When we hear the words “No. 1 airline rewards program,” mega-monsters such as United, American, and Delta are typically the first ones that come to mind. But when it comes to the trillion-dollar airline industry, we’re all rooting for the underdog. And finally, one of those underdogs — albeit a well-known airline in its own right — has prevailed.
In an effort to find the best airline elite status, ThePointsGuy, trusted online resource for travel news, evaluated data and compared rewards program perks from six U.S. based airlines. Much to our delight, the findings prove that nice guys really do finish first, not to mention, they crush their biggest competition while they’re at it.
If you’ve been on the hunt for a rewards program that’s right for you, look no further; we’ve got the answers. Without further ado, here’s how the findings break down, and what makes Alaska Airlines the reigning champ of elite status programs.
1. The four tiers of elite status
Before we dive into the details, let’s take a look at how ThePointsGuy went about comparing the programs. First, it’s important to understand the various levels of status because we’re not all equals when it comes to flying the not-so-friendly, often judgmental skies.
Like most things in this world, your status has everything to do with money. In particular, the amount that you spend typically equates to how well or poorly you’re treated as a paying passenger.
In order to assess the programs, ThePointsGuy broke down the tiers into four different levels:
- Low-tier elite status: 25,000 miles flown and $3,000 spent in a year
- Mid-tier elite status: 50,000 miles flown and $6,000 spent in a year
- High-tier elite status: 75,000 miles flown and $9,000 spent in a year
- Road-warrior elite status: 125,000 miles flown and $15,000 spent in a year
Next: These are the airlines that made the cut.
2. The airlines
There are lots of airlines to choose from, so ThePointsGuy had a tough job to do. But, the experts were able to narrow it down to just a few, based on specific criteria. All contenders are “U.S.-based airlines with either a large domestic route network or partner carriers.” Six made the list: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United.
Next: Let’s see how the perks measure up.
3. All about the perks
Elite status comes with perks. After all, it’s the very reason anyone would want to align themselves with one specific airline in the first place. For the sake of the study, every perk and incentive offered by any of the airlines included was grouped into one of eight categories. Furthermore, each category carried a certain weight, which is shown in percentages.
So, what exactly are all these perks, you ask? It’s time to find out.
Next: Now, let’s take a look at the criteria.
4. Airport perks = 10%
Making your way through the airport without any hiccups is the name of the game these days. Speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance, and having a one-up on your fellow travelers is pretty much like getting a chance to compete in the Olympics.
Airport perks include a wide range of fan favorites, such as priority check-in, security, boarding, and baggage handling, as well as lounge access. Long layover? No problem, there’s a lounge with mediocre coffee that’s got your name all over it.
Next: If you fly enough, reservation perks are a total life-saver.
5. Reservation perks = 5%
Remember the days when you actually had to speak with an agent on the phone in order to book your flight? Yeah, we don’t miss those days either. Oddly enough, though, one of the reservation perks included in this category is priority phone line (we’re not totally sure what that even means). Furthermore, and much more importantly, reservation perks include enhanced award inventory, which will (hopefully) come in handy when it’s time to book.
Next: Sitting on a plane becomes so much better when you have status.
6. In-flight perks = 25%
Depending on how skilled you are at keeping yourself entertained and how prone you are to restless leg syndrome, long flights can be a real doozy. And sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do to find a more comfortable position. But hey, that’s life. One thing that can help, however, is having elite status.
Forget asking the flight attendant for an aspirin. There are better ways to set yourself up for the most comfortable, most painless flight possible. You guessed it — by racking up enough miles to earn yourself status on a given airline. When it comes to in-flight perks, such as free drinks, snacks, entertainment, and WiFi, some are totally worth it.
Next: Everyone likes a discount.
7. Fee waivers = 20%
With the way things are heading, it’s only a matter of time before airlines start charging an additional fee for seat belts. We’re far from the days when flying provided a certain sense of luxury. Now, it’s a test to see who can stuff as many items into one carry-on suitcase, board the plane, and make it to their final destination without losing their mind. Flying — what a rush!
But in all seriousness, fee waivers are definitely a perk any passenger can get behind. Eager to check bags without paying the fee? Or make flight changes, book tickets, and fly same-day free of additional charge? Start earning those miles, and this could be you.
Next: It’s all about the bonuses.
8. Bonuses = 20%
Bonuses simply add to a program that people already want to join. And who doesn’t want to score all the bonus points they can possibly collect? When it comes to bonus perks — extra points and miles — offered by rewards programs, more is more is more, and no point should be left behind.
Next: What’s a program without any friends?
9. Partner perks = 5%
Think back to numbers four, six, and seven. Those benefits, including airport perks, in-flight perks, and fee waivers apply here, as well. However, while the benefits are the same, the focus is on how easily, and how much, you can use them on partner airlines. For example, while you may get a first-class seat upgrade on the airline with which you have status, you may only qualify for an exit-row upgrade when flying a partner airline. Just something to think about.
Next: Everyone loves a little flexibility in their life.
10. Flexible perks = 10%
If you’re the giving kind, this category is for you. Simply put, flexible perks refer to the perks that members can transfer to other passengers. Some airlines are better than others, but if this is a selling point for you, be sure to look into whether a program offers flexibility.
Next: Perks extend beyond airport and in-flight benefits alone.
11. Non-flying perks = 5%
With this category, we need to be a bit more specific, as not all airlines offer non-flying perks with their programs. According to ThePointsGuy, non-flying perks include “the RewardsPlus program with United/Marriott, the Crossover Rewards program with Delta/SPG and perks with car rental companies.” If you travel enough, these kinds of perks could come in quite handy.
Next: Let’s see how each airline measured up, starting with the low-tier rankings.
12. Low-tier rankings
ThePointsGuy compared the airlines at all four levels of status. Let’s start by looking at how the programs performed at the low-tier level:
- Alaska MVP
- American AAdvantage Gold
- Delta Silver Medallion
- United Premier Silver
Note: Neither JetBlue nor Southwest offer elite status at this level.
American, Delta, and United all fell short in this category for good reason. Basically, they don’t care about the lesser of their important customers. In fact, all three award their lowest of the low members with two miles per one dollar spent. Alaska, on the other hand, awards miles based on miles flown, rather than dollars spent.
So, if you spend $3,000 toward one of the big three — United, American, and Delta — you’ll get 6,000 bonus miles. If you fly 25,000 miles in a year with Alaska, you’ll earn get an additional 12,500 miles. Numbers never lie.
Next: Time to move on to mid-tier rankings.
13. Mid-tier rankings
Here’s how the mid-tier levels ranked:
- Alaska MVP Gold
- United Premier Gold
- Delta Gold Medallion
- American AAdvantage Platinum
- JetBlue Mosaic
- Southwest A-List
How did Alaska manage to snag the No. 1 spot yet again? “Once you hit 50,000 miles, you earn MVP Gold Status in the Mileage Plan program, and your bonus jumps to 100%,” ThePointsGuy reports. “This means that you take home 50,000 extra miles, worth a whopping $950.” That’s a pretty significant amount, indeed.
Additionally, Alaska’s members at this level qualify for fee waivers, a perk that’s also granted to JetBlue’s Mosaic members. And the perks just keep on coming for Alaska MVP Gold members. They receive four one-way Gold Guest Upgrades, most of which will bump them up from economy to first class. Plus, they can transfer those upgrades to other travelers, as well.
Next: Will Alaska Airlines surrender its title?
14. High-tier rankings
Here’s how the high-tier levels ranked:
- Alaska MVP Gold
- Delta Platinum Medallion
- United Premier Platinum
- American AAdvantage Platinum Pro
- JetBlue Mosaic
- Southwest A-List Preferred
As you can see, this level of flying and spending on Alaska Airlines earns you the same status as the mid-level tier, yet the airline still comes out on top. Despite not offering any additional perks, Alaska’s spot at No. 1 is in large part thanks to the way in which they award miles. To put numbers to the value, Gold MVP members would earn almost $1,500 worth of extra miles here. Pretty impressive.
Next: Let’s see which airline came out on top for the highest level of elite status.
15. Road-warrior rankings
Before we get started on this one, you’ll recall that the criteria for road-warrior status is 125,000 miles flown and $15,000 spent in a year. However, only Delta requires those exact numbers. According to ThePointsGuy, other airlines are as follows:
- Alaska MVP Gold 75K: 90,000 miles (or 75,000 if flying exclusively on Alaska)
- American AAdvantage Executive Platinum: 100,000 miles and $12,000 spent
- United Premier 1K: 100,000 miles and $12,000 spent
- Southwest A-List Preferred: 70,000 Tier Qualifying Points (or $8,750 in spending)
- JetBlue: The airline only has one elite status
Here’s how the road-warrior levels ranked:
- United Premier 1K
- American AAdvantage Executive Platinum
- Delta Diamond Medallion
- Alaska MVP 75K
- Southwest A-List Preferred
- JetBlue Mosaic
The reigning champ, Alaska Airlines, was outdone in a handful of factors. First off, its rewards program simply can’t compete with the benefits offered at this level by United, American, and Delta. Furthermore, the limited partner perks and flexible perks also contribute to Alaska Airlines’ No. 4 spot here.
Next: Alaska Airlines is still the winner.
16. Best overall: Alaska Airlines
Alaska may not have snagged the No. 1 spot in the last category, but who cares? The airline clearly has something to offer to loyal customers, and the elite status program is evidence of just that. More specifically, here’s how each airline ranked overall:
In large part, Alaska’s victory is due to how they award bonus miles. The airline looks at miles flown as opposed to dollars spent, and we must say, we hope the company doesn’t plan on changing their model anytime soon.
Read more: 15 Secrets Airlines Don’t Want You to Know