The first quarter of the year is a great time to re-evaluate your loyalties to frequent flyer programs. You have the rest of the year to reallocate your flights and credit card spending in order to earn elite status for the rest of the year as well as 2018. With so many devaluations, mergers, and new reciprocal elite benefits you may be inclined to change the programs which you prioritize.
American has gone from the most widely loved of the 3 legacy airlines within the travel hacking community to arguably the least valuable. They were the last of the 3 to transition to a revenue based mileage earning scheme, but now that they have, many travelers are wondering what competitive advantage they have over Delta and United. If you are someone who primarily flies domestically then Delta clearly has the best product. They have the nicest planes, the friendliest service, and the best on-time record. In addition, Delta has by far the most rewarding set of credit cards when it comes to earning elite status due to the ability to earn enough MQMs to qualify for any level of status without any flying. If you are someone who primarily flies internationally, then United may be the best option. United is a member of Star Alliance, which is the largest of the three global airline alliances, both in terms of number of airlines and routes. This means you have the most choice among partner airlines and typically the highest amount of premium cabin award space availability.
There is only one shortcut to status available via credit card spend for AA, which is the ability to earn 10K MQMs by spending $40K in a year on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. This is pathetic compared to the MQMs available on Delta’s co-branded cards. Bottom-tier Gold status on AA requires 25K MQMs, so spending $40K on a card that only gets you 40% of the way to bottom-tier status doesn’t seem like a great deal. If you live in an AA dominated city and earn a lot of MQMs via regular flying, this could be worth it if it would put you over the next threshold.
For reference the four status levels and required EQM thresholds are as follows:
- Gold status: 25K
- Platinum status: 50K
- Platinum Pro status: 75K
- Executive Platinum status: 100K
Alaska is a great airline with an extremely valuable award chart and a nice set of elite benefits. The downside is that their route network is heavily concentrated on the west coast, so many travelers may have few or zero flights available on Alaska from their home airport. However, if you do live in a city serviced by Alaska and have status with another airline, consider status matching to Alaska. Alaska status matches are a once in a lifetime deal, so only take advantage of this if you have the ability to really use the status. Alaska allows status matches from a multitude of airlines: American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United, Virgin America, as well as foreign North American airlines Aeromexico and Air Canada. Top tier status in these programs generally matches to top tier with Alaska, and the same goes for mid-tier. So, this could be a great double-dipping opportunity, and one that may have value for more people now that Alaska has merged with Virgin America and expanded their route network.
Another reason to consider Alaska is if you fly a decent number of paid international fares. While all the of the legacy airlines have moved to revenue based mileage earning, Alaska still awards based on distance flown, and has a broad network of partner airlines on which you can fly and credit your miles to Alaska. This make a huge difference, especially for ultra-long haul economy fares. Flights in economy to Asia from the US are around 16K-18K miles depending on the country, which would earn an equivalent number of miles. The same flight on a legacy US airline would earn the cost of the fare multiplied by 5 for a non-elite: typically, in the range of 5K-8K miles.
The purchase of SPG by Marriott has created an interesting quadruple-dip opportunity for elite status. Marriott has a partnership with United called RewardsPlus, which offers reciprocal elite status. Those with Marriott Platinum elite status receive complimentary Silver elite status with United. And due to the SPG-Marriott merger, elites in both hotel programs receive equivalent status in the other program, as well as Ritz-Carlton which has long been closely partnered with Marriott. The best part of this is there is an easy shortcut to earning all of these elite statues: spending $75k in a year on the Ritz-Carlton credit card from Chase earns Platinum status which due to these relationships will give you 3 top tier elite statuses with the hotels plus Silver status with United. Making it even better is the fact that this card is one of the few issued by Chase which is not subject to Chase’s 5/24 rule, which makes it very difficult to get approved for a Chase card if you have opened 5 or more new credit cards in the last 24 months.
While Silver status with Untied may not sound like much, it does come with a few solid benefits, including:
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in for you and a companion
- Complimentary Premier upgrade confirmation on day of departure
- One complimentary checked bag
- Premier Access priority at airports where these services are available
- Increased mileage earning (7 miles per dollar instead of 5 for non-elites)
Another reason to consider trying to earn reciprocal status via Marriott and Ritz-Carlton is that none of the currently available co-branded United credit cards offer any elite status shortcuts. This puts flyers aiming for United status at a disadvantage relative to those going for American or Delta status.
For reference the four status levels and required Premier Qualifying Mile (PQM) thresholds are as follows:
- Silver status: 25K
- Gold status: 50K
- Premier Platinum status: 75K
- Premier 1K status: 100K