The Never-Ending Status Dilemma
When you think elite status, you probably think upgrades, lounge access, priority check-in, and top-notch treatment. The higher status you hold, the better treatment you get. That all that sounds great, so why wouldn’t you want to hold elite status with an airline?
Unfortunately, just focusing on elite status can overlook another important part of the equation – airline miles. While elite status comes with some great perks, is it really worth chasing if it come at the expense of earning miles?
The Travel Plans
Over the next several months, we’ll be embarking on some fun and chaotic journeys. It may not be to the level that Ben and Jon took things a few years ago, but we’ll have quite a bit of long-haul travel coming up. Some of this travel will be in premium cabins, some will be in…cabins that shall not be named. However, I’m really struggling with what the best decision is as far as elite status goes.
During this time, we currently have several flights scheduled on Qatar, British Airways, Finnair, and American. Our flights will be a combination of long-haul premium cabins, short-haul economy, and a long-haul full-fare economy ticket or two. That’s doesn’t include anything that hasn’t been booked to date or any great deals that pop up in the near future.
The Thought Process
To be honest, I’ve never held top-tier status with an airline before. I’ve held low-to-mid status, but nothing higher. Even though airlines have devalued elite status over the past few years, there’s something about the possibility of top-tier status that draws me in. It’s probably not rational, but I’d love to see what life is like as a top-tier elite at an airline. I kind of feel like someone is holding a sign in front of me saying “wet paint” and I just have to touch it.
Maybe I’m crazy though? I know miles are probably more important in the grand scheme of things. After all, they’re what helps get us places for free.
Anyway, let’s get down to the main contenders…
Let’s start out with the American AAdvantage program. This is my oldest mileage account and the account that holds the most miles (along with Alaska).
For starters, the majority of our flying is currently from Oneworld hubs (London and Charlotte). In order to reap the benefits of elite status with an airline, you need to actually fly that airline, right? In that sense, American and British Airways are definitely our most frequent carriers. I’d expect that we’d be able to get to mid-tier Platinum status with American, though getting much higher will be difficult with the spend and mileage requirements.
With Platinum status, we’d have the possibility of upgrades on domestic AA flights, an additional baggage allowance, and early boarding. I don’t really see much value in those outside of the upgrades.
In addition, we’d also hold Oneworld Sapphire status. This would give us access to business class lounges abroad. While that sounds nice, I’ve found that we already have lounge access in most international airports through my Priority Pass membership.
From a mileage perspective, there are a few positives to focusing on the AAdvantage program as well. I consider the AAdvantage program to be the most rewarding of the Big Three US carriers. While long-haul premium cabin availability on AA is pretty poor, their partners are what really gives the AAdvantage program it’s value. While it seems like they’ve been losing partners by the handful lately, American miles are still the best way to redeem miles for Etihad’s Apartments and Qatar’s Qsuites. Holding elite status with American would also allow us to earn more miles on future flights.
It’s not exactly a secret that American has been having a rough past year or two. The airline’s operations have been less than reliable and its service is a mixed bag at this point. That’s not to say that every employee is bad. American has some fantastic people that can really make the experience enjoyable. There just seem to be a significant number that can’t wait for you to get off the flight. When things go wrong, some employees will go above and beyond to help you out while others will give you the run-around. The inconsistency can be maddening at times.
Another negative to the AAdvantage program is lounge access. Wait…didn’t I just mention lounge access as a positive? Yes, but that’s for international flights only. Regardless of the level of status you hold with American, you won’t have access to Admirals Club or Flagship lounges on domestic AA itineraries. In Charlotte, the only Priority Pass option is a Minute Suites. While they’re nice, they’re often full and don’t really provide what I’m looking for in a lounge. I could get the AAdvantage Executive Card, but I don’t think I’d get much value from the card outside of the lounge access.
On a final note, I feel pretty confident in reaching Gold or Platinum status. However, at this point, I’m not certain that I’d be able to get anything much higher. IT’s a possibility, but enough of a question mark that I hesitate to go full steam ahead with American. Is low or mid-tier status really that valuable?
British Airways Executive Club
Next, let’s take a look at British Airways’ Executive Club program. The program frequently gets knocked in the frequent flyer community due to British Airways’ high surcharges they tack on to award tickets. However, the program still holds significant value on upgrades. Upgrading to first or business represents one of the best ways to use British Airways Avios and they’re typically very generous with upgrade availability.
For starters, we’ll easily be able to reach BA Silver (mid-tier) with a possibility of Gold (top-tier). Unfortunately, due to the timing of my membership year, I’ll miss out on one of my Qatar flights earning tier points. I still shouldn’t have any trouble getting to Silver, but my fiancee will have a better shot at Gold thanks to 560 Tier Points from one return trip.
Both British Airways’ Silver and Gold status come with Oneworld lounge access. Executive Club Gold status comes with even more benefits. With Gold, you’ll also earn Oneworld Emerald status, which is really useful at Heathrow. With Oneworld Emerald, you’ll get access to the First Wing at Heathrow and first class lounges around the world. Since most of our travel is together, we’d really only need one of us to get this status. Silver status gives you Oneworld Sapphire which gives you access to Oneworld business class lounges around the world. It’s not first class, but there are still some really fantastic Oneworld business class lounges out there. However, if I’m not spending a ton of time flying out of New York or LA, how much extra value does Oneworld Emerald really carry over Sapphire?
In addition to the benefits at Heathrow, having Silver or Gold status would also give us access to Admirals Club lounges in the US. While Oneworld status with American doesn’t allow lounge access on domestic itineraries within the US, status with other Oneworld carriers does. That’s a huge benefit out of Charlotte, where they’re basically the only lounge option available.
British Airways also has a “soft landing” for members that re-qualify the next year. The soft landing drops you into the next status tier below yours for a full year after failing to requalify. Let’s say I qualified for BA Gold status in July 2020. I’d hold Gold status for the rest of the year and 2021. If I failed to re-qualify for Gold in 2021, I’d automatically be awarded Silver status for 2022. That means I’d essentially have two-and-a-half years of status and lounge access, both in the US and abroad. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty awesome to me.
While there are quite a few pros associated with the perks of British Airways, there are also several drawbacks from a mileage perspective. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Avios arent my favorite mileage program. Redemptions on British Airways come with sky high surcharges and partner rates can cost a ton of miles. The program is great for upgrades on British Airways, but I’d prefer not to limit myself to just using miles for upgrades on one airline.
Another drawback to crediting to British Airways’ Executive Club would be spreading our mileage too thinly. My fiancee currently doesn’t have any Avios and would be starting from scratch. While we all have to start somewhere, it might not make as much sense as earning points to an account that already has a redeemable balance.
Lastly, British Airways status doesn’t carry a ton of perks on the actual flights themselves. Flying business class within Europe is essentially the same as flying in coach, sans-food and beverage offerings. It’s not like you’d get complimentary upgrades like you would on American either.
Alaska Mileage Plan
The last program under consideration is my favorite mileage program – Alaska’s Mileage Plan.
While the program has had some challenges over the past several months, they still hold the most valuable miles out of the three options. Premium cabin redemptions with Alaska’s partners are some of the best uses of any airline miles, period. In addition, the Mileage Plan program is the last US airline that still awards miles based on the distance you fly. It doesn’t matter how much you pay. If you fly 2,000 miles, you’ll earn 2,000 miles. That’s great if you’re a deal hunter like me. Holding elite status with Alaska would give us anywhere from a 50-125% bonus on our mileage earning.
Aside from the hard numbers and rules, I find that Alaska really excels at the softer benefits. I’ve found that Alaska Airlines and their Mileage Plan program consistently have the best customer service of the group. Their agents seem empowered to do what is necessary to help get you a positive resolution. I’ve had to speak with them over the phone several times, and I’ve always had friendly, helpful agents.
Probably the biggest negative of earning elite status with Alaska Airlines is that I just don’t fly them. I’ve held elite status with the airline for the past year and a half and flown them a grand total of zero times. It’s not by choice. I just don’t live near anywhere Alaska operates. In that sense, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of Alaska’s elite benefits aside from mileage earning. We’ve been able to take advantage of British Airways lounge access at Heathrow a few times, but often find that the Priority Pass lounge is the more enjoyable option.
Also, from a mileage earning perspective, high cost tickets won’t necessarily earn as many miles as with other programs. For example, let’s say I planned on flying a one-way full-fare economy ticket from London to Charlotte for $2,000. On AA, I’d earn around 10,000 miles. If I credited the flights to Alaska, I’d only earn 4,000 miles plus any elite bonus. This isn’t always the case, but it’s still worth mentioning.
In addition, Alaska Airlines partnership with American will be ending on Februrary 28th. While there are other partners I’d rather redeem with, it’s still nice to have the option for direct flights from Charlotte. In addition, any international American flights to or from Charlotte won’t earn miles after the 28th. It’s probably a bigger blow to me than others, but it still stings nonetheless.
Last, but not least, I’m doubtful that I’ll fly enough partner miles to earn Alaska’s top-tier MVP 75K Gold. To earn MVP 75K Gold, you can fly 75,000 miles on Alaska Airlines or 90,000 miles on partners. With the AA partnership dropping off at the end of February and the lack of partnership with Qatar, I expect that even MVP Gold may be a challenge. Things always change and maybe Cathay has another New Year’s surprise, but at this point, Alaska seems like the most challenging to earn elite status with.
Just go with the airline that earns the most miles
The last and final option is to just say, “screw it” and go with the airline that awards the most miles on each flight. After all, our planned flights are scheduled across several different airlines. For example, a cheap short-haul flight on British Airways will earn more miles crediting it to Alaska than crediting it to BA.
Unfortunately, if we just focused on the best mileage earning, we wouldn’t be able to credit them to the same program. Still, the majority would go to two programs – American and Alaska. That seems consolidated enough for me.
The thought of elite status is awfully tempting. I guess that’s part of why airlines have it 🙂 I should be able to get low-level elite status with any of the airlines, but I’m not sure there much value to any of those. At the end of the day, it’s the miles that get us where we want to go.
At the very least, this was a helpful thought exercise for me. It’s always useful to get all the pros and cons out there. That said, I still don’t feel any closer to making a decision on what’s best. Hopefully that’s where you guys come in. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.