After two full years of disrupted travel, it seems like the industry could finally return to something like normalcy. Maybe. Perhaps. According to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council, business travel in 2022 could return to 66% of normal 2019 levels.
If you were a frequent traveler in the past, or are looking to become one as restrictions lift, you might be curious about airline elite status. Is it worth it? Which airlines have the best loyalty programs? And what has changed since the pandemic started?
We’ll shy away from predicting what will happen in the airline industry for its most frequent travelers this year — two years of failed attempts have taught us some humility. Instead, let’s focus on what we know.
Some airlines are offering better value for elites
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With names like “Gold,” “Sapphire” and “Diamond,” airline elite status levels can sound interchangeably luxurious and valuable. But all that glitters is not Executive Platinum.
NerdWallet performed a deep-dive analysis of the major U.S. airline elite status programs to determine which offer the best value. Unlike similar analyses, which only look at the value of a given elite status level, we also compared how expensive they are to earn. This let us rate each program on a similar footing.
Note: This analysis excludes American Airlines, which recently overhauled its entire elite status program.
Alaska Airlines’ MVP program earned a perfect 5-point rating, followed by Hawaiian Airlines’ Pualani elite status. Low-cost airlines Spirit and Frontier fall toward the bottom, which is little surprise, but some might be shocked to see customer-favorite Southwest Airlines at the very bottom. Frankly, Southwest’s A-List elite status program doesn’t offer much tangible benefit to frequent flyers (though its adjacent Companion Pass certainly does).
Of course, this is a boiled-down rating of a complex problem. Each airline has different elite levels or tiers, and each of these is worth a different amount. For each airline's elite level, we’ve also determined an elite earning rate, or the amount of value you can expect to get out of the program per dollar spent to earn that tier.
Delta Air Lines
For example, $100 spent on Spirit’s lowest level (called Silver) will get about $2 back in value, whereas $100 spent on Alaska’s lowest level (called MVP) will get back about $35 in value. This value comes in the form of a first-class upgrade, free redeemable miles, free checked bags and other elite perks.
What does this mean for you? If you’re on the fence about which airline to pledge loyalty to, consider one that offers a more valuable elite status program.
Elite status might be easier to earn
Like your local grocery store and its mask rules, airlines have been constantly updating and re-updating their elite status qualification rules throughout the pandemic. For the most part, this boiled down to two simple changes:
- Making it easier to earn new status.
- Extending status for those who had it in 2020.
Many of these temporary extensions and offers are set to expire by the end of 2022, but we’ve said that many times before, only to see airlines continue to offer lowered qualification thresholds and bonus miles. In other words, we wouldn’t be surprised if travel remains disrupted enough in 2022 for airlines to keep luring potential elites.
As you make your elite status plans, make sure to shop around for the best offers at the time. You might be able to get valuable benefits through the end of the year (and into 2023) for less money and hassle than usual.
Will everybody be elite?
One potential downside of this generous doling-out of elite qualification while travel remains rocky: Airlines could have way more elite status holders on their planes when travel picks up.
As anyone who has obsessively tracked a flight’s upgrade list knows, the more elites who are on a given flight reduces the chances that you will get bumped to the front of the plane.
It’s hard to know how this will shake out until it does, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. The rise (or plateauing) of business travel in particular should act as a bellwether for this potential elite oversaturation.
The bottom line
We’ll spare you the predictions for airline elite status in 2022 since we’ll undoubtedly be wrong. But here are some key takeaways from our analysis:
- Some airline elite status programs are much more valuable than others. Alaska and Hawaiian took the top ratings in our analysis.
- Keep an eye out for promotions that make status easier to earn in 2022.
- Don’t be surprised if the upgrade lists are longer than normal.
And remember: Elite status is worth pursuing only if you plan to use it a lot.