If you anticipate flying over 25,000 miles over the next calendar year you’ll want to consider flying exclusively with one airline so you can reach an elite status with that airline. Elite status comes with cool benefits such as free upgrades, checked bags, and aisle row seats. When choosing a primary airline to fly, you’ll want to consider several factors. It’s also important to keep in mind that elite miles and redeemable miles are two different types of miles. Elite miles are used toward reaching elite status and are usually earned per mile flown. Redeemable miles are used toward free flights are are usually earned based on the fare of purchased tickets (and though shopping portals and dining programs).
Elite Program Benefits
benefits can range from free checked bags (~$25 value) to free international business class upgrades ($2,000+ value). Given this disparity, not all airline elite programs are created equal. It’s also important to weigh the cost of achieving elite status with the value of the benefits. I discuss each program in greater depth on the Elite Miles page.
American: American is my personal favorite elite program. There are no minimum spend requirements and you can accrue elite miles while flying on OneWorld partners. You may wonder, what’s a One World? It’s an alliance of airlines (American, British Airways, LAN, JAL, etc.) that share routes and allow you to credit miles to any frequent flier program in the alliance. You can reach the first tier of elite status, Gold, by flying 25,000 miles in a calendar year. If you strategically buy cheap plane tickets, you can achieve this with 2.5 round-trip flights to Rio de Janiero ($1,350) or 5 round-trip cross-country flights (JFK-LAX) ($1,250).
Benefits: Gold status comes with pretty cool benefits including complementary upgrades (space permitting) on flights of 500 miles or less ($300+ per flight), 500 mile upgrades that are used to upgrade flights over 500 miles (cost $40 per 500 mile upgrade), one free checked bag, complimentary preferred seating ($10-50 per flight), and a discount on main cabin extra seating.
Alaska: with American Airlines’ recent devaluation in elite status and frequent flier mile redemption levels, Alaska may have the best frequent flier mile program. First, you still acquire frequent flier miles based on miles flown. Second, you can redeem them with really cool airline partners. Alaska may not belong to an alliance (such as One World, Sky Team, or Star Alliance) but it partners with American, Delta, and Emirates. Alaska Airline’s frequent elite program benefits are very similar to American Airlines’s elite benefits. You need to fly either 20,000 miles with Alaska or a combination of 25,000 miles per calendar year with Alaska and its partners. You can achieve this with 2.5 round-trip flights from Anchorage to Orlando (~$1,250).
Benefits: MVP status comes with benefits on Alaska, some of which are available when MVP members fly Delta and American airlines. You should consult the chart below.
Southwest: Southwest offers a different top-tier elite status than other airlines: the Companion Pass. It’s lower elite tiers are fairly unremarkable, offering mainly priority boarding and a point bonus. The Companion Pass is pretty awesome. For 110,000 points, you can fly a companion with you on any Southwest route for the low price of $11.20, round trip. You need to acquire 35,000 points to reach the lowest tier of Southwest’s elite status–A-List. Points can be acquired through signing up for the Southwest Visa, buying Southwest airline tickets (6 points per dollar), and through the Southwest shopping portal and dining program. A Companion Pass requires 110,000 points and allows a companion to travel with you for free (well for $11.20).
Benefits: aside from the Companion Pass which can have tremendous value, the A-List status comes with priority check-in, boarding, and standby benefits.
United: the United elite program is very similar to the American Airlines elite program except for one major difference, United requires its members to spend $3,000 on United airfare per calendar year. Similar to the American Airlines, the United program requires 25,000 elite miles which are earned by miles flown, as opposed to dollars spent. Unfortunately, Delta also requires members seeking elite status to spend over $3,000 on United airfare per calendar year.
Benefits: the benefits are listed below. It’s important to note that the complimentary upgrades are more extensive than those offered by American Airlines. Premier Silver members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on most flights within the United States and from the United States to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Delta: the Delta elite program is very similar to the American Airlines elite program except for one major difference, Delta requires its members to spend $3,000 on Delta airfare per calendar year. Similar to the American Airlines, the Delta program requires 25,000 elite miles which are earned by miles flown, as opposed to dollars spent. Unfortunately, Delta also requires members seeking elite status to spend over $3,000 on Delta airfare per calendar year.
Benefits: in addition to the benefits listed below, Delta Silver Medallion members receive waived baggage fees, priority check-in, and priority boarding. It’s important to note that the complimentary upgrades are more extensive than those offered by American Airlines. Silver Medallion members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on most flights within the United States and from the United States to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Redeemable miles can be used for award flights on the airline and it’s partners. The best value for redeeming these miles (cents per mile) is usually international business and first class flights.
American: Earning American AAdvantage miles is fairly easy–one mile earned per one mile flown–but the program will switch to a revenue based model–one mile earned per dollar spent on airfare–in the second half of 2006. This change is bad for budget fliers who cheaply fly long distances. You can also earn miles from American’s shopping portal, dining program, and partners. On the bright side, American has a fairly generous award redemption chart (I included the chart that becomes effective March 22, 2016). You can also redeem miles on any of its partners which includes Etihad First Class, showers included!
Alaska: Alaska still uses a miles-flown approach to accruing redeemable miles. This approach makes Alaska the most lucrative redeemable mile program in the United States. You can also earn miles from Alaska’s shopping portal, dining program, and partners. Alaska also has a fairly generous award redemption chart. You can also redeem miles on any of its partners which includes Etihad First Class, showers included! Alaska publishes award charts by carrier and region.
Southwest: Southwest uses a revenue-based approach, were members get points based on the cost of the airline fare. You can also earn points from Southwest’s shopping portal, dining program, and partners. Unlike American, Southwest does not use a set redemption chart for redeeming points for award flights. Redemption levels vary based on the time of travel and Southwest does not allow redeeming points for award flights on partner airlines.
Delta: Delta uses a revenue-based approach, were members get miles based on the cost of the airline fare. You can also earn miles from Delta’s shopping portal, dining program, and partners. Unfortunately, Delta no longer publishes an award chart and will likely transition to a redemption system similar to Southwest’s, varying by the cost of the fare of the airline ticket.
United: United uses a revenue-based approach, were members get miles based on the cost of the airline fare. You can also earn miles from United’s shopping portal, dining program, and partners. United, similar to America, publishes award redemption charts but varies the receptions amounts based on which airline the ticket is redeemed on. In addition, United offers less generous redemption levels that either American or Alaska.
If you live near a hub, you’re more likely to receive cheap fares to a large number of cities.
American: American has hubs in DC, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Alaska: Alaska has hubs on the west coast–Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.
Southwest: Southwest has hubs in Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Orlando, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Delta: Delta has hubs in Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.
United: United has hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington D.C.