Earning Elite Status

As you may be aware, I travel every two weeks while my wife and I maintain our lives in two states over the next few years. The journey officially began two months ago, and despite the abrupt halt to our “normal lives,” the upcoming travel presented an interesting opportunity: Earning elite status with an airline.

While it is very easy to “buy” status with hotels by having the right credit card in your wallet, the same is not true for airlines. The only way you can achieve elite status with an airline is to complete their flight-based requirements each year in order to earn and maintain the status. So naturally, I was very excited at the prospect of playing this through. Here is how I approached planning for this process:

Be Intentional from Day 1

There’s nothing worse than coming up a few hundred miles short on earning elite status; especially when you could have earned it had you done something differently! For that reason, all of your planning must be completed in advance of booking your first trip. After you know when and where you’re going, you must outline how you’ll do it and ensure you’re pleased with the end result.

Identify Where You’ll Be Flying

For me, this was easy. But for you, you may have multiple destinations you’re frequenting. Draft a spreadsheet with your origin cities and final destinations. Then research and document which airlines fly nonstop or with connecting flights between those destinations. You can use a service such as Expedia to research this rather quickly.

Compare the Contenders

In my case, Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines were the two options I had to fly nonstop between the two states. This was a nice list from the start given that Alaska’s mileage program is one of the true mileage-based programs left. Others, such as Delta, require that you not only fly a certain number of miles, but that you also spend a specific amount of dollars with the airline in order to earn elite status. This devalues flash-sales and other bargain fares which could cause you to spend more than you needed to in the first place.

In my case, I am traveling between Seattle and Nashville most frequently, with some outlier destinations scattered throughout, that fortunately, are served by both Alaska and Delta. My starting line couldn’t have been cleaner! I mapped out all of my planned itineraries both for the end of 2018, and through 2019 and pulled in data from both Alaska and Delta’s programs including dollars spent, elite miles earned, reward miles earned and flight times.

Considerations

For simplicity’s sake, there are three tiers of elite status comparable to one another between the two airlines both in terms of earning requirements and associated perks:

  1. MVP (Alaska) / Silver Medallion (Delta)
  2. MVP Gold (Alaska) / Gold Medallion (Delta)
  3. Gold 75K (Alaska) / Platinum Medallion (Delta)

Interestingly enough, after mapping out how my intended bookings would do for me, the same flights earned me higher status with Alaska Airlines than they did with Delta. The reason for this goes back to Alaska’s mileage-based program. When I traveled 3,944 miles round-trip between Seattle and Nashville, I earned that many elite miles with Alaska. When I flew that many miles with Delta, I only earned 2,270 elite miles (an arbitrary number). This resulted in a lower elite status with Delta due to “miles” flown. Additionally, even if I earned enough qualifying miles, if I hadn’t spent the required amount of dollars on those trips, I would not achieve that elite status. Alaska on the other hand, provides a mathematical and straightforward approach to their program and your ability to earn elite status.

Creative Compromise

For what it’s worth, I also considered splitting the difference. The main driver for this was that the ONLY airport lounge I have access to in Nashville is a Delta Sky Club, which only admits me when I’m flying Delta (using my AMEX Platinum card). So I considered an approach where I earned a lesser Elite Status with Alaska by only departing with them, and then booking all of my return flights with Delta to take advantage of the lounge. However, what ultimately dissuaded me was the terrible flight time for their nonstop departure (5:00 AM Seattle time) which would have all but prevented me from enjoying the lounge anyway. Just to be sure, I tested this out on a recent itinerary and confirmed it was undesirable. For reference, Alaska’s departure flight that day is an afternoon flight.

Perks of Loyalty

So I’m flying Alaska! By committing to the single airline, I will achieve MVP Gold in 2018 and Gold 75K (their highest elite status) in 2019. In addition to early boarding and seat upgrades, I will earn a 100% bonus on reward miles in 2018, and 125% bonus on flights in 2019. These miles will serve us well with free flights throughout the year and even allow us to redeem two round-trip tickets to Auckland, New Zealand for a future vacation!