22 January 2023
(NerdWallet) – After years of promotions and offers from airlines desperate to keep their most valuable customers, the world of elite status is set to return to something like “normal” in 2023.
That doesn’t mean the travel landscape is normal. Although passenger numbers have almost returned to where they were in 2019, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration, business travel has not yet recovered. According to a November 2022 survey by STR, a hospitality analytics firm, 49% of business travelers said they are traveling less than they were before the pandemic.
Further, the elite status programs have changed. Some airlines, like JetBlue and American Airlines, are set to make major changes to their elite status programs this year. Others have made tweaks and adjustments that affect the value of theirs.
This makes the beginning of the year a good time for frequent travelers to reevaluate their elite status strategy. Is your airline loyalty paying off? Or is it time to switch?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer because different airline elite status programs offer different perks and benefits. (And, of course, different airlines serve different markets.) That said, NerdWallet’s latest analysis of the value of different airline elite status programs can help in choosing the best program for you.
Let’s jump in.
Factors to consider
Airline elite status offers benefits like free checked bags, upgrades to premium economy and first class seats and bonus miles. Some of these benefits overlap with those offered by airline credit cards, so it’s good to compare them to determine whether elite status is worth it or whether you’re likely to get as much benefit from a co-branded card.
When weighing the benefits of different elite status programs, consider:
Which airlines serve your home airport? Flyers living near hubs, such as Atlanta for Delta Air Lines or Seattle for Alaska Airlines, are usually best served by those programs.
What benefits matter most? For some travelers, it’s all about upgrades. For others, it’s baggage fee waivers and lounge access.
How much will you fly in 2023 — and how much will you spend?
If you’re already loyal to an airline but are considering switching teams, it’s worth looking into a status match. These temporary offerings will let you compare the differences between programs firsthand without having to spend a year accruing miles and qualifying dollars.
For medium-frequent travelers
Setting all those personal factors aside, the two basic questions when considering an elite status program are:
How much does it cost to earn?
What is the value of the benefits?
NerdWallet compared these two variables across entry-level elite status for all the major airlines and found that Alaska Airlines’ MVP status offered the best bang for the buck, followed by AAdvantage Gold on American Airlines and United Silver status.
Spirit and Frontier Airlines, which offer no-frills fares and few premium upgrade options, fell at the bottom of the pack, predictably. This doesn’t mean these airlines aren’t right for some flyers; it means their elite status programs don’t offer the same return on spending that others do.
For ultra-frequent travelers
Entry-level elites might get a free drink and bump to premium economy from time to time, but the real value is lavished on ultra-frequent travelers. Airlines compete hardest for these whales, so the value of higher-level status increases in turn.
The pack is pretty thin and clustered at these upper echelons. Alaska and United tie for first place with a 69% return on spending (meaning a flyer who spends $40,000 with the airline will receive roughly $27,600 back in the value of perks). Yet even American’s Executive Platinum offers a hefty 57% return, despite falling to last place.
Importantly, this assumes that the elite status holder actually travels as much as needed to earn the status. Though now that some programs, such as American’s, are allowing customers to earn status through spending on credit cards and other means, it’s possible for them to realize far less value simply because they’re not flying often enough to enjoy the biggest benefits.
Other changes coming in 2023
JetBlue is set to overhaul its Mosaic program this spring, adding three new levels and changing how status is earned. It’s hard to know yet whether this will make JetBlue better for frequent travelers on other airlines or improve the experience for existing JetBlue loyalists. But it seems like it will make the Mosaic program more appealing for some, especially relatively infrequent travelers.
In another midyear move, American will raise the threshold for earning its lowest-level Gold status in March. This will knock down the relative value of Gold status when it goes into effect.
Use the data — to a point
Travelers are finally getting back to the skies in their former numbers, and airlines have removed the incentives they offered throughout the pandemic to keep and attract frequent flyers. Now, choosing the right airline loyalty program means comparing the nuts and bolts of how much each status level costs to earn and how much it offers in return.
That said, the most important factors are probably personal. Earning “Double Platinum Royalty” status on Intra-Florida Airlines won’t do you much good if you live in Bemidji, Minnesota. And earning low-level status might not make sense if you already get perks like waived bag fees from a credit card.
Finally, check whether the elite status you’re eyeing has a minimum spending requirement that you can reasonably meet. These requirements might not matter as much to high-rolling business travelers with frequent bookings, but it could make the difference between a year of more luxurious travel and a pile of disappointment.