.64 cents per EQM
- AAdvantage Platinum Pro: $3,430 / 90,000 EQMs = 3.81 cents per EQM
- AAdvantage Executive Platinum: $7,360 / 120,000 EQMs = 6.13 cents per EQM
I then created an Excel spreadsheet that uses these numbers to calculate how much value you’d get from the different levels of AAdvantage elite status given a certain amount of flying. All you need to do is change the number in cell A2 to represent the number of EQMs you expect to fly in 2017, and the spreadsheet will update with the corresponding value. This also includes the additional SWUs you’d get by reaching 150,000 EQMs and 200,000 EQMs.
For example, you’ll see that I have pre-loaded 60,000 EQMs. At this rate, you’d get no benefits from the first 25,000 EQMs, then enjoy Gold benefits for the next 25,000 EQMs (at a rate of 3.23 cents per EQM), and then enjoy Platinum benefits for the final 10,000 EQMs (at a rate of 3.64 cents per EQM). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 60,000 EQMs in 2017, you’d be able to get $1,172.50 worth of perks from the AAdvantage program.
As always, feel free to adjust the numbers above for each tier (loaded into the “Base Data” tab of the spreadsheet) based on your own personal valuation.
Is it worth it?
So given these values, is it worth pursuing elite status (or the next tier of elite status) with American? Just like with any analysis we undertake here at TPG, there isn’t an easy answer to this, as it depends entirely on your individual situation. However, here are a few over-arching questions that can help you arrive at a decision:
- How much will you travel in the future? If you earned AAdvantage elite status in 2017, it’s valid through January 31, 2019, and if you qualify in 2018, your status will last until January 31, 2020. It’s critical to think about how much you’ll be traveling in the future. If you push hard to earn Executive Platinum, for example, the valuable perks outlined above only apply when you actually travel.
- What’s the incremental value of one tier over another? Many of you may wind up within striking distance of the next tier, so be sure to consider whether the benefits are worth pushing for it. There’s no sense in going out of your way for perks that don’t matter to you.
- How well does American’s route map match your typical travel patterns? Pursuing elite status with an airline that you can’t feasibly fly on a regular basis is a fool’s errand. Be sure to consider American’s service from your home airport(s) and how easy it is to get to your desired destination.
- How sensitive are you to price and convenience? There are many trade-offs in this hobby, and one of the most common is deciding whether to use your preferred airline or hotel chain when it’s not the most convenient or cheapest. Would you book a one-stop American flight if JetBlue had a cheaper nonstop option? If the answer is no, it may not be worth going out of your way to earn AAdvantage elite status (or any elite status, for that matter).
- Could you enjoy elite-like perks with a credit card? The final consideration involves travel rewards credit cards. Many airline co-branded cards offer perks to cardholders than can mirror what you’d enjoy as an elite member. For example, the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard includes a free checked bag, preferred boarding and a 25% in-flight discount, while the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard provides an Admirals Club membership (with lounge access for your authorized users) in addition to waived checked bag fees, preferred boarding and the in-flight discount. If you can pay a flat annual fee for one of these cards and gain access to perks that matter to you without going out of your way to earn elite status.
These questions are also not easy to answer, as there are many different factors that come into play with each of them. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate your own situation as you determine if AAdvantage elite status is for you!
No one will argue that elite status can make your travel experience less stressful and more rewarding, but it may not necessarily make sense pursuing status with a given airline or hotel chain if it doesn’t work best with your typical travel plans. Having at least an idea of how much the benefits are worth at each tier can go a long way toward helping this decision, so I hope my analysis of the AAdvantage elite program has been helpful!
Featured image by @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20