Comparing distance- and revenue-based airline loyalty programs

In 2015, there will be two major distance-based airline loyalty programs based in the United States – American's AAdvantage and Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan – and two major revenue-based loyalty programs – Delta Skymiles and United Mileage Plus. US Airways Dividend Miles will presumably disappear sometime in 2015, so I won't treat that program here.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about whether individuals will earn more miles before or after the changes, but I think that's a relatively unimportant question – not just because I earn the overwhelming majority of my airline miles through manufactured spend, rather than flying, but also because it's irrelevant: the changes are coming, on January 1 in Delta's case and March 1 for United.

In other words, what's needed is a forward-looking analysis of earning under the revenue- and distance-based programs under a variety of circumstances.

Example: my 2014 travel projected into 2015

I noticed recently that Delta makes it easy to compute exactly how much better off you'd be crediting your paid miles flown on Delta tickets to Alaska, rather than Delta. I currently have 28,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles, which consist of a 10,000 Delta Platinum American Express bonus, 1,142 Rollover MQM, and 16,858 miles flown this year on paid tickets. Meanwhile, my Medallion Qualifying Dollar balance for the year is $1,150, which gives me a cost per flown mile of 6.8 cents.

Next year, as a Silver Medallion, I would earn 8,050 Skymiles over the course of the year if I credited the same amount of paid travel to Delta. Since I'll be requesting a status match to Alaska's MVP Gold status on October 1, I'd earn 33,716 Mileage Plan miles for the same amount of paid travel on Delta.

Of course, a more fair comparison is to my current Delta Platinum Medallion status, which would earn me 10,350 Skymiles – still roughly a third of the Mileage Plan miles I would earn.

Analysis: comparing apples to apples

You may have seen travel bloggers suggest a "breakeven" point of 20 cents per mile flown: those who spend more than 20 cents per mile will earn more miles under the new system, while everyone else will earn fewer.

This ignores the fact that there will still be distance-based loyalty programs that offer elite bonuses on miles flown. To give a more comprehensive view, I decided to compare the 2015 revenue- and distance-based loyalty programs taking into account both the cost per mile flown and elite status.

Here's the result:

Click to embiggen

As you can see, the actual breakeven cost per mile flown varies tremendously – in both directions. If you're a 25,000-mile-flyer deciding between a United ticket and one operated by American, Delta, or Alaska, know that you need to be spending not 20 cents per mile, but 21.4 cents per mile, to earn as many miles as you would crediting a flight the same distance to Alaska.

A Delta flyer deciding between maintaining Delta Platinum Medallion or Alaska MVP Gold status would need to spend on average 22.22 cents per mile flown to earn as many Skymiles over the course of the year as she would Mileage Plan miles – that's over 3 times more than I actually spend per mile flown on revenue tickets.


This analysis isn't meant to be dispositive: you may value the perks of elite status with Delta or United, like waived award change and cancellation fees, more than the miles you're foregoing by not crediting your flights to Alaska (in the case of Delta) or another Star Alliance partner in the case of United.

But it is an easy way to determine just how many miles you're leaving on the table by doing so.