You’re Making A Mistake Chasing Top Airline Status

Recently-announced Delta SkyMiles changes to elite status have underscored for me that stretching to earn top status just no longer makes sense for most people. If you are hub captive, and flying one airline enough anyway to earn status-fine.

If you’re virtually at a status level anyway a little effort at the margin could make sense. But top status should no longer be a goal. In fact, the sweet spot is now mid-tier because the benefits beyond that are mostly illusory, or at least no longer worth the extra effort.

Here’s the realization from Delta: Unless you’re putting hundreds of thousands of dollars of spend on a Delta credit card – and losing out on earning much more valuable rewards from other cards in the process – you’re going to need to be buying mostly premium cabin tickets anyway and buying first class, and international business, gets you nearly everything status does anyway.

  • You get your airport priority and checked bags
  • You don’t worry about an upgrade because you’re already in the seat you want

You have higher priority for re-accommodation if the airline cancels your flight, and telephone priority for customer service. With oneworld airlines top tier status gets you into Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines first class lounge without flying first class. But for the most part if you buy premium tickets anyway you don’t need status. But you can’t earn status without buying premium tickets. Airlines have created a Catch-22.

I can easily earn American Airlines Executive Platinum status, with the myriad forms of activity that count (like credit card, online shopping, card-linked SimplyMiles offers and more). I’m not going to extreme lengths to earn 200,000 Loyalty Points but I reached that months ago, and I’m over 250,000 Loyalty Points for the next choice benefit level.

However for most people going out of their way and really stretching for elite status no longer makes sense.

  • The requirements, for most people, are too onerous
  • And the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, airlines are no longer delivering on top tier benefits

Domestic upgrades are the main benefit of higher tier status. Sure, once in a while on off peak dates and routes those may happen at lower tiers of status. But top tier used to mean usually getting an upgrade but no longer does, since airlines are now selling those seats – going from 1 in 10 sold up front a couple of decades ago to nearly 4 out of 5 now. And it’s really more than that, since the most desirable flights and routes see first class sell out much of the time and there are some routes where it rarely sells.

The answer is to go for mid-tier status, and you’ll receive free checked bags and airport priority, plus pre-reserved extra legroom and exit row seats.

Here are the new status tiers, earn in 2024 for 2025 benefits:

  • Silver: $6,000
  • Gold: $12,000
  • Platinum: $18,000
  • Diamond: $35,000

With Delta you want Platinum, with United (Gold) and American (Platinum) their second tier. At American it takes just 75,000 Loyalty Points.

If you’re going to fly every other week, and spend at least $18,000 on tickets, sure focus on United (but don’t expect to be upgraded more than very occasionally).

If you’re active in frequent flyer programs, doing your online shopping through portals, filling up gas linked to an airline program, and just generally ‘playing the game’ at a pace to earn a couple hundred thousand miles a year then focus on American and you’ll likely ‘fall into’ top tier status.

But if you’re a Delta elite who used to spend $20,000 on tickets to make Diamond you should either just get off the treadmill and be satisfied with mid-tier. Your experience will be almost as good. When another airline has a better flight, take it.

And if you’re getting started in miles and points, focus your loyalty… just enough to earn mid-tier.

If you’re not going to earn status at all, consider getting the credit card of the airline you fly most for better boarding privileges (so you don’t have to gate check your carry on) and waived checked bag fees. But don’t spend money on it, you will do better earning a bank’s points that transfer to a variety of airline miles and hotel points.

Elite status is half of what a loyalty program is about, and what has been driving members most now that airlines have devalued their redeemable miles so much. If they want to save elite status, the answer isn’t to sell fewer premium seats but the ‘percentage sold’ isn’t a badge of honor. They should be offering more premium seats which, domestically, just aren’t that costly. And holding out hope of the upgrade will keep flyers on the treadmill. Without it why on earth would anyone try to spend $350,000 on a $550 annual fee credit card?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This is why I stick with Alaska which is still “old school” on earning elite status. No dollar threshold! I get upgraded about 75% of the time on their flights. For those that say, “but I don’t fly to SEA/ANC”, check out how large their network is now. 12 flights a day in/out of JFK for example.

  2. 1) Even though I fly primarily Delta, I don’t disagree with this – I found the benefits with Delta ramped up meaningfully with Platinum, and it is still in play in the new program. I have American Gold now, and will explore ways to hit Platinum there next year.

    2) You should cover the JetBlue status match for Delta elites. I just signed up – if approved, I may actually go for Mosaic via the challenge (which could result me in me switching some Delta flights). The issue, as always, is the lack of JetBlue lounges.

  3. Gary, I agree with you 100%. I am Executive Platinum (probably about 25 years straight), and a 6 Million MIles member with AA. And in the last 2 years, the program has been so devalued (costs a FORTUNE in points for even one domestic ticket – forget about international), and upgrades (even for us EPs) are so rare, that I decided for this year to abandon plans to re-qualify for EP. I’ll make Platinum Pro. And if I had converted even two of my business class international trips to AA, I would have re-qualified. But as you so succinctly point out, WHY BOTHER??? I still get early boarding. I still get free checked bags. So why, why, why bother?

    And my flying experience this year has been superb !! I fly to Asia about every 8-10 weeks (always business class). And not having some grumpy old FA sling some food (not very good at that) at me so that she can quickly sit down in the galley area? Not much of an incentive. Or so that I can connect to JAL – which has NEVER had one on-time flight for me. Ever.

    Nope. I’m done with “the game”. You know, I own my own company here in America. A few years ago I approached AA about a contract for reduced ticket prices for my U.S. (and foreign) employees. I also (secretly) hoped it would help me with Concierge Key. In spite of flying about 480,000 miles that year, there was no CK for me. And AA’s “reduced rates” was not as good as my company could get at our corporate travel company.

    So AA, and their brilliant marketing genius Raj, can just keep all of those things. My company now works with a corporate travel company that gets us some great rates on several domestic carriers. And I fly some first-rate international carriers (EVA, SIngapore, ANA, Qatar, even Korean/Asiana are better than AA internationally). You other guys can “play the game”, and grouse about for some meager perks that, as Gary notes, you can receive just by being middle tier.

    Games up for me. I moved on.


  4. @ Gary — Note that if you just buy first, you won’t care about extra leg room or checked bags (why would anyone check a bag anyway?), so you wouldn’t need ANY status with AA, DL or UA. Platinum with Delta seems like a lot just for extra legroom at booking (not even guaranteed to clear) and 4 regional upgrades which can be difficult to use for some people. If you are going to spend $18,000 on Delta to make Platinum, I suggest just buying first class and saving your money to fly on a better airline sometimes. Gold on United at $8k-$10k and Platinum on American at $9.4k-$13k are way more reasonable that Delta’s big rip-off.

  5. I do agree that chasing status when you don’t fly enough is kinda silly, but I flying without status and enjoying any level of comfort and civility is ROUGH.

    I fly United and the idea of not being able to pick an E+ seat for free, paying for checked bags, or boarding with groups 3-5 is an absolute nightmare.

    So you do absolutely need either the credit card or Gold Status as you say. Otherwise you’re flying an expensive version of Spirit or Southwest.

  6. I jumped off that hamster wheel a decade ago. After logging 100 nights one year at IHG and I was still being put in the room next to the elevator. Upgrades just never seem to be available and about all I was getting was a free bottle of water. On a recent flight I had a 7MM Diamond sitting next to me. His wife was a 3MM Diamond seated in coach. He got an upgrade, but she didn’t even though we left with two empty first class seats. Obviously they were no-shows. But if they’re not going to put a little bit of effort into upgrading someone of that status, nobody stands a chance. I have to admit I’m enjoying this a little bit.

  7. The reality of what Delta has done is sinking in and I am glad Gary is seeing it.
    Just like the travel agent commission move, Delta is redefining elite status.
    Sure, there will be some competitive moves to try to pick up a few disgruntled Delta passengers.
    And low cost carriers are going to be the most aggressive but people don’t fly DL over B6 or AS because of loyalty but because of product and network.
    Those people that think that switching to AA or UA will save them are going to be in for a rude surprise in a couple years.

  8. “Status” on any U.S. domestic airline is not worth it anymore. Gary has a point…those airlines are aggressively selling “First Class”/Business Class seats now. Often you can upgrade classes at the gate or day off, for not much money. The U.S. airlines have dumbed down their product quality – especially the food- that “status” has shallow value now.

  9. @Tim Dunn finally realizes that people don’t fly Delta because of loyalty. their product used to be better, now much less so, so their ability to devalue loyalty is squeezed now, too. American and United are slow moving, though at least American has been active on twitter today responding to disgruntled Delta customers.

  10. More nonsense from Leff.

    *Chasing* status has NEVER made sense. Earning status through activity you are doing otherwise does make sense. Status is a byproduct, not a goal.

    I’m a mid-to-low LP EXP on AA. Earn most of my LPs from work purchased flights in Y/W, supplemented by hotel stays. Purchasing J is out of policy and will never happen. I don’t have a AA credit card, and will never get any airline credit card.

    I’m 5 for 5 this year on long-haul Y–>J SWUs. Domestic upgrades aren’t important (my free MCE is just fine) but I’m running around 85% success rate on those anyway. OneWorld first class lounges are a fantastic benefit. And the EXP line has saved my bacon several times this year. Miles just pile up in my account, I have zero interest in chasing the “ideal redemption”.

    If I stop travelling for work, I will stop being EXP. No problem, no worry.

    Oh – and “hub captive” is a choice. I happily fly AA from a UA fortress hub.

  11. Well, the four Global Upgrade Certs with Delta Diamond have termendous value. I use them every year to go SFO – CDG. To sit in Air France business class for about $1,800 round trip makes it worthwhile for me to chase that status. However, with the new requirements, this will be my last year in that game. My feeling is that Delta will back down from the new requirements when they see the response from folks like me.

  12. My 35 year business career took me all over the world and I limited my participation in FF programs. Started out in 1985 with Pan Am and when they went under, pivoted to UA. 5 years ago I started seeing the writing on the wall and concluded there was no longer any program out there worth being a member of or, deserving of my loyalty. I book Business or FC when I travel. Thus, no need to play/participate in the status game. Fly primarily on foreign carriers, as American carriers have devolved to the equivalent, (and I’m being generous here), 3rd tier service and are, IMO, garbage.

  13. Gary,
    you have been asleep for the last two weeks since i have written over and over and over that Delta does not need to give away what it gave in loyalty benefits because of its product and its network. As much as you would like to argue that DL’s product is not competitive, they continue to win far more corporate traffic volume than AA or UA and reliability and onboard service are both reasons. neither AA or UA are delivering what DL is delivering.

    and DL’s network is simply much larger in big corporate travel markets than it ever was.

    I have said this for weeks but you have been trashing Delta you didn’t bother to read any conflicting commentary including God Save the Points.
    As its settles in, you are now making the same points I and GStP said.

    It doesn’t make sense to chase elite status or try to buy your way into the Sky Club if you don’t qualify by premium cabin flying and lots of tickets OR you are willing to spend lots of money using DL Amex cards.

  14. You’re JUST NOW realizing this?

    Come on. Anyone with the slightest awareness (not to mention self-respect) abandoned airline “loyalty” decades ago when it became clear how worthless your miles are. Want to book a flight with your miles? Oh no, sir, there are no seats available “of that class” for the next two years!

    Airlines are scum. After ripping us off for at least a decade’s worth of record profits with offensive fees and STILL overbooking, they extorted the American taxpayers for handouts during COVID because they didn’t save any of their grotesque profits for a rainy day. You didn’t see Apple demanding handouts, for example, because they SAVED some money.

    And by the way, airlines also campaign AGAINST aviation in the U.S. by vilifying general aviation (small airports), which are the only lifeline to areas not even served by them. I mean… WTF? They actively work to oppress opportunities and job creation in rural and less-densely-populated areas. And Congress pretends to be helpless because they’re owned by corporations.

    Enjoy the results of deregulation, because this is what they look like.

  15. I see this as a win-win.

    Delta will no longer get my business exclusively, but only when it suits my travel schedule and price point. I’ll also match my Platinum status to other airlines.

    They/Amex will lose my platinum card spend in its entirety, but I will keep the card for the companion ticket, bag and boarding privileges. I will redirect that spend to higher yield cards.

    In the end, what I lose in perks I will make up for in $$. Delta will trade my spot in its Skylounge and C+ seat for one of these ubiquitous “high value” flyers they’re so hard up for.

    Everybody wins.

  16. @Tim Dunn — No, it’s you who have been asleep the last couple of weeks because you keep regurgitating your now old and stale claims about DL’s “supremacy” while being completely oblivious to the seismic shift that is about to take place as a result of DL getting cocky and thinking that it can keep raining ignominy on SkyMiles and its “loyal” membership with impunity.

    Well, not this time, and you would’ve realized it if you had not been asleep the last couple of weeks. It soon won’t be any longer true that

    Delta does not need to give away what it gave in loyalty benefits because of its product and its network

    because its product and network are no longer as “special” or unique as you and, clearly, DL still think they are…

    Hubris is an economic strategy only until it isn’t. We’ve reached the point where it no longer is…

  17. With over 7 million lifetime miles, EXP for years on AA, I’ve learned that the only status that counts in Concierge Key. For quite a few years, paying to be up front, I’m no longer loyal to AA – just give me the best fare and the most convenient flights. Been loving B6 on the transcon – the single seat pods are great, although you’ve got to book early to get them, but with AA phasing out 1st on this market, and for what they’re charging (and not giving decent service), why bother…

  18. Industry mergers/consolidation lead to higher prices for frequent flyer customers than would otherwise be the case, and the quality of the frequent flyer programs has gotten worse. That which used to be gotten by way of frequent flying has been given away to big spenders and big buyers and thus the FFP elite status hamster wheel has lost a lot of its luster for those who are tuned in to what had gone on as a result of all the governmental waivers and favors — including allowances to merge/acquire and get various forms of antitrust immunity — allowed the industry’s cartel kingpins.

  19. Yet again, I am disappointed by the quality of the writing in your blog. It seems that in every single update, they’re at least two or three typos, and or examples of just simply bad language. I find it really offensive. Here’s an example from today’s blog below, tell me what this second sentence even means:

    “Recently-announced Delta SkyMiles changes to elite status have underscored for me that stretching to earn top status just no longer makes sense for most people. If you are hub captive, and flying one airline enough anyway to earn status fine.“

  20. I stumbled into American Plat Pro last year with the loyalty points introduction and the Hyatt challenge got me EXP for a few months. I am content with the effort/benefits mix of American Platinum, I might hit Platinum Pro again by February but am not moving mountains to make it happen. First upgrades are about 90% when DFW flights are removed.

  21. @Gene

    People like me check bags because we are using DL as the greyhound bus to get us to our international jumping off point.

    Example, we left last weekend from Alabama to Singapore and on to Jakarta. Because we are underwater photographers with extensive equipment, we rocked 2 checked bags each.

    DL actually checked our bags all the way on to Jakarta because they have a luggage agreement with SA. We waved by yo them in Alabama and picked them up again in Jakarta.

  22. DCS et al,
    it is you that don’t understand that network is the greatest factor in airline choice. It is simply factual that DL’s network is larger in the largest travel markets now that it was 5 years ago and also larger than AA or UA’s.
    DL also has a number of product attributes including being more reliable – check out the DOT’s data if you don’t believe me – and offers free Wifi on more aircraft than any other airline in the world. Those things matter to business travelers.

    As God Save the Points said, customers can choose to take revenge against Delta but they will very likely do so at the expense of their own convenience and the quality of airline product they buy.

  23. Even if you fly mostly economy, I would offer that there’s no need to pay $95+ each per year to get airline cards for free checked luggage and/or marginally earlier boarding. Get one or more of the many bank cards that reimburse you for airline incidental charges or, even better, pay a bit extra during booking for better-seats/earlier-boarding/luggage-check. They’re often a bargain and may even get reimbursed by your card. And, if you fly very often with one airline anyways, you are likely an elite as a natural byproduct and get these “benefits,” so no need for their card. Please, don’t deliberately chase airline status and points of any kind, and don’t open/use their credit cards of any sort. The vast majority will not come out ahead.

  24. The above aside, thank you Gary, for this great post in trying to help people make better spending decisions.

  25. Here’s my two cents. I agree on mid-tier with United. Achieving GOLD is valuable for admittance into Star Alliance lounges. Purchasing the United Club Card for under $600 provides unlimited access to domestic United Club. Striving for Platinum only gives you one more luggage item (from 2 to 3). How often is this needed. As for upgrades, even using miles, with United it is the exception, rather than the rule.

    With American, where I am EXP, I fly and spend sufficiently to maintain this status without major difficulty. However the value of SWU’s depends on where you fly. Flights to EZE are full and it is uncommon to get an upgrade using a SWU. Flights to Europe depend on the day of the week.
    Domestic upgrades were very common (kover 90%) through the first half of 2023 but now have fallen below 50%. It’s hard to snag an upgrade on a A319 with only 8 Biz Class seats.

    For infrequent travelers, simply buy 1st class and forget about status. Purchase an AA Advantage Executive Mastercard and a United Club Card and you will have lounge access all the time.

    I always considered an upgrade as a gift, not a right. I do however appreciate extra leg room that mid-tier (or above) status provides.

  26. @Tim Dunn — More of the same. DL is not the “world-class” airline that you and DL management have convinced yourselves it is. In the kingdom of blind people, the one-eyed man is king! DL, the one-eyed king, will soon come face to face with its shortcomings now that its myopic hubris has finally affected its one good eye…

    How much spend to you personally put on DL AMEX cards?

  27. @ todikaios – for infrequent travelers, they won’t use United or AA lounges often enough to justify the annual fee. It would probably make more sense just to purchase lounge passes as needed, and/or go to one of the many Priority Pass lounges (and/or bank card lounges) that I’ve found are not much worse, and sometimes better, than United or Admirals Clubs.

  28. Since my international travel has declined post-pandemic, I have to stretch for Platinum on United, which really only gets me a few more upgrades and a few more miles over Gold. I have 40 pluspoints that are probably going to expire becauise I don’t have the priority to clear them (and when it mattered I’ve been able to buy up to business day-of for HUD.)

    But United gets all of my travel dollars because of their very generous same (+before and next) day change policy available to all Golds, plus the generous baggage allowance. (I sometimes fly with 3 and often over 50 lbs.)

    So I can’t argue with Gold is enough.

  29. Delta will lose a few Skymiles members to B6 and AS in their reapective hubs but it will be immaterial to Delta’s bottom line. B6 and AS cannot even start to compete with Delta’s network both domestic and international. And don’t get me started on AS’s “lounges”.

  30. I LOVE the First Class oneworld lounge access. It’s like my IRL favorite part of being EXP. The credit card with lounge access is useful because then you have access to that staff during irregular operations But status is otherwise total trash and for mega losers.

  31. Status used to make sense when first and business (both domestic and int’l) were priced at insane levels. The entire cabin was for upgrades, and consequently there was minimal incentive to invest in the experience. However, the airlines came to realize that monetizing the front cabin would bring in a lot more money. That said, they have failed to come up with a set of revamped loyalty benefits. A redesigned AA sticker-like program would make far more sense — most C/F seats would still be revenue, but at the same time, most requested upgrades would still clear. Ramping up the requirements for elite status has merely emphasized the fact that there is very little on offer. Far better to just buy the cheapest C/F seat available on whatever airline.

  32. The number of pompous arses who come here to announce that they knew it all along (“You’re JUST NOW realizing this”, or that “Chasing status has NEVER made sense”) and are sooo much smarter than the rest of us, is amazing. If you’re so freaking smart, how come you didn’t post it the day before Gary wrote this?!
    Gary, your patience is amazing.

  33. If you are referring to me, I have said that for months.

    And the Wall Street Journal has a story highlighting several passengers who are happy w/ the changes and will easily make the cut that DL has established or will stick with them even while having their status downgraded.

    Social media is full of all kinds of noise but it isn’t reflective of how all of this will shake out.

    If DL cut too deeply and loses too much revenue, they will backtrack or add some sweeteners.

  34. I never chased status with Delta. I took what I got. I’m not going to start chasing it now. What really chaps my hind parts is the loss of access to the Sky Clubs.

  35. Tim Dunn is a FALSE PROPHET. #Deltageddon

    Also, now TD has resorted to promoting other blogs on the blogs that he constantly is spamming with his nonsense.

    He STILL won’t divulge what current status he holds with Delta or any other travel related brands.

    Don’t trust him.

  36. Reading the uproar makes more thankful than ever that I no longer have to travel weekly (though I do miss flying, just aviation geel thing). When I do fly in pick the best flight for myself and family and pay for the space and class I want. Perks are gone with hotels and airlines (for now) for loyalty. It will turn at some point but that won’t happen as people keeping throwing big money on vacation after vacation.

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