Is Airline Elite Status Worth Considering in 2021?

NerdWallet
You'll want to be realistic about whether you can earn elite status without overextending yourself.

You’ll want to be realistic about whether you can earn elite status without overextending yourself. Getty Images

Airline elite status, which rewards frequent flyers with valuable perks, might be the furthest thing from many travelers’ radars. Many of us are still considering when — or whether — we will travel at all this year, never mind frequently.

Yet, there are a few good reasons to keep elite status in mind as you start planning your travels this year. From reduced earning requirements (that is, the chance to earn status without flying much) to high potential value in 2021, 2022 and beyond, this might be the perfect time to earn — or re-earn — airline elite status. Most changes of this type were put in place on top of the extensions to elite status that many airlines offered at the beginning of the pandemic.

The updated earning structures make elite status more achievable, but still require a decent amount of travel before the end of the year. Here’s how the major U.S. airlines are handling elite status in 2021.

Elite status requirements, broken down by airline

Alaska Airlines elite status

Elite qualifying miles earned between Jan. 1 and April 30, 2020, have been rolled over to 2021 qualification.

Further, elite qualifying miles earned between Jan. 1 and June 31, 2021, will receive a 50% bonus. For instance, if you earn 1,000 elite miles in early 2021, you’ll get 500 bonus qualifying miles.

American Airlines elite status

American Airlines reduced elite qualifying thresholds by 20%.

Think of it this way: You have to spend or fly 20% less than normal to earn each elite tier on American.

Delta Air Lines elite status

All Medallion Qualifying Miles, or MQMs, earned in 2020 are rolled into 2021 qualification. Note that this applies to MQMs only, not Medallion Qualifying Dollars.

There are no changes or bonuses for Delta elite qualification in 2021.

Hawaiian Airlines elite status

No major changes for 2021.

JetBlue elite status

JetBlue reduced the earning threshold for its Mosaic elite program by 50% in 2021. You can fly half as much as normal to earn Mosaic status.

It’s worth noting there have been major improvements made to the Mosaic program, including the introduction of a companion pass.

Southwest Airlines elite status

Southwest Airlines took a different approach and effectively reduced the required number of miles for each A-List status by 15,000 miles by depositing tier-qualifying miles in all existing Rapid Rewards accounts. That is, instead of lowering the required number of miles for each tier, Southwest has given a 15,000-mile boost to start the year.

United Airlines elite status

Depending on the status level, United Airlines reduced elite-qualifying thresholds by 20%-28%.

Why it could be a good year to earn status

Remember: If you earn elite status in 2021, you’ll keep it through the end of 2022. This is important to keep in mind for a few reasons.

First, if you have a pent-up appetite to travel again (and who doesn’t), you could be taking to the skies more than ever in 2022. Since the value of elite status depends on how often it’s used, you could get an outsized return on investment next year, for status earned in 2021.

Second, you might get upgraded to first class a lot more than usual, even with relatively low-level status. Why? Business travelers, who make up the lion’s share of elite status holders, are expected to be slow to return to the air even as travel picks back up. Plus, even with the lowered thresholds described above, curtailed travel for all flyers this year will mean fewer elite status holders on upgrade lists in 2022.

Finally, having elite status now makes it easier to get a status match on another airline. As airlines continue to compete for frequent flyers, we could see more and more generous status match offers in the near future.

The bottom line

While these are all reasons why you should still consider shooting for airline elite status in 2021, it’s hardly a slam dunk. Given how unpredictable the pandemic has been so far, it’s as difficult as ever to gauge when “normal” travel will resume. A compelling argument remains that there’s no use in bending over backward to earn elite status under such uncertain circumstances.

And keep in mind that lower-level elite status is often less valuable than the upper echelons. NerdWallet’s analysis of airline elite status found that the most value (compared with how much you have to spend to earn the status) is found in higher-level tiers.

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