Finally, today I’ll cover the top loyalty tiers at the major domestic U.S. airlines. There is some variation at the top, with tiers at a mix of 75K, 100K, and 125K EQM, so I’ve included them all here. In some cases where two top tiers exist in the same program, I think the upper one is the best, but admittedly the lower tier can provide nearly all the benefits you need depending on the situation. You’ll see one example where I don’t think the 75K tier is worth aiming for at all. With all these comparisons an analyses, this post is necessarily much longer.
I also want to apologize for the quality of yesterday’s post comparing mid-tier programs. I wrote it by revising Wednesday’s comparison of bottom-tier programs and also had two drafts of the post up in different windows. There were a lot of things I forgot to change (like the names of each tier!) and a few things I thought I changed but not in the draft I eventually published. Entirely my fault. I should proofread my posts more closely, but I don’t always have the time and it’s only me working here. So I wrote this one from scratch. While there might still be a mistake or two, I hope you’ll find it more accurate on the whole.
United Airlines – MileagePlus Premier Platinum and Premier 1K
Must accrue 75K EQM or 90 segments for Premier Platinum and 100K EQM or 120 segments for Premier 1K. In either case, at least 4 segments must be on United-operated flights.
- Complimentary upgrades for you and one companion on domestic flights.
- Complimentary Economy Plus for you and 8 companions, at booking for domestic AND international routes.
- Three (3) free checked bags of 70 lbs each for you and 8 companions.
- Compensation for Global Entry Fee ($100 every five years).
- 10% discount on duty free shopping.
- Greater availability of saver awards in premium cabins.
- No fees on award changes, cancellations, or close-in bookings.
- Fixed number of free drink coupons each year.
Platinum members receive:
- Two (2) regional upgrades good on any fare to select destinations.
- 500-mile minimum and 75% bonus RDM.
1K members receive:
- Four (4) regional upgrades good on any fare to select destinations. (This includes the two received after reaching Platinum status.)
- Six (6) systemwide upgrades good on select fares to any destination. (These may also be substituted for regional upgrades.)
- 500-mile minimum and 100% bonus RDM.
- $60 statement credit if you hold a Chase co-branded credit card (only one credit).
- Instant upgrades on M-fares. (Other elites can only upgrade full-priced Y- and B-fares.)
- Dedicated phone and email support.
Scottrick’s Opinion: United introduced the Platinum tier this year when it merged with Continental Airlines’s program, which maxed out at 75K. In the process we’ve also seen reductions in the number of upgrade vouchers, but I still think there is a competitive number (see below for comparisons). What I like is that United offers a few benefits travelers actually use, like free Global Entry and a credit card statement credit. This statement credit is significant because only cardholders are eligible for upgrades on award tickets, something other programs tend to offer by default to those with elite status. Similarly, the drink coupons are annoying, as I’d rather just get a free drink when I don’t get upgraded. How do they know I’ll miss the upgrade list only 10 times (it’s been far more). I feel like 1K status is a good deal, but you have to know the program to maximize the benefits. Platinum status is a better target if all you really want is a waiver on your award fees, which can add up as I tend to make frequent changes.
Note that systemwide upgrades can be substituted for regional upgrades using their less restrictive terms. If your normal travel is entirely within the domestic U.S. and select international destinations, then both United and American are offering you 10 upgrades total. Note also that an additional two regional upgrades are received after every additional 25K EQM are accrued. For an accurate comparison to Delta’s Diamond Medallion status, which requires 125K EQM, you might want to think of United’s 1K benefits as six regional and six systemwide upgrades.
American Airlines – AAdvantage Executive Platinum
Must accrue 100K EQM, 100 segments, or 100K points.
- Complimentary upgrades for you, but you must use 500-mile vouchers for companions.
- 500-mile minium and 100% bonus RDM
- Eight (8) systemwide upgrades with no fare or destination restrictions.
- No fees for ticketing revenue travel.
- No fees on award changes, cancellations, or close-in bookings.
- Greater availability of saver awards in all cabins.
- Free alcoholic beverage and snack in the main cabin.
Scottrick’s Opinion: American is one of the last holdouts that doesn’t offer a 75K tier. It also doesn’t have a special program like United’s Global Services that provides upgrade priority, so you really are the king of the hill with Executive Platinum. I like that you get a free drink and snack in the back of the plane when you don’t get upgraded (and they’re pretty good choices; sometimes your companion will get one free, too, but it’s not guaranteed). Finally, American has really been trying to beef up its first class product, which I consider superior to United’s. What’s wrong? Well, after rampant status matches and double- and triple-EQM promotions, there are a lot of people with Executive Platinum status to compete with for upgrades. At least they’re complimentary for you, but not for a companion. Some view this positively, but others not so much. 500-mile vouchers let you prioritize certain flights. I will say that they are relatively inexpensive to buy. The systemwide upgrades with no restrictions are a big positive, but depending on your travel patterns, United and Delta offer more since they also have no fare restrictions when used on domestic routes. I still think Executive Platinum is great to have, but these are caveats that have kept me away from American so far.
Delta Air Lines – SkyMiles Platinum Medallion and Diamond Medallion
Must accrue 75K EQM or 100 segments for Platinum Medallion and 125K EQM or 140 segments for Diamond Medallion.
- Three (3) free checked bags (one of which may be 70 lbs) for you and 8 companions.
- Complimentary access to Economy Comfort seats at booking for domestic AND international routes.
- No fees on award changes, cancellations, or close-in booking (but all changes must be made 72 hours before departure).
- Complimentary upgrades for you and a companion on domestic flights.
- Complimentary upgrades on award flights.
- Free alcoholic beverage in the main cabin.
Platinum members receive:
- 500-mile minimum and 100% RDM bonus.
- One Choice Benefit, such as 4 systemwide upgrades (highly restrictive), 20K bonus miles, or free Silver status to give away.
Diamond members receive:
- Complimentary SkyClub membership.
- 500-mile minimum and 125% RDM bonus.
- Two Choice Benefits (in addition to the Platinum-level benefit), such as 6 systemwide upgrades (highly restrictive), 25K bonus miles, or free Gold status to give away.
- Dedicated phone support.
Scottrick’s Opinion: I think both of these are solid programs with some caveats that most have heard about already. Redeeming miles for awards with Delta is difficult. It can be done, but not easily, and the terms are very restrictive. For example, you can’t change your flight less than 72 hours before departure, which makes getting your favorite option in the front cabin more difficult. I can change my flight with United at the gate as soon as a seat becomes available. You also can’t book one-way awards at half the roundtrip price. These are important points because you will be traveling enough that you’ll have a lot of miles and need ways to use them. The upgrades are relatively useless on international flights, for which you must purchase near-full fares in economy when you could just buy a business class ticket upfront. At least you have a choice and can get more miles or something else instead. Finally, consider if you’re really going to hit 125K miles a year. 100K or 75K is a lot for most people. Delta really makes you rush for the top tier.
Must accrue 75K EQM or 90 segments for Platinum Preferred and 100K EQM or 120 segments for Chairman’s Preferred.
- Complimentary domestic upgrades for you and one companion.
- Complimentary preferred seating.
- Three (3) free checked bags up to 50 lbs each (unclear how many companions this includes).
- No fees on award close-in booking.
- Free extension of your existing US Airways Club membership to a spouse.
Platinum members receive:
- 500-mile minimum and 75% RDM.
Chairman’s members receive:
- 500-mile minimum and 100% RDM.
- Complimentary upgrades on award travel.
- Free Silver Preferred status to give away.
- No fees on award booking, changes, or cancellations.
- Four (4) upgrade vouchers for flights to Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Hawaii.
Scottrick’s Opinion: You’ll notice I said that both tiers have the fee waived for close-in booking, but only Chairman’s status receives a fee waiver for award booking in general. That’s because US Airways charges separately for each, and the general award booking fee is still intact all the way until you reach the top-tier, unlike many programs that waive it at the 75K level (or lower, like Alaska’s MVP Gold). US Airways is also pretty stingy with the upgrade vouchers. But from what I’ve heard, there are few enough Chairman’s members that you stand a very good chance at a free domestic upgrade. You’ll also hit two more Special Dividends levels along the way, at 60K EQM and 80K EQM, that will let you select from additional benefits. If you go higher, these include free US Airways Club membership for yourself and free Gold status to give away at 125K EQM, just like Delta provides. Still, I have trouble accepting the many ways US Airways fails to compete with similar tiers at other programs. The 75K Platinum tier seems like a clear loser due to the fees that remain in place. At the 100K level, I think United and American would still have a slight advantage.
Don’t forget that if you credit just one flight to Dividend Miles, you can buy the remaining EQM. If you want to just give it a try or fast-track your progress, pay $600 for trial Platinum status and fly 22,500 EQM in 90 days to keep it or 30,000 EQM to move up to Chairman’s.
Alaska Airlines – Mileage Plan MVP Gold 75
Must accrue 75K EQM or 90 segments on Alaska-operated flights. 90K EQM or 90 segments are required if including credit from partner-operated flights.
- Two (2) free checked bags for you and 8 companions.
- Complimentary upgrades for you and one companion.
- Complimentary preferred seats in the exit row and bulkhead.
- All fees waived, including for canceling or changing revenue tickets.
- 100% bonus RDM.
- Complimentary drink and in-flight entertainment player in the main cabin.
- Four (4) MVP Guest upgrades for those not traveling with you.
- Four (4) complimentary Board Room passes.
- 50K bonus miles and free MVP status to give away.
- Certain elite privileges extend to travel on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines (upgrades with Delta only).
Scottrick’s Opinion: A few people complained yesterday I gave MVP Gold short shrift, and it really wasn’t intended. MVP Gold has a lot of great benefits, including fee waivers on all tickets, including paid revenue tickets. MVP Gold 75 offers even more, like some free Board Room passes, a free entertainment player when seated in economy, bonus miles, and free status to give away. However… you can’t get better than MVP Gold 75. This seems like a short ceiling compared to other airlines, so as I have said before, I still feel MileagePlan is best for someone traveling mostly domestic routes, mostly on Alaska, and probably located on the West Coast. If you’re jetting all over the place, you won’t get all your benefits when flying with a partner, and you’ll probably zoom past the qualification level.
Most of these benefits are already obtained at the MVP Gold level, so my suggestion is that if you are a very frequent traveler, you should aim for top-tier status in one program and then aim for MVP Gold with Alaska, which is already a good catch-all target for spare points thanks to their many partners. For example, I have considered aiming for Premier 1K with United and MVP Gold with Alaska, which would require 150K EQM total and give me a place to stash miles from flights with Delta, American, Alaska, and a few others that don’t parter with United.
Obtaining top-tier status with a loyalty program is a very individual decision. It is the point at which airlines are forced to differentiate themselves and compete ever harder for the most frequent travelers. On the one hand, you will probably find a program that works best for you and how you travel. On the other hand, the different options and even the different terms for the same benefits like systemwide will make it harder to make a simple comparison. I have been happy with United, but that’s because I highly value Economy Plus and travel often with a companion. If I flew alone or could afford to buy 500-mile upgrades, I might prefer American. If I did less international travel, I might prefer Alaska. Delta… well, I don’t know why people like Delta. I know there are fans, and I see some strong points, but on the whole I always find myself coming back to one of these other programs. That’s why I did these comparisons, of top-tier status today and low- and mid-tier status earlier this week, to make a more informed decision. I hope you found them useful.
I realize the bullet points and narrative style may not work for everyone. I’ll work on organizing this information better into some tables and post those next week.