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Airline Elite Status: Avoid Delta Medallion Miles but Get The Benefits

by on May 20, 2011

Most major airlines have elite status programs to reward extremely frequent flyers in the mold of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Each airline has slightly different qualifications and benefits, making some elite status levels easier to attain than others. Although there’s almost no differentiation in the lower statuses, United Airlines and US Airways become easier to qualify for than other airlines at the highest levels.

Some airlines do not have premier status programs, namely JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America. All three of those, however, offer airlines credit cards and mileage rewards programs.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how quickly you can earn benefits, plus a qualitative assessment of the benefits. We’ve calculated the number of roundtrip flights you’d need to take on economy, business and first class from Boston Logan to San Francisco in order to achieve the given status.

Roundtrip BOS-SFO Flights to earn Lowest Status:

Airline Status Economy Business First Perks
Alaska** MVP 5 4 4 Best
American Gold 5 4 4 Average
Continental Silver 5 4 4 Worst
Delta Silver 5 4 4 Good
United Premier 5 4 4 Average
US Airways Silver 5 4 4 Good

 

Perks: Alaska offers the quickest route to upgrades and extra miles, once you reach low-level status. MVP flyers earn 1.5 Alaska miles for every physical mile flown, compared to the standard 1.25, and will also consider their lowest-level flyers for an upgrade 2 days before the flight as opposed to the standard 24 hours.

Delta Silver flyers also earn 1.5 Skymiles to the mile flown, but only consider flyers for an upgrade the day before. US Airways and United both give upgrades 2 days before the flight, but US Airways only gives a 25% bump instead of 50%, and United doesn’t give one at all.

Qualifications: At the lowest level, all airlines have equal mile requirements. If you’re only considering the lowest level, Alaska’s the way to go as it will help you rise through the ranks faster.

Roundtrip BOS-SFO Flights to earn Mid-Level Status:

Airline Status Economy Business First Perks
Alaska** MVP Gold 10 8 7 Good
American Platinum 10 7 7 Good
Continental Gold 10 7 7 Good
Delta Gold 10 7 7 Good
United Premier Executive 10 7 7 Paltry
US Airways Gold 10 7 7 Paltry

 

Perks: The mid-level benefits vary little across the airlines, and they distinguish themselves not by what they do offer, but what they don’t:

  • Only US Airways offers no domestic lounge access.
  • Alaska and United don’t give priority baggage handling to the MVP Gold and Premier Executive members.
  • The standard mileage bump is 100%, but Delta and US Airways only give 50% and United still doesn’t give a bonus.

At this level, all airlines will consider frequent flyers for upgrades up to 3 days before the flight.

Qualifications: Again, there isn’t much variation at this level. Alaska requires one more business class roundtrip flight, but that’s about it. Your decision still rests on the program’s benefits.

Roundtrip BOS-SFO Flights to earn High-Level Status:

Airline Status Economy Business First Perks
Alaska** MVP Gold 75k 17 13 11 Good
American Executive Platinum 19 13 13 Good
Continental Platinum 19 13 13 Good
Delta Platinum 19 13 13 Good
United 1K 19 10 10 Paltry
US Airways Platinum 19 10 10 Paltry

 

Perks: At the highest level, the airlines distinguish themselves in small ways:

  • Alaska, Continental and Delta consider upgrades almost a day before the others.
  • US Airways doesn’t waive ticket change fees or give priority baggage handling, and it still doesn’t offer domestic lounge access.
  • Continental, Alaska and American seem to offer the best benefits.

Qualifications: Alaska is the easiest to earn flying economy, since it requires 90,000 miles on affiliate airlines (or 75,000 on Alaska) instead of the standard hundred thousand. United and US Airways require the fewest flights on business and first class, but US Airways has a substandard benefit program. United Airlines is probably the best choice if you fly business or first, as it offers both ease of qualification and good benefits.

Roundtrip BOS-SFO Flights to earn Highest-Level Status:

The main benefit of this level is that you’re considered even earlier for an upgrade, and US Airways gives a bigger mileage multiplier. Really, it’s the same as the high-level status, but that you can brag/complain that you’ve flown from SFO to Logan and back twenty times.

Airline Status Economy Business First Perks
Delta Diamond 24 16 16 Good
US Airways Chairman’s 19 19 13 Good

Arbitrage Opportunities:

Continental, United and US Airways: These three airlines are part of the Star Alliance, which includes Air Canada, Air China and Lufthansa. The Star Alliance has its own elite status system. Silver level members get priority waitlisting and airport standby; Gold members receive those as well as priority check-in, baggage handling, and boarding; waived baggage fees; and free airport lounge access.

These Airline Status Levels… …Earn This Star Alliance Level
Continental: SilverUnited: Premier

US Airways: Silver

Silver
Continental: Gold and PlatinumUnited: Premier Executive, 1K

US Airways: Gold, Platinum, Chairman’s

Gold

 

The best benefits of all three airlines are captured in the Star Alliance benefits. Star Alliance’s Silver level, though, doesn’t come with much. All the Star Alliance airlines honor each others’ elite designations, allowing you to earn status on one airline and enjoy perks on another.

Your best bet is to take advantage of the reciprocal mile-earning relationship and channel all your miles toward US Airways. It is far easier to move up the ladder than with Continental and United.

Delta and Alaska Airlines: Like the Star Alliance, most of benefits earned on one airline apply to the other, such as complimentary upgrades, preferred seating, priority boarding and priority check-in. Alaska has lower qualifications, generally, if you fly economy or business. The airline allows a much faster rise if you fly on Alaska rather than affiliates, but that’s only practical if you fly on the West Coast, Alaska or Hawaii.

In this case, you should channel your miles to Alaska and fly that airline whenever you’re on the West Coast, and take the reduced benefits on Delta everywhere else. Even if you earn the majority of your Alaska miles with affiliates, it’s quicker than racking up qualifying miles on Delta.

Using credit cards to accelerate elite status

The Continental Presidential Plus both earn miles that count toward elite status (miles earned through other airlines’ cards only count toward free flights, not status). The Presidential Plus is a premium credit card, earning around the same level of benefits as the swanky AmEx Platinum. It comes with a hefty $395 annual fee that puts it out of the range of most people, but it does earn 1,000 qualifying miles for every $5,000 put on the card, as well as a 25% multiplier.

We don’t cover all the credit cards that offer elite mileage perks here, but keep this benefit in mind as you search for an airline credit card. Earning miles toward elite status can be an unexpected perk that few cards offer, and if your favorite airline’s card doesn’t offer it, one of its affiliate airlines might.

**A note about Alaska Airlines: the qualification levels differ if you fly on Alaska or on affiliates. Flying on affiliate airlines, which include Delta, British Airways, American Airlines, KLM and many others, requires about 25% more miles than does flying Alaska alone. We assumed in this calculation that you’d be flying on affiliate airlines, since Alaska has a decent presence on the West Coast but offers few direct flights other than to the non-contiguous states.

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  • Mark

    Very curios as to where the research for this article came from, as nearly all of the facts, figures, and conclusions are incorrect.

    Elite status for all airlines can be achieved either by flying miles or segments. In most cases, miles will get you status sooner. To reach Silver on Delta, you need to fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments. Not sure where the number 15 comes from. Just like just about ever other airline, five round trans-continental trips will do it. In fact, with so many credit card bonuses offering Delta MQMs for signing up, Silver on Delta is one of the easiest statuses to reach. An Amex promo for their Platinum card combined with a Delta milage transfer promo that just ended could grant Silver instantly without flying on a single plane.

    UA and AA are a bit tougher because their credit card promos don’t offer EQMs as regularly as Delta’s, but the accrual rules for almost all elite status programs are equivalent (25k miles for entry, 50k for middle, 75k-100k for top tier.)

    US is a different story since you can buy Silver on that airline whenever you like.

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ Tim

      You’re absolutely right Mark, we found some glaring errors in our spreadsheet that we really should’ve picked up on before we went to publish.

      Thanks for the note, comments like this are clutch for keeping us in line and keeping our data and advice accurate.

  • Gnainani

    One correction:  Per my discussion with two different Alaska Airlines CSRs (today and three months ago), points earned through its Visa credit card (regardless of which type) *do not* contribute toward status or elite qualification miles.  Alaska Airlines does indeed distinguish between butt-in-seat miles and miles earned through credit card spending.

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ Tim

      Thanks for the heads up! Our initial CSR call led us to believe the opposite, but we’ve just verified that you are right, and we are updating the post accordingly.

  • Happyjoel

    Also, Delta only offers “discounted” lounge access at anything below diamond, not free access.

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