How to Leverage Elite Status with Airline Alliances

Sep 4, 2015

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From premier access and priority boarding to finger foods in luxe airport lounges, elite status can make a big difference in your airport experience. Today, TPG Contributor William Morse looks at the elite benefits offered by the three major airline alliances, along with how to earn status in each one.

We’re all familiar with American, Delta and United — the three largest domestic airlines by revenue. What frequent flyers may not know is that you can earn and redeem miles, and enjoy elite benefits on a wider network of carriers thanks to the partnerships offered by airline alliances. In this post, I’ll provide an overview of elite benefits with Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance, and give you some ideas for the fastest ways to earn status.

SkyTeam Tailfin


Even though it was the last of the three airline alliances to be formed, SkyTeam has quickly become the second largest. With 20 different airlines working together to serve 1,057 destinations in 177 countries, SkyTeam carries 612 million passengers annually.

SkyTeam’s largest carriers include Aeroflot, AirFrance, Alitalia, China Eastern, China Southern, KLM, Korean and founding member Delta, which carried 170 million passengers in 2015 (more than second and third place combined).


SkyTeam has two levels of elite status: SkyTeam Elite and SkyTeam Elite Plus. As you could probably guess, SkyTeam Elite Plus is the higher of the two levels and offers significantly greater perks.

SkyTeam Elite members get the following benefits:

  • Extra baggage allowance
  • Priority check-in
  • Elite-qualifying miles
  • Priority reservations waitlist
  • Priority boarding
  • Preferred seating
  • Priority airport standby

SkyTeam Elite Plus members get the benefits above plus the following:

  • Airport lounge access (for you and a guest)
  • Extra baggage allowance (20 kg rather than 10 kg)
  • Priority baggage handling
  • Guaranteed reservations on sold-out flights

The guaranteed reservations and priority baggage handling that come with Elite Plus are a nice touch, but I place greater value on airport lounge access. As an Elite Plus member, you can access any of the 629 SkyTeam partner lounges worldwide, including the SkyTeam Exclusive Lounges in London (LHR), Sydney (SYD) and Istanbul (IST). These flagship lounges include a VIP area for first class passengers, complimentary food and beverages, an oxygen bar and even a yoga room to stretch your glutes and harness your chi.

Easiest way to become elite

Two SkyTeam carriers offer lower mileage requirements than the typical 50,000 miles needed to reach Elite Plus status: both Middle East Airlines and Flying Blue (the frequent flyer program of Air France, KLM and others) offer you Elite Plus status for flying 40,000 miles or 30 segments. Note that you can credit Delta miles to Flying Blue, but you won’t earn full elite credit for reduced-fare tickets, nullifying the effect of the lower requirements for SkyTeam status. Fortunately, there’s an even easier way to get Elite Plus benefits: a status match with Alitalia.

For this to work, you need to have the equivalent elite status from another carrier outside SkyTeam. For example, if you currently hold United Gold status, you can request a status match to Alitalia Freccia Alata Club, which qualifies you for SkyTeam Elite Plus.

oneworld banner


Founded in February of 1999, Oneworld is currently the smallest of the three alliances, with 15 airlines serving 1,015 destinations in 154 countries. Oneworld carriers moved close to 513 million passengers in 2014 on a collective fleet of 3,428 planes.

Now that the merger between American Airlines and US Airways is complete, over 38% of all Oneworld’s passengers fly on American Airlines Group flights. However, Oneworld has plenty of other partners such as Air Berlin, British Airways/Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, LAN, Malaysia Airlines, TAM, Qantas and Qatar.


Oneworld has three elite status levels: Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald:

Elite Benefit Ruby Sapphire Emerald
Preferred/Pre-reserved seating X X X
Priority check-in X X X
Waitlist priority X X X
Priority boarding   X X
Lounge access   X X
Extra baggage allowance   X X
Priority baggage handling   X X
First class lounge access     X
First class priority check-in     X
Security lane fast track     X

As you can see, Ruby offers a few nice benefits like priority check-in and reserved/preferred seating. The more substantial benefits come at the Sapphire level, where you’ll receive lounge access and extra baggage allowance. Privileges for Sapphire members include entry to over 650 lounges, such as the Oneworld business lounge at LAX. Emerald status gets you first-class check-in and a faster security line. If your Oneworld status comes through American’s AAdvantage program, you can only access Admirals Clubs when you’re flying internationally, regardless of status or fare class purchased.

There is a workaround for getting into the Admiral’s Club if your Oneworld status isn’t enough: You can take advantage of the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, which offers full Admirals Club membership, and currently comes with a sign-up bonus of 75,000 miles after spending $7,500 in the first three months. You can also earn 10,000 EQMs when you spend $40,000 on the card in a calendar year, which can help you maintain your AAdvantage elite status. 

The Citi Prestige Card also offers Admirals Club access, though you don’t get full membership like you do with the Executive card (meaning you’ll need to be flying on a same-day American Airlines or US Airways itinerary to get in).

Easiest way to become elite

Oneworld has a few options for earning Sapphire status. The easiest way might be to earn Gold status on Royal Jordanian after flying 40,000 miles. You can credit flights on American to Royal Jordanian, but this option only makes sense when you purchase a full-fare ticket. While it might be tough for most readers to fly 40,000 miles on Royal Jordanian, those doing business in the Middle East can take advantage of the lower requirements.

If this isn’t an option, another easy way to gain Sapphire status is though a status match — this time with American Airlines. Although it might cost you a few hundred dollars to initiate the challenge, it could be very lucrative. Unfortunately, there’s not a clear shortcut to Emerald status.

Star Alliance member airlines crew
Star Alliance has 28 members, and is clearly the reigning Red Rover champion.


Formed in May of 1997, the Star Alliance is the largest in almost every category. In 2014, more than 641 million people flew on one of the alliance’s 4,657 planes to 1,330 destinations in 192 countries. These flights are operated by the alliance’s 28 collective carriers on over 18,500 departures every day.

Here’s a fun fact: The five stars on the Star Alliance logo represent the five founding members of the alliance, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways and United Airlines.

Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Avianca, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines and United are the largest of the carriers, with United serving the most, at 138 million people annually.


Star Alliance gives its lower elite tier a few benefits, but really rewards the higher tier with the most useful perks. There are only two elite status levels: Silver and Gold.

Star Alliance Silver members receive the following benefits:

  • Priority reservation waitlist
  • Priority standby

You might as well tell me I can have anything from the buffet unless it has fats or carbs or calories in it. There’s no sense in trying to sugarcoat it — these benefits are lame. Luckily, things get much better when you step up to Gold status:

  • Airport lounge access
  • Priority airport check-in
  • Extra baggage allowance
  • Priority boarding
  • Priority baggage handling

Perks like lounge access (to over 1,000 locations), extra baggage allowance and priority access are nice, though Star Alliance definitely doesn’t go above and beyond when it comes to elite benefits. Still, the huge route network makes even mediocre benefits somewhat more appealing.

Easiest way to become elite

There was a time when reaching Star Alliance Gold was incredibly simple by earning mileage with Aegean Airways. For the most part, that’s no longer an option unless you plan on flying to Greece a few times. The easiest way to get to Star Alliance Gold is to fly 24,000 miles and 4 segments on Aegean. Sure, the airline doesn’t operate everywhere, but this is still a major mileage savings compared to the industry standard of 50,000 miles needed on most other carriers.

Turkish Air and Asiana Airlines are also viable options. Both require 40,000 miles to reach the equivalent of Star Alliance Gold and — here comes a sweet spot — Asiana gives you two years to earn those miles.

So which one is best?

Each alliance has its pros and cons, and the answer depends on your own preferences and flying patterns. If you want access to the most destinations on the most carriers and regularly fly out of major hubs, then Star Alliance might be your best bet. If the perks associated with elite status are your priority, SkyTeam could be a better choice, though award flights cost more (I’m looking at you, Delta) and are generally harder to book. If you regularly fly internationally and enjoy luxury, then Oneworld may be your alliance of choice — in my opinion, its airlines have the best premium cabins. Whichever alliance you go with, make sure it fits your travels plans so you can get the most out of the benefits.

How do you maximize elite status with your alliance of choice?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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