The 20-cents-per-mile breakeven point for Delta and United mileage earning is still wrong

Regular readers know the sacred cows that get repeated daily by affiliate bloggers, which drive me bonkers whenever I accidentally glance at one:

But there's one seemingly minor one which makes my skin crawl in a way the outright lies don't: the claim that Delta and United travelers need to pay 20 cents per mile to break even under the new, revenue-based SkyMiles and Mileage Plus programs. It's not just incorrect, it's so blatantly innumerate it makes my head spin. Here's a thought leader in travel last week:

"Both United and Delta require spending at least 12.5 cents per mile flown to earn elite status as part of their revenue-based elite rules. But they both require an average of 20 cents per mile flown just to break even with the miles that had been earned under the old distance-based system."

That's still wrong, as I helpfully pointed out in September of last year. Since it apparently still hasn't sunk in, let's go over it again.

Elite mileage earning changed out of proportion to non-elite mileage earning

Since January 1, 2015, Delta and United have had the same mileage earning structure for passengers crediting flights to their frequent flyer programs:

  • General members: 5 miles per dollar
  • 25,000-mile elites: 7 miles per dollar (40% bonus)
  • 50,000-mile elites: 8 miles per dollar (60% bonus)
  • 75,000-mile elites: 9 miles per dollar (80% bonus)
  • 100,000-mile (United) and 125,000-mile (Delta) elites: 11 miles per dollar (120% bonus)

Before January 1, 2015, redeemable miles were earned at the following rates:

  • General members: distance flown
  • 25,000-mile elites: 25% bonus
  • 50,000-mile elites: 50% bonus (United) and 100% bonus (Delta)
  • 75,000-mile elites: 75% bonus (United) and 100% bonus (Delta)
  • 100,000-mile (United) and 125,000-mile elites (Delta): 100% bonus (United) and 125% bonus (Delta)

The mistake innumerate bloggers make is looking only at the first bullet points: if general members now earn 5 miles per dollar, then to earn as many miles as under the distance-based regime they'd need to spend 20 cents per mile flown. If they spend more than that, they'll earn more miles under the new regime; if they spend less, fewer.

Your actual breakeven point depends on your elite status

Since elite status with both airlines is still based on distance flown with them, the typical traveler's elite status will depend on their actual travel needs. With that in mind, here are the breakeven points for average cost per mile flown, depending on your elite status:

  • General members: 20 cents per mile flown
  • 25,000-mile elites: 17.9 cents per mile flown
  • 50,000-mile elites: 18.8 cents per mile flown (United) and 25 cents per mile flown (Delta)
  • 75,000-mile elites: 19.4 cents per mile flown (United) and 22.2 cents per mile flown (Delta)
  • 100,000-mile and 125,000 mile elites: 18.2 cents per mile flown (United) and 20.5 cents per mile flown

To calculate these values on your own, take a sample trip of exactly 1000 miles. A Diamond Medallion would have previously earned 2,250 SkyMiles. To earn 2,250 SkyMiles at 11 SkyMiles per dollar, the same Diamond Medallion would now have to spend $204.55, or 20.5 cents per mile.


For mid-tier Delta elites, the situation is even worse than the 20-cent-per-mile conventional wisdom would have it, since their flights need to be, on average, 11-25% more expensive than that to earn the same number of miles as they did last year. Only Delta Diamond Medallions approach the same bonused earning rates under the new regime as they did under the old, distance-based system.

United elites, meanwhile, have it relatively easy since their redeemable-mile earning was never as heavily bonused as that of Delta Medallions.