So many look to ThePointsGuy.com when looking for advice on traveling smart. Brian Kelly launched the platform in 2010, and now has a great team of travel experts searching around the clock for the latest deals in travel. Elite status programs have often become so complex that it’s difficult to really know the best option for you. When looking at the domestic airline elite status programs out there now, Alaska has come out ahead of United, Delta, American, JetBlue and Southwest.
Alaska came out on top overall and in three of four tiers (all but the highest tier of road warriors, those who fly 125,000+ miles and spend $15,000+ with airlines per year). The report also found that the most frequent flyers get the greatest value from United Airlines.
In one of the most comprehensive analyses of its kind, ThePointsGuy.com evaluated the elite status offerings of the six largest U.S.-based airlines in eight categories (weightings in parentheses): in-flight perks (25%), fee waivers (20%), bonuses (20%), airport perks (10%), flexible perks (10%), non-flying perks (5%), partner perks (5%) and reservation perks (5%). The overall ranking came out as follows:
- Alaska Airlines
- United Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- American Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Southwest Airlines
The elite status programs of these carriers reward frequent flyers with perks like free upgrades to premium economy or first class, free checked bags, bonus points or miles and a streamlined airport experience, all in an effort to earn travelers’ repeat business.
Alaska took the #1 overall spot largely because it’s the only one of these major carriers that awards frequent flyer miles based on flying rather than spending. Someone who flies 25,000 miles in a year on Alaska and select partners qualifies for Alaska’s lowest elite status tier (called Mileage Plan MVP). These MVP members enjoy a 50% bonus on miles, so a 25,000-mile flyer is gifted an additional 12,500 miles, which ThePointsGuy.com values at $237.50.
Alaska’s competitors fall woefully behind in the low-tier category thanks to their revenue-based schemes for awarding miles. The three legacy carriers (United, American and Delta) give their lowest-level elite travelers an extra two miles per dollar spent, so $3,000 in spending (a good comparison for 25,000 miles flown on Alaska) only yields 6,000 bonus miles. These are worth $90 on United, $84 on American and $72 on Delta, according to ThePointsGuy.com. JetBlue and Southwest don’t even offer elite status to this type of traveler.
For middle-tier elites (50,000 miles flown/$6,000 spent annually), Alaska came out on top by an even larger margin. Once passengers hit 50,000 miles per year on Alaska, their bonus jumps to 100%, so a 50,000-mile windfall is valued at a whopping $950. Alaska also waives all change and cancellation fees for middle-tier elites and grants them four one-way upgrades from economy to first class. These can be transferred to other people, even when they’re traveling separately.
It’s a similar story for top-tier elites (75,000 miles flown/$9,000 spent annually). Alaska finally got knocked off its perch when ThePointsGuy.com examined the highest class of road warriors (125,000 miles flown/$15,000 spent annually). United won this category thanks to a combination of benefits, including 12 premier upgrades (six regional and six global), enhanced award availability and complimentary food and drinks. Alaska came in fourth among the most frequent flyers.
ThePointsGuy.com has also developed a helpful online tool that lets consumers input their typical flying and spending levels — and adjust the weighting of the eight criteria — to see which elite status program is best for their individual situation. More casual travelers, who fly less than 25,000 miles or spend less than $3,000 with airlines each year, may be better off choosing the right credit card than chasing elite status. All of the major airlines offer co-branded credit cards and perks including free checked bags, priority boarding and discounted in-flight purchases.
“As great as it feels to be upgraded to first class for free, some of the more intangible elite status perks can be even more rewarding,” said Nick Ewen, an analyst at ThePointsGuy.com. “For example, airlines often move their most loyal customers to the front of the standby list or even get them a confirmed seat on an otherwise oversold flight. That could make the difference between getting home to your family versus spending the night stranded in the airport.”