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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 bang for your buck. 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.
Finally, 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.
Best entry-level elite status
Winner: Alaska MVP
Runner-up: JetBlue Mosaic
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 that although we place all of these elite tiers in the same “entry level” bucket, they differ significantly in how much flying (and spending) they require to earn. By our analysis, Alaska MVP status costs $2,400 to earn, while Southwest A-List requires a whopping $7,028.
Best mid-level elite status
Winner: Alaska MVP Gold
Runner-up: Hawaiian Platinum
Alaska dominates this category as well with its mid-tier MVP Gold status, which offers an estimated $4,340 in value and only costs $4,800 to earn. Hot on its heels is Hawaiian’s 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
Runner-up: Delta Platinum
The crowd thins here since Hawaiian, JetBlue and Southwest offer two or fewer elite tiers each. Yet Alaska still dominates with its highest tier, MVP Gold 75K status, which offers an estimated $9,031 in value for $9,000 in spending — or just over a 100% elite earning rate.
Best ultra-level elite status
Winner: Delta Diamond Medallion
Runner-up: United 1K
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.
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.
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 2020, 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 credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card