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TPG reader question: Which benefits are better — airline credit card perks or low-tier elite status?

Oct. 20, 2020
8 min read
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Editor’s note: This article is part of a column to answer your credit card questions. If you would like to ask us a question, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at tips@thepointsguy.com.

The pandemic has given new meaning to everything, and that includes the value of elite status with an airline. From elite status extensions to reduced criteria to become an elite to comprehensive loyalty program changes, 2020 has been a doozy when it comes to points and miles updates.

The current slowdown in travel is also the ideal time to evaluate your credit card strategy, including any cobranded airline cards you may have. TPG is here to help you make sense of the latest card offers as well as what belongs in your wallet — and what doesn't.

Given the shifting environment of airline status benefits — as well as credit card benefits — let's take a deeper dive into one specific program and accompanying airline credit card as an example.

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In this week’s edition of our reader question series, Kalen asks:

[pullquote source="Kalen, TPG reader"]I often find myself considering whether I should cancel my Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard since I have AAdvantage Gold elite status. Can you compare the benefits between the card and entry-level Gold status?[/pullquote]

In the U.S., airline credit card benefits and annual fees generally follow the same theme, with specific perks differing slightly between airlines. Among the "big three" U.S. airlines of American, Delta and United, each has at least one of the following cards:

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  • Low-tier no-annual-fee card
  • Example: American's American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card
  • Modest benefits and intended for very occasional flyers
  • Mid-tier card with an annual fee in the $95-$99 range
  • Example: American's Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard
  • Notable perks include a free checked bag and preferred boarding
  • Premium card with an annual fee in the $450-$550 range
  • Example: American's Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
  • Most noteworthy perk is an airline lounge membership when flying with the airline

The information for the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard and Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

For the sake of this specific reader question, we'll be comparing the benefits that come with the mid-tier $99-per-year Advantage Aviator Mastercard with the perks of reaching AAdvantage Gold status.

Related: Best American Airlines cards of 2020

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Earning AAdvantage Gold status

American reduced the requirements for earning elite status (or moving up a tier) in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The cuts apply to Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), Segments (EQSs), and Dollars (EQDs) for all elite status tiers, including Gold.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Additionally, American further made changes for the 2021 elite status year as travel looks to remain diminished moving into next year.

First, all elite-qualifying flight activity flown between Oct. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021, will count towards your 2021 elite-status tracker. That gives you a head start to reaching elite status for next year.

American will also lower the qualifying-thresholds across the board. Any status earned in 2021 will be valid through Jan. 31, 2023. Here's what it takes to earn low-tier Gold status:

Gold
Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM)20,000
Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS)20
Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD)$2,000

Related: What is American Airlines elite status worth in 2020?

Perks of AAdvantage Gold

According to TPG, low-level Gold status is worth approximately $980. Those benefits include:

  • Upgrades on flights under 500 miles
  • 500-mile upgrades
  • 40% mileage bonus
  • Priority check-in, security and boarding
  • Checked bag fee waiver (first bag, for the elite member only)
  • Complimentary same-day standby
  • Priority phone line
  • Complimentary access to preferred seats/Main Cabin Extra (24 hours out)
  • Partner benefits with Oneworld Ruby status, although this only provides priority check-in and standby.

Related: Everything you need to know about American AAdvantage

The business class cabin in an American Airlines Airbus A321T. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Perks of the AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard

If you have the AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard as Kalen does, you can take advantage of the following perks:

Comparing Gold status with the AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard

AAdvantage Gold elite statusAAdvantage Aviator Mastercard
Free check bag(s) Yes, one bag for elite member onlyYes, one bag for you and up to four companions when traveling domestically
Check-in perksPriority check-in lineNone
Boarding perksPriority boarding (Group 4)Preferred boarding (Group 5)
Security perks Priority security lineNone
Onboard perks Complimentary access to Preferred seats at booking and Main Cabin Extra seats 24 hours before departure. Eligible for 500-mile upgrades, but prioritized last behind other AAdvantage elites25% inflight food and beverage, $25 annual WiFi credit
Customer service perksPriority phone line, complimentary same-day standbyNone
Other40% mileage bonusAnniversary Companion Certificate after spending $20,000 on the card, select travel protections when making purchases

Low-tier status perks or credit card perks?

Having low-tier elite status can really elevate the flying experience, even if upgrades and other perks of higher-tier status may not be within reach. For instance, preferred and Main Cabin Extra seating can make a tangible difference for a longer flight. There's the added benefit of priority access at the airport and even a dedicated phone line in case you have unexpected delays or issues.

You'll get none of those things with a credit card.

Related: A complete guide to American AAdvantage

On the other hand, a cobranded card like the AAdvantage Aviator Mastercard can be invaluable for the extra free checked bags available to traveling companions on the same reservation. Additionally, several trip and purchase protection benefits can be a valuable perk, even for non-American Airlines purchases.

There is certainly value in having both airline elite status (even if it's a low-tier) as well as a cobranded airline card. However, the pandemic may force your hand if you're traveling less. In that case, it may make sense to downgrade a card to a no-annual-fee version and use the perks of elite status while you still have them.

Featured image by ERIC HELGAS FOR THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.