Top Tier Elite Status: Which US Airline is Best

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Want to get ultra-elite status with American, Delta, or United? We break down what it takes to get there, plus all the perks you get.

If you saw the George Clooney movie Up in the Air, you know just a little bit about the perks that getting elite status with an airline can bestow. Free upgrades. Lounge access. Waived fees. Red-carpet airport treatment. The list goes on.

It’s no wonder that reaching top-tier elite status is a goal of many frequent flyers.

In most cases, being loyal to one airline will pay dividends in the long run. But is elite status worth it? And what airline gives the best perks to its loyal members? Here, we take a deep dive to find out what perks and benefits you can expect to receive as an elite member at the highest tier with the three biggest US airline carriers — American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines.

Just a note: We’re only going to be covering the highest published tiers of each respective airline. The three major carriers also offer secret invitation-only status to the crème de la crème of loyal passengers. Keep an eye on future articles to find out more about that ultra-elite level and how you can get there.

Read on for the ins and outs of top-tier elite status, but first, here's a sneak peek at some of the winning perks from each program:

  • American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum delivers with upgrades for domestic, transatlantic flights. On international flights, you can get upgrades at the time of booking. And it requires the fewest miles to qualify.
  • Delta SkyMiles Diamond Medallion gives domestic first-class upgrades at earliest five days prior to departure. The program offers extra perks that you can choose from including (our favorite) an individual Delta SkyClub membership. You'll also get CLEAR membership.
  • United Airlines Mileage Plus Premier 1K has some drawbacks, but we like the perk of being part of Star Alliance and all the privilege that brings, including lounge access even when in economy. Another perk: access to Economy Plus seating for the 1K member and up to eight (yes, eight) companions on the same reservation.
American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum comes with loads of benefits.

American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum

Earning elite status used to be a fairly straightforward process back in the day. Each flown mile in coach used to equate to one elite qualifying mile, and once the magic threshold of 100K miles was reached you were awarded with a shiny black Executive Platinum card. Nowadays, however, the process isn’t as straightforward.

  1. You need to fly 100k miles.
  2. In addition to the existing requirement of 100k elite qualifying miles, American has introduced a minimum spend requirement to reach Executive Platinum status. You need to spend $15,000 on plane tickets issued by American for travel on the airline or its partners.
  3. Instead of the spend, you can also fly 120 elite qualifying segments within one calendar year.

Upgrades: What You Need to Know

American Airlines has consistently been ranked as one of the best airlines when it comes to upgrades. Here are a few things to know.

  • Free Upgrades on all Domestic Flights: One of the major perks of being an Executive Platinum member is the free and unlimited upgrades on flights within the US, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. On American, lower-tier Platinum and Gold members get complimentary upgrades in the form of "sticker upgrades," but they are limited and provided on a space available basis. Gold and Platinum members also have to request their upgrades manually.
  • Automatic Enrollment on Upgrade List: As an Executive Platinum member you’re automatically enrolled on the upgrade list, though you may elect to opt out if you’re traveling with family or colleagues who don’t want to be left behind in coach.
  • All Fare Classes Eligible for Upgrades (Except Basic): All fare buckets — with the exception of basic economy — are eligible for upgrades.

Upgrades: Domestic, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean

The major upgrade perks of being an Executive Platinum member include:

  • Unlimited Upgrades: Again, this applies to all flights within the US, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean: Upgrades are free and they're unlimited.
  • Upgrades Given 100 Hours in Advance: Upgrades are given as early as 100 hours (more than four days) before the flight’s departure.
  • Upgrade Priority: Executive Platinum members are given top priority on the upgrade list (with the exception of Concierge Key members which is American’s secret invitation-only status).
  • Upgrades on Transcontinental Flights (⭐ winning perk): Upgrades includes premium transcontinental flights such as New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are operated with fully flat seats in business and first class.

Upgrades: International Flights

Here are the benefits for Executive Platinum members when it comes to international flights.

  • Four International Upgrade Certificates (and the Possibility of More): Executive Platinum members are given four system-wide upgrade certificates per year, with an additional two given at 150K elite qualifying miles, and two more at 200k and 250k, respectively.
  • Upgrades at Time of Booking (⭐ winning perk): These system-wide upgrades let you confirm an upgrade from economy or premium economy to business, or from business to first class at the time of booking, assuming that there’s available upgrade space.
  • Multiple Legs Can be Upgraded: Each upgrade certificate allows you to upgrade up to three flights per outbound/inbound leg of your itinerary.  
  • Opportunity to Go Standby for Upgrades: Confirmable upgrade space can at times be hard to find, so American gives Executive Platinum members the option to standby for an upgrade. In some cases, you may have to wait until you reach the gate to know if your upgrade will clear.

Alliances/Partners

As far as partner benefits go, American Airlines is part of the OneWorld Alliance and as such Executive Platinum equates Emerald status — the highest tier.

  • First-Class Lounge Access: One of the great benefits of OneWorld Emerald status is the fact that it grants you access to first-class lounges even when traveling in economy class. These lounges are typically a cut above your average business lounge, offering á la carte dining, fully staffed bars, spa treatments, and more.
  • Access to Priority Boarding, Extra Baggage, and More: You’ll also get access to first-class check-in areas, fast-track security, priority boarding, extra baggage allowance, and access to preferential seating.

Lounge Access

  • Lounge Access Only Offered on International Itineraries: With American Airlines, lounge access is only given when traveling on flights outside of the US, Mexico, Canada and Caribbean. On domestic flights, you generally don't get access, even if you're an elite member or first class passenger. The only exception is for premium transcontinental routes such as three-class flagship service between NYC-LAX/SFO and LAX-MIA.
  • There Are Ways to Get In: If you wish to make use of the American Airlines Admirals Club lounges when traveling domestically, you need to purchase an Admirals Club membership, a day pass or hold an eligible co-branded credit card.
  • Lounge Access Via Partner Airlines (⭐ winning perk): AAdvantage Executive Platinum equates to OneWorld Emerald status, which grants the card member plus one guest access to business and first class lounges when traveling on any OneWorld member airline regardless of class.
  • Secret Hack: If you're holding an Executive Platinum card, you can use the Qantas First Class Lounge at LAX when traveling domestically. (You can't, however, use the much inferior Admirals Club unless you're traveling on a premium transcontinental flight.)

And That’s Not All

Executive Platinum members benefit in a few other ways.

  • 11 Miles Per Dollar: You’ll earn 11 miles per dollar spent on flights booked and issued by American Airlines. As a point of comparison, general members earn 5 miles per dollar — so, in effect, this equates to a 120% mileage bonus.
  • Free Flight Changes and Standby: Executive Platinum members can take advantage of complimentary same-day confirmed flight changes, as well as complimentary standby to earlier flights.
  • Waived Fees: Baggage fees are waived up to three bags, and you don’t have to pay for booking or change fees on award tickets.
  • Extra Perks if You're Stuck in Coach (⭐ winning perk): In the off chance that you’re stuck in coach, Executive Platinum members receive free drinks and snacks, as well as extra legroom seats at no extra cost.
READ MORE: "The Best Travel Points Credit Card: American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve?"
A great perk with the Delta SkyMiles Diamond Medallion: A Delta SkyClub membership.

Delta SkyMiles Diamond Medallion

Diamond Medallion is the highest tier of Delta’s SkyMiles program. Reaching it requires:

  1. Qualifying flights: You need to earn 125,000 medallion qualifying miles or 140 medallion qualifying flights.
  2. Spending cash: Delta was the first US airline to introduce a revenue requirement for Elite status. You need to spend $15,000 on tickets issued by Delta.
  3. Or credit card spending: The revenue requirement can be waived for holders of a co-branded Delta American Express credit card. Diamond Medallion requires $250,000 in qualified purchases. (Compare that to the lower elite tier, which requires a more modest $25,000 in credit card spending.)

Upgrades: What You Need to Know

Ardent Delta aficionados have been vocal in their praise about the airline’s upgrade policy, but it can be a mixed bag.

  • Upgrades for All (for Better or Worse): Unlike American, Delta offers unlimited complimentary upgrades to all elite members, including the lowest Silver tier — which can be a negative for Diamond Medallion members, since first-class cabins can be more crowded.
  • Top Priority : Diamond medallion members are given top priority on the upgrade list, and all fare buckets except for basic economy are eligible for upgrades.
  • Automatic Enrollment for Upgrades: Diamond members are automatically enrolled for complimentary upgrades, but you are given the option to opt out in the event that you’re traveling with colleagues or family, or if you prefer to keep your window or aisle seat over being assigned a new seat at random.

Upgrades: Domestic,Canada, Mexico, Caribbean

Here’s what you get:

  • Free and Unlimited Upgrades: Similar to American, Delta offers unlimited complimentary upgrades on all flights within the continental US and to Hawaii, as well as on short-haul international flights, including upgrades to Delta One, which is the brand name for the airline’s business class featuring fully flat seats.
  • Upgrades on Aeromexico: Delta medallion members enjoy complimentary upgrades on select Aeromexico flights.
  • Automatic Upgrade to Comfort+: Diamond Medallion members are upgraded to Comfort+ (which is Delta’s brand for extra legroom economy) at the time of booking.
  • First Class Upgrades 5 Days in Advance (⭐ winning perk): Upgrades to first class are given at earliest five days prior to departure and upgrades to Delta One are given at the day of departure.

Additional Benefits

Unlike American and United, Delta offers their Diamond Medallion members the option to select between nine different benefits that best suit their needs. Diamond members are given a choice of three benefits, though some restrictions apply. These benefits include a choice between:

  • 4 global upgrades
  • 8 regional upgrades
  • 2 global and 4 regional upgrades
  • An individual Delta SkyClub membership (⭐ winning perk)
  • SkyClub Executive membership
  • 1 SkyClub guest pass
  • 25,000 bonus miles
  • $200 Tiffany gift card
  • Gold medallion membership to gift to someone else

International Flight Benefits

  • Global Certificates: Global upgrade certificates are an exclusive benefit to Diamond members and these can be used to upgrade any Delta flight, and select Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, and Aeromexico flights from economy to premium economy or business class. These certificates can be used to upgrade any flight, but they are most useful on long-haul international flights. If you don’t travel internationally, you’re better off selecting the regional upgrade certificates.
  • Advance Confirmation for Upgrades (⭐ winning perk): Upgrades can be confirmed far in advance, assuming that upgrade space is available, but in the event that award space isn’t available, Delta lets you standby for an upgrade.
  • Higher Priority: Upgrade certificates have higher priority over complimentary upgrades, and Delta also lets you standby on multiple flights using the same certificate. It’s worth noting that only one flight can be upgraded per certificate, so the certificate will be used on whichever flight clears first. In some cases you may have to wait until you reach the gate to find out whether your upgrade will clear.

Alliances/Partners

Delta is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance and Diamond Medallion equates to SkyTeam Elite Plus which is the highest tier recognized within the alliance.

  • Lounge Access: Elite Plus offers benefits such as lounge access on international itineraries, even when traveling in economy class.
  • Extra Baggage, Priority Boarding, and More: You’ll also get extra baggage allowance, priority check-in, priority boarding, and priority baggage handling.
  • Benefits with Other Partner Airlines: Additionally, Diamond members also enjoy the same benefits on their partners Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.

Lounge Access

  • Lounge Access Only Offered on International Itineraries: Like American Airlines, Delta only offers lounge access when traveling on flights outside of the US, Mexico, Canada and Caribbean. On domestic flights, you generally don't get access, even if you're an elite member or first class passenger. In Delta’s case the exception is for Delta One on premium transcontinental flights such as NYC-LAX or ATL-LAX.
  • There Are Ways to Get In (⭐ winning perk): If you wish to make use of a Delta SkyClub when traveling on a domestic itinerary, you need a SkyClub membership, which can be selected as a choice benefit, purchase a day pass or hold an eligible co-branded Delta credit card.
  • Lounge Access Via Partner Airlines: Delta SkyMiles Diamond status equates to SkyTeam Elite Plus, which grants lounge access on international itineraries for the card member +plus one guest when traveling on any SkyTeam member airlines regardless of class. Diamond Medallion members are also granted access to Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses when traveling on Virgin Atlantic.

And That’s Not All

  • 11 Miles Per Dollar: As far as mileage earnings go, Delta was the first US airline to introduce a revenue-based earning structure. General members earn five miles per dollar on tickets issued by Delta, and Diamond members earn 11 miles per dollar — which in effect equates to a 120% bonus in earnings.
  • Waived Fees, CLEAR Membership, And More (⭐ winning perk): Complimentary access to Delta SkyClubs when traveling on an international itinerary, waived fees for same day confirmed and standby flight changes, waived change fees for award tickets, a dedicated reservations line, and a complimentary CLEAR membership.
READ MORE: "Mileage Runs Are a Thing"
Being a member of United Airlines Mileage Plus Premier 1K also makes you Star Alliance Gold.

United Airlines Mileage Plus Premier 1K

Premier 1K is the high official tier of United’s Mileage Plus program. Reaching it requires:

  1. Starting in January 2020, United adopted a different approach to elite qualification by doing away with the traditional miles and dollar requirements completely. Instead United has introduced two metrics called Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) and Premier Qualifying Points (PQP). One PQP equates to $1 spent on tickets and ancillary services on United Airlines, while one PQF equates one flight segment flown on United Airlines.
  2. 1K status requires 24,000 PQPs within a calendar year, which roughly equates to $24,000 spent on United Airlines — regardless of how much you fly.
  3. Alternatively, you can reach 1K by making 54 qualifying flights on United Airlines in addition to 18,000 PQPs.

Upgrades: What You Need to Know

Following the change of the qualification requirements, United also revamped its upgrade structure. In the past, United offered regional and global upgrade certificates. Now, this is what it looks like:

  • A New System: Upgrade certificates have been replaced with a new system called Plus Points — 1K members are awarded 280 points per year.
  • Points Are Used for Upgrades: The points system works largely the same as the old upgrade certificates with the distinction that you are now given a choice between what flights you chose to upgrade based on your travel patterns. An upgrade from discount economy to Polaris business class will cost 80 points, or an upgrade from economy to business on a transcontinental flight will set you back 20 points.
  • You Can Upgrade in Advance (But Inventory is Scarce): Similar to Delta and American, upgrades can be confirmed in advance, subject to availability. But here's the catch: Upgrade inventory has the tendency to be scarce, so more often than not, members need to be put on a waiting list.
  • Upgrades for All Elite Members: Much like Delta, United offers complimentary upgrades to all elite members including the silver tier.
  • Top of the Upgrade List: As a 1K member you are placed on the top of the upgrade list, right below Global Services members (which is United’s invitation-only status, awarded to its most loyal customers).
  • Automatic Enrollment and Instant Upgrades on Full-Fare Flights: Complimentary upgrades are requested automatically. For 1K members complimentary upgrades may clear as early as 96 hours prior to the flight’s departure, though instant upgrades are offered at the time of booking when you purchase a full fare economy class ticket.

Upgrades: Domestic, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean

Here’s what you get:

  • Free Upgrades are Only on Select Flights: Unlike Delta and American, United only offers complimentary upgrades on select flights within the United States, as well as to/from Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
  • Another Downside: Premium transcontinental services featuring fully flat beds in business class, as well as long haul flights to Hawaii are not eligible for complimentary upgrades. In effect, this makes United the least generous of the three major US airlines when it comes to complimentary upgrades.

Upgrades: International

  • The Chance of an Upgrade Will Cost You in Points: While upgrades can be scarce, as mentioned above, United offers you the option to skip the waiting list on intercontinental flights for the cost of 140 points.

Alliances/Partners

United Airlines is a member of Star Alliance. Here's what you get:

  • Highest Tier on Star Alliance: 1K equates to Star Alliance Gold, which is the highest tier within the alliance.
  • Lounge Access, Priority Check-In, And More (⭐ winning perk): Star Alliance Gold status comes with a number of benefits across all member airlines, including lounge access when traveling in economy class, priority check-in, fast track security, additional baggage allowance, priority boarding, and baggage handling.

Lounge Access

  • Lounge Access Only Offered on International Itineraries: As with American and Delta, United only offers lounge access when traveling on flights outside of the US, Mexico, Canada and Caribbean. On domestic flights, you generally don't get access, even if you're an elite member or first class passenger. The only exception is for United P.S (premium service) transcontinental flights between Newark and LAX/SFO.
  • There Are Ways to Get In: If you wish to use the United Club for domestic flights, you need to purchase a United Club membership, a day pass or hold an eligible co-branded credit card. Alternatively, if you hold a Star Alliance Gold card from a non-US airline you may use it to access the United Club.
  • Lounge Access Via Partner Airlines: United 1K status equates to Star Alliance Gold, which grants access to Star Alliance lounges for the card member plus one guest when traveling on any Star Alliance partner airline regardless of class.
  • Secret Hack (⭐ winning perk): Since United 1K is Star Alliance Gold, at some airports (Washington Dulles, for instance) you can use the 1K card to access other Star Alliance airline lounges such as Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines.

And That’s Not All

  • Companions Are Upgraded: As a 1K member, you and entitled to bring a companion. If you’re traveling with more than one companion you can chose to either opt out of the upgrade or move the companions to a separate reservation.
  • 11 Miles Per Dollar: Similar to Delta and American, United awards miles based on the dollar amount spent on tickets issued by the airline for travel on United or partner airlines. General members earn five miles per dollar and 1K members receive an additional six miles on top of that — in total, 11 miles per dollar, which equates to a 120% mileage bonus.
  • Waived Baggage Fees, Lounge Access, And More (⭐ winning perk): Other benefits of 1K status include waived baggage fees for up to three bags, same day flight changes, waived change and cancellation fees for award tickets (restrictions apply), access to United Club lounges when traveling on an international itinerary, plus access to Economy Plus seating for the 1K member and up to eight companions on the same reservation.
  • Marriott Status and CLEAR Membership: 1k members also get gold status with Marriott Bonvoy and a free CLEAR membership.
READ MORE: "Upgrades – What You Need to Know"
When it comes to top-tier elite status, American Airlines is the winner. (Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash)

And the Winner Is…

Ultimately, it shows that it pays to be loyal to one airline:

  • For our money, American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum is the winner. We like the transatlantic upgrades for domestic, transatlantic flights — something that's not guaranteed on Delta or United. On international flights, you can get upgrades at the time of booking. American's elite members also get perks if you're stuck in coach.
  • Delta has some perks that we like, such as first-class upgrades at earliest five days prior to departure. We also like the fact that you can choose lounge access as one of your member benefits.
  • Coming in last is United, which is the least generous of the three major US airlines when it comes to complimentary upgrades. Plus, the points system for upgrades is too limited, and the inventory of upgraded seats is too scarce.

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