At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.
If you're a frequent traveler, it used to be an easy decision to go for status in an airline’s loyalty program. Status benefits were generous and not easily obtained by anyone who didn’t fly a lot. Domestic upgrades were more frequent because airlines had very high (and infrequently purchased) first class fares — and you could even get upgraded when purchasing the airline’s lowest fares. Finally, with status awarded by miles or segments flown rather than the amount of money spent, it was easy to look for a cheap end-of-year “mileage run” to top up to the next status level.
Those days are long gone. Heading into 2020, status is an entirely different animal. Airlines have watered down status benefits and restricted access to them when flying on their lowest fares, while making it harder and more expensive to earn status. Meanwhile, airline co-branded credit cards provide many of the same benefits as entry-level status.
Given that, is it even worthwhile to go for status anymore? The answer is: “It depends.”
Entry level status tier vs. co-branded credit card
One of the easiest decisions to make around status is whether entry-level elite benefits are worth obtaining. What is “entry-level” status? It’s the first elite status tier. Delta and United call it “Silver,” while American calls it “Gold” and Alaska calls it “MVP.” They all provide roughly the same core benefits:
Upgrades on flights, either to preferred seating or first class — but only in eligible fare classes, and only if there's still availability after all of the higher-tier status members on the same flight have been upgraded ahead of you.
Free checked bag.
Multiplier on flown miles.
Depending on the airline, you may be entitled to additional perks, such as priority check-in and access to a priority customer service phone number.
How does that compare to benefits from a co-branded credit card? Several major U.S. airlines offer the following benefits to their co-branded credit cardholders:
Free checked bag.
Ability to earn miles through credit card spending.
Exclusive benefits offered by airline co-branded credit cards
On top of this, many co-branded credit cards offer unique benefits that aren’t available with any level of status. For example:
Alaska Airlines offers a $99 annual companion fare on its co-branded Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card.
American Airlines offers reduced mileage awards that are only available with their co-branded cards.
Delta provides discounted lounge access to cardholders.
United provides additional access to saver-level award inventory and two United Club passes with the United℠ Explorer Card.
What do you really give up by skipping entry-level status and going for “status lite” by carrying a co-branded credit card?
Multiplier on flown miles.
The chance to get a complimentary upgrade in eligible fare classes.
The multiplier on flown miles used to be valuable, but airlines like United restrict bonus earnings based on fare class. For most of us flying in the back, this can translate to very meager earnings.
The exception: Alaska Airlines still runs its Mileage Plan program the old-fashioned way and offers credit based on miles flown. The 50% bonus for achieving “MVP” status can deliver outsized value — but only if you’re planning to fly a lot with Alaska and its partners.
Upgrades are of limited value. These aren’t guaranteed, availability is limited in practice for most entry-level status holders, and — most importantly — the airlines don’t allow upgrades on their least expensive fares, regardless of status.
If you want an upgraded seat, they are for sale. So consider how many seat upgrades you’d have to buy to break even with the cost of a “status run.” In most cases, it’s an obvious decision: Upgrades are not worth pursuing.
» Learn more: You can now use AmEx points to bid on flight upgrades
Entry level to mid-tier status
Mid-tier status opens up more benefits, which vary depending on the airline alliance. In general, you can expect the following:
A better chance of upgrades, when your fare qualifies for an upgrade.
Priority luggage handling.
A higher multiplier on flown miles.
Reduced or waived fees for things like ticket changes and award redeposits.
It’s a big leap to go from entry-level to mid-tier status. With most airlines, you have to spend twice as much with the airline to achieve this level (an extra $3,000 or more). Is it worth spending more money with the airline in order to receive the above benefits? It might make sense if you’re saving money on waived fees, but otherwise, the benefits likely aren’t worth it.
Top-tier status is where the benefits of status really start to stand out. Fees disappear. Hassles drop away. “No” and scowls turn to smiles and “Yes!” You get priority everything, and it actually means something. Upgrades are a lot more likely to happen. All of this is for a good reason, of course: You’re one of the airline’s best customers, generally spending at least $15,000 per year with them.
Still, achieving top-tier status costs more than mid-tier status. Is the benefit of being treated like a VIP every time you fly with your preferred airline worth the extra money? Only you can decide.
The bottom line
Airline status isn’t what it used to be, and the benefits of status are more achievable other ways than ever before. Is it still worth it? For some people, it can be, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2019, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards Visa® credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best airline credit card for you Baffled by points and miles? Let the 80/20 rule guide you Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies