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Champagne. Extra legroom. Human decency. These are the perks that come from airline elite status. Yet whether you’ve enjoyed it in the past or are pursuing it for the first time, you might wonder which airline offers the most valuable elite status program.
Achieving status can cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in-flight, so if you’re going after it, you’ll want to try to pick the program that offers the most value. To determine this, we ran a comprehensive analysis of every major U.S. airline’s elite status program and determined an “elite earning rate” for each tier within each program.
This “elite earning rate” is simply the value of the perks offered by a given elite status tier divided by the cost of achieving this tier. For example, if Nerdy Airlines Gold Status provides $100 in value but costs $1,000 to earn, it has an elite earning rate of 10% ($100 / $1,000). The higher the rate, the more value this elite status offers.
Beyond an overall winner, we’ve broken these ratings into four elite status tiers:
Every airline has an entry-level tier, though only a few have the highest ultra level. Those dipping their toes in the elite waters should pay special attention to the former, while savvy business travelers should compare the higher tiers.
We’ve provided a detailed explanation of the methodology and assumptions we used to determine these values at the end of this article. For some, the value of a given program will differ significantly from our estimates based on individual travel needs and preferences. For example, those who rarely check bags or have an airline credit card that offsets bag fees will get little value from elite bag perks. So make sure to check our assumptions before deciding your own airline loyalty.
Note for 2021 and 2022
Many airlines temporarily changed their elite-qualifying policies in 2021, generally making it easier to earn status. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, we did not factor these promotions and temporary changes into this analysis. However, make sure to check the specific qualification changes for the airline you are considering before chasing status, especially in 2021.
Best overall elite status program
Winner: Alaska Airlines
Alaska wins again this year, thanks to strong performance across all of its MVP levels. Whether you’re an ultra-frequent flyer or not, you can’t go wrong with earning MVP status on Alaska.
Hawaiian is a close second, with the three legacy carriers — American, Delta and United — tied for third. This means that those in large markets served by all three of these giant airlines can consider it a wash when comparing elite status programs.
Southwest and Spirit round out the bottom, unsurprisingly for budget airlines that put less emphasis on high-end elite perks.
Best entry-level elite status
Winner: Alaska MVP
Alaska Airlines is popular among West Coast flyers for its high-value rewards program, and our analysis places its MVP elite status at the top of the entry-level heap.
Note: JetBlue and Southwest do not appear in this comparison, as we consider these airlines’ entry-level elite status to be comparable with other airlines’ mid-tier status. See below.
The middle of the pack are close calls, with Hawaiian, Delta, American and United all within three percentage points of each other.
Best mid-level elite status
Winner: Alaska MVP Gold
Alaska takes this category as well with its mid-tier MVP Gold status, which offers an estimated $3,520 in value and only costs $4,800 to earn.
Hot on its heels is Hawaiian’s Pualani Platinum status, which gets a big boost over the relatively poor earning rate for Gold status (above) thanks to complimentary first class upgrades, which Gold status does not offer.
Best high-level elite status
Winner: Alaska MVP Gold 75K
The crowd thins here since Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit offer two or fewer elite tiers each. Yet Alaska still commands with its highest tier, MVP Gold 75K status, which offers significantly more bang for your elite-traveling buck than others.
The gap between first and second place for this elite status tier is startling — nearly 30% points.
Best ultra-tier elite status
Winner: Delta Diamond
And then there were three. Although the “big three” domestic carriers fare poorly in the lower-level comparisons above, the value of their programs shines in these ultra-high-end elite status tiers. Clearly, these programs are focused on earning airfare dollars from their most frequent flyers.
Although Delta takes the top spot here, note that the earning rates are closely clustered. In other words, you will likely get similar value from any of the big three ultra-level elite programs.
Value of each tier
To determine the value of each elite status tier, we considered those perks that carry a clear value, and we omitted luxury benefits (like dedicated phone lines) that do not. Specifically, we considered:
Bonus miles earned.
Bag fee offsets.
Premium seating upgrades.
First class upgrades.
Other individual program perks with clear value.
The table below explains these benefits as well as the assumptions we made in calculating their value.
The number of extra miles or points earned for this status tier. For example, Alaska MVP members receive 50% bonus miles.
The traveler will fly the number of miles needed to achieve this status tier, and the miles are worth the value that we estimate here.
Bag fee offsets
The value of offset bag fees.
The traveler takes advantage of these offset bag fees every 10,000 miles flown.
Premium seating upgrades
Complimentary upgrades to economy plus, economy comfort, etc.
The traveler is upgraded once every 2,500 miles, discounting those times they are upgraded to first class. We estimate the value of these upgrades at $50 apiece.
First class upgrades
Complimentary upgrades to first and business class.
We assume that higher elite tiers within a given program are more likely to be upgraded, with a maximum upgrade rate of 75% across all programs.
We estimate the value of these upgrades at $200 apiece.
Complimentary upgrade certificates, such as American Airlines systemwide upgrades.
Since members can pick which flights receive upgrades for these, we peg them at a slightly higher value of $300 apiece.
The value of change/cancel fees that are offset from holding the status.
Travelers change or cancel one flight per 5,000 miles flown (i.e., 10 times for 50,000 miles flown).
Other perks with clear value
Includes lounge membership, mile bonuses, etc.
Here are the raw estimated values for each program tier:
Cost of earning each tier
Airlines offer different thresholds for achieving each status tier, which can be broken into two categories:
Number of miles flown.
Other combination of factors, including elite qualifying dollars spent.
For No. 1, we will estimate the cost of achieving each tier as:
Number of miles needed to achieve tier multiplied by the median cost of flown mile (12 cents, per a separate analysis we conducted). For example, Hawaiian requires 20,000 flown miles for Gold status, so the cost of achieving this tier is 20,000 x $0.12 = $2,400.
For No. 2, we will estimate the cost of achieving each tier as:
Number of elite qualifying dollars divided by the fare-to-cost ratio. The fare-to-cost ratio is a percentage value that represents the average “base fare” to “total cost” of airfare (83% per our separate analysis). For example, AAdvantage Gold status requires $3,000 EQDs, so the cost of achieving this tier is $3,000 / $0.83 = $3,614.
If an airline requires a combination of Nos. 1 and 2, we used No. 2 as the cost of earning because this is usually more difficult to achieve. In other words, it's rare to hit a minimum spending requirement without hitting the mileage requirement.
Here is the estimated cost to earn each status tier:
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 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card