This morning I released my fourth annual update of my airline loyalty program comparison tables. I try to keep them unbiased, but this post is all about opinion. If you’re aiming for elite status then which program — and which tier in that program — is right for you?
It’s difficult to say that one program is better than another overall. You might see in some of the examples below how one or two programs offer perks that blow the competition out of the water. However, many other factors are at play. You can’t really argue that someone who lives in Atlanta should be picking United as their preferred carrier.
Or can you?
There is some merit to picking the local heavyweight for convenient, direct service. Keep in mind that going with a weaker competitor (at least in that market) might mean lower fares and easier upgrades as they must fight harder to stay competitive.
I’ll stop there and get back to focusing on each airline individually. If you think I’ve erred, please feel free to share your perspective in the comments.
The Best Elite Tier with Alaska Airlines
MVP Gold is where it’s at. This middle tier can be earned by flying just 40,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, or 50,000 miles if you also include Alaska’s partner carriers. Both tallies are tracked separately so you can qualify either way.
MVP Gold is a winner because of the four systemwide upgrades, a 100% bonus on award miles earned, and a generous change/cancellation policy that will let you rebook any flight at any time before departure without a fee. Even the top tiers of other programs don’t offer this last benefit.
What do you pass up by not going for Gold 75K status? There are some extra bonus miles, a free handheld video player, and the opportunity to gift MVP status to a friend. Upgrade priority is higher for Gold 75K, as is the bonus on award miles is also higher (at 125% it’s the highest in the industry).
Still, it can be so challenging to earn that you might find it’s not worth the mileage runs, and anecdotal reports suggest that any upgrades you were going to get you could get anyway with mere Gold status. Thus, only true frequent fliers are going to earn this tier because they already fly a lot. If you do, congrats!
The Best Elite Tier with American Airlines
Executive Platinum remains the best tier if you travel with American Airlines and credit to its AAdvantage program. Yes, there have been devaluations recently, including the loss of four systemwide upgrades. (You can earn these back if you earn an additional 100,000 EQM.) However, the opportunity to receive unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades and free access to first class lounges on international travel remains a big draw.
American doesn’t have a fourth tier at 75,000 miles, which makes it a big drop if you were to only qualify for its Platinum tier at 50,000 miles. At that point you would earn and redeem 500-mile upgrade coupons (and fewer of them beginning in 2016).
You’ll also earn many fewer award miles as a Platinum member. The adoption of a revenue-base program doesn’t just make it harder to earn on long-haul flights. Among other changes, the relative bonus earned by each tier has shifted. Executive Platinum members now get 11 miles per dollar, reflecting a 120% bonus over general members, while Platinum members get just 8 miles per dollar for a 60% bonus. Previously both tiers earned 100% more than general members.
The Best Elite Tier with Delta Air Lines
Those who fly Delta could make roughly even arguments for either Platinum or Diamond Medallion status. I’m not a particular fan of the loyalty program in general — even as the airline continues to offer superior service — so take my comments with a grain of salt. However, here is my reasoning.
Many things don’t change between Platinum and Diamond tiers:
- The same fees are waived.
- The same free baggage benefit applies.
- The same Economy Comfort benefit applies (and it will be devalued for both tiers vs. 2015).
A few things do improve for the Diamond tier over Platinum:
- An additional 8 regional upgrades or 4 global upgrades (Platinum members already earn 4 regional upgrades).
- An increase in the number of award miles earned, from 9 per dollar (80% more than general members) to 11 per dollar (120% more than general members).
- An easy 25,000 bonus award miles for qualifying.
Given that you can obtain Medallion status more easily with some manufactured spend techniques — and you can waive the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirement for every tier with credit card spend — I think that the extra perks could be worth putting your plastic to work. However, the Platinum tier is still fairly rewarding if that approach makes you uncomfortable and you simply don’t fly enough to earn it the normal way.
The Best Elite Tier with United Airlines
Premier Platinum status is my go-to at United Airlines because you can waive the Premier Qualifying Dollars requirement with $25,000 spend on a credit card and still get lots of fee waivers for award changes and cancellations. Given that United’s miles are the most valuable of the Big Three (Alaska’s are probably worth more) and easy to earn with various Chase credit cards, that’s an important consideration.
Platinum members only get a couple of regional upgrade certificates, though at least these are not restricted to certain fare classes. Premier 1K members may get more, but the systemwide upgrades have stiff fare restrictions that require you to pay $500 to $1,000 more than the cheapest coach fare and still gamble on the upgrade waitlist.
Other than this and a few other priorities (including a free alcoholic beverage in coach), I just don’t see much additional value in being 1K. I went so far as to ask United to downgrade my recent status match since the target for Platinum would be easier to hit.