Here Are the Best Elite Airline Status Programs

Miles.

That one word is enough to send a thrill up the of every frequent flier and heavy traveler from Chicago to Chaoyang. Whether you're a vacationer looking to max out every dollar or a business traveler who gets to use their own frequent flier number, anyone who spends enough time on a plane knows just how valuable airline miles can be.

And it's not just about free flights. These days getting a discount is the least of what airline miles can offer you.

While, yes, miles can accrue and help you buy your way into a cheap vacation, the often overlooked value of frequent flier status is all of the perks that you accrue along the way. Customers who build up robust accounts, depending on the airline, receive increasingly special treatment that ranges from early boarding to free bag check, free upgrades, access to airline lounges and much more.

Of course, that lounge access alone is worth its weight in jet fuel. There's nothing quite like staring down the barrel of a five-hour layover and knowing that you won't have to sweat it out on the concourse. You'll get to put your feet up, catch a nap and maybe even take a shower.

Today miles and airline status matter more than ever, especially for people who spend half their lives in and between major airports. So there's nothing wrong with choosing your airline based on who will reward you the most for your loyalty. Frequent travelers looking to figure out just who will do that should take a look at one of these six airlines, sorted courtesy of The Points Guy for the best rewards for frequent fliers.

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6. Southwest
6. Southwest

Just because an airline rounds out the bottom of this list doesn't mean it does a bad job. In fact, exactly the opposite. As explained by The Points Guy's Nick Ewan, the entries lower on this list generally show up precisely because they offer so much in general.

"I probably have a lot of haters out there who love JetBlue (JBLU) [our number five] and love Southwest (LUV) and can't understand why they're at the bottom of the list," said Ewan, "but at the end of the day, this study focused on the value that came from airline points and elite status."

Read More: Southwest Airlines Won't Be Clipped By the Vicious Fare War

These airlines, he said, already have "a great value proposition" for most travelers. Since their value-add is so good for the average flier, there's less to offer specifically to frequent fliers and point captains.

So, we have Southwest in last place, not because they don't offer anything good, but because they offer a lot that's good.

5. JetBlue
5. JetBlue

Like Southwest, JetBlue is a high-value airline for the average traveler. This makes it a low-value airline for the elite traveler.

Now, that said, JetBlue does bring some solid perks to the table. Anyone who flies frequently enough to qualify for his Mosaic status earns waivers for change and cancellation fees, giving them far more flexibility to adjust a trip on the fly.

However from there, JetBlue does somewhat disappoint. The company's commitment to providing a great experience across the board hurts it when it comes to elite upgrades. Without a first or business class into which fliers can upgrade, there's only the company's Mint and Even More Space seats, neither of which are complimentary for Mosaic customers.

For the average flier, this means no road warrior will bump you out of the chance to get a nice seat. For that road warrior, though, it means much less reward for your loyalty.

4. American
4. American

"The next three, which we think of as the three legacy carriers," said Ewan, "the programs are quite similar in terms of the benefits they offer across tiers."

All airlines struggle with the same problem: how do you stand out in an industry where costs and service remain the same? With technology a constant, the laws of physics more or less dictate what it costs and how much time it takes to go from Point A to Point B.

As a result, airlines increasingly try to compete with each other on perks and elite offerings, while paradoxically also stripping those away from many other fliers. It's an odd dynamic, but the result is an industry in which competitors struggle to stand out.

So it is with the middle section of our list. American Airlines (AAL) comes in at number four. They don't offer anything remarkable, they don't withhold anything noteworthy. For elite travelers they're a solid choice assuming that they operate nonstop flights on the routes you cross most often. 

3. Delta
3. Delta

Here's a finding worth paying attention to: "Delta (DAL) Gold Medallion travelers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on all domestic and short-haul international flights."

Upgrades may be the single most valuable feature of membership in an elite airline program. At the very least, they're a close second behind access to airport lounges, and even that depends on just how much time you'd spend browsing terrible James Patterson offerings at the Hudson News. But the ability to board the plane and know that for the next eight hours you'll have access to a little more legroom, a little more elbow room and a few more options?

Once you take one of those seats, it's hard to go back. Happily for those who qualify, Delta makes it easier not to.

2. United
2. United

One of the important distinctions among airlines is how each one rewards a different tier of traveler. Casual fliers will appreciate certain rewards programs differently than the more hardcore, and how an airline awards points will make a big difference in how quickly the add up.

The mid-range flier, defined as someone who flies about 50,000 miles or spends $6,000 per year, will really like United (UAL) .

With reclining business class seats that transform into beds, United offers a set of services that make it a worthwhile option for mid-range fliers.

"There isn't really a single added perk that makes this possible," the survey finds. "Instead, it's a solid combination of benefits… including better availability for saver economy award tickets, two checked bags up to 70 pounds apiece and free same-day confirmed flight changes."

On top of it all, a traveler who earns United Premier Gold gets a free Marriott (MAR) Gold status. It's a little bit of a different perk that helps this program stand out.

1. Alaskan
1. Alaskan

Alaskan Air (ALK) is the big winner of The Points Guy's elite status roundup. It comes in as the best value for every tier of traveler except the absolute most hardened road warriors, for a very simple reason: it's one of the only airlines that still awards miles based on travel rather than spending.

For people who cross the country back and forth, that can add up fast.

"At the end of the day, if you are a frequent traveler, you want that travel to be rewarding," said Ewan. "So if Alaska is giving you twice or more than twice as many miles for your loyalty, that literally can get you hundreds or thousands of dollars of additional value every year."

"Alaska," he emphasized, "was the only airline that we looked at in this study that still awards travelers based on the distance that they fly instead of the money that they spend… That alone pushed Alaska to the top. They have a couple of other nice perks as well, but that was the main reason they earned the top spot overall."

The upshot? If you want to rack up the miles, fly Alaskan.

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