Airline Elite Status: Still Worth Chasing?

At the end of the year, it is common to hear that someone is XXX miles short of elite status. I’ve been there myself. Some years ago I flew to Minneapolis Mall of America for Christmas shopping just because I needed the miles for status. Up in the morning, shop all day, return in the evening. It was actually a very cool trip that I would do again if I needed it to meet my status level.

In years past, sometimes airlines would offer ‘soft landings’ where if you were a bit short of the requirements, they might give it to you anyway. The last holdout, American, made it clear earlier this year that this won’t be happening anymore. Of course, there still may be some exceptions but they are rare events now.

So it’s December, only a few weeks left to achieve elite status levels with the airlines. What are the options?

Mileage runs are always popular in December but for various reasons, some are unable to fly. In addition to some credit card deals that offer status signup miles, all the legacies offer some type of program to purchase elite qualifying miles, too.

American – Trying something new this year, AA is offering a way to either purchase elite miles or just match status from the prior year.  This program will be available in January but will effectively be backdated to assist those who need the miles to qualify for the 2014 year.

Delta – Once again the airline offers an opportunity to purchase qualifying miles at the end of the year.  This year is a bit different because higher elite levels have to pay more than the lower levels.

United – Premier AcceleratorTM miles are available for purchase with eligible flights.  However, the terms may be different depending on whether the purchase occurs before your flight vs at check-in.

US Air – Allows you to buy up to whatever status you desire.

So, is purchasing miles still worth it to maintain/achieve status? Well, they are often more expensive than mileage runs and don’t earn award miles. In addition, all the airlines offer some benefits just from owning their branded affiliate credit cards. In most cases these benefits (sans upgrades and award miles boost) are similar to the lower tier levels anyway.

Regardless how you pick up your additional miles in December, each person needs to ask if the cost will at least equal the benefit from earning elite status. This is more important than ever as airlines are generally reducing elite benefits. As I have said before, this will continue for another year or two so is it worth it to pay to get status for less benefits?

In some cases, it makes sense. For example, a higher tier status may mean the difference between earning 100% bonus miles vs only 25%. It also may mean greater chances for upgrades or perhaps lounge access. Look at the value you will receive as you think through your travel plans for 2014 to see if this works for you. In my case, the PQM count was showing I would be 200 miles short of UA 1k. Yes, only 200 miles. A mileage run was considered until a client trip arose later this month. Whew!

Most important, remember that having elite status only has value on the days you are flying. Think about this before you spend your money on a mileage run or purchase status miles.


  1. *Speculation Alert*
    So let’s assume you “buy” status from US. They leave *A in late March. Will some carrier from *A be around to poach US elites? Saw it happen with BMI. I assume UA will be around to do so.

  2. If one flies mainly on award tickets in business or first, and has the credit cards to get some of those “perks”, what good is status at all?

  3. Speculation is always fun, Mike. BMI was a bit different but remember when AA did this to UA elites? Basically you are wondering if UA will do the same thing. My guess, doubtful at this time because of current challenges. AA is in honeymoon stage and DL is quite profitable just the way they are. UA is struggling with some internal issues so don’t expect much from them unless they hemorrhage 1k’s. Your question gets into market share. Interesting subject, I will do a blog about this in the near future.

  4. Great question, JAG. If one is flying biz/first class (award or otherwise), they will have more benefits than anyone with only credit cards and almost the same as top tier elites, e.g., free bags, priority ticketing and security lines, and first boarding. The elites, however, still enjoy some benefits such as dedicated phone service, maybe lounge access, and at least as good (if not better) treatment when there are issues like delayed or canceled flights, all this even if they are flying economy class.

  5. Very interesting, my cousin got me introduced to miles/point system and 2014 is the year I plan on travelling a lot and racking up the miles. However we don’t have nearly as many programs in Canada as you do in the States so we are not quite as lucky.

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