Can't hurt to give them a call and inquire about it.
About 7 years ago I was going to have a lot of travel in a 2 month period, and registered for a challenge with AA. I could choose either the Silver qualifying or Gold qualifying option, and had to fly some obnoxious number of miles to make it. The bonus miles from being a Gold member also kept me in that status for a couple years - never would have made it normally.
Pre-Check is becoming more available. It's much faster than just the priority lines and you don't have to take anything out of your bag, you leave your shoes and jackets on, and just walk through a regular metal detector. I use it when I fly out of Cincy and my average time in security is under a minute.
If you care about access to lounges and you're flying domestic, United severely limits lounge access. I'm a United 1k member, and I only get access to United lounges when travelling internationally. That rarely bothers me for domestic travel because I don't get to the airport any earlier than absolutely necessary, but if you're having visions of hanging out having free drinks in the lounge before hopping a domestic flight, that's not going to happen with United.
As for challenges, a number of airlines will offer you a challenge if you have existing status on one airline and want to transfer over. Call customer service for the airline in question to get details as most of them don't offer that information on their websites. I haven't heard of airlines offering this for people who don't already have status somewhere else. One other consideration is that some airlines will bump you up on a revenue basis before you actually earn it based on number of miles flown. The first time I made 1K on United, they bumped me up at around 85,000 miles based on revenue from my tickets. There are no published thresholds for this, and they wouldn't tell me the threshold amount even if I hit it. I think it's probably fairly unlikely that you would get there flying only domestic, but who knows.
I'm a Delta frequent flyer, and since no one else has, I'll make an argument for them. I realize that the number of flights and specifically the number of direct flights will be drastically limited from other airlines, but I'll try to make a case for it anyway.
I would assume most Chicago frequent flyers use Southwest, American or United. You will be up against all of those people for the priority seats and upgrades. If you choose Delta, your upgrade chances may be better, and you could have better seat selection.
With the stops, you'll earn miles/segments more quickly, resulting reaching status levels more quickly. I don't have a lot of options for direct flights anyway, but spending a couple more hours on a plane in a first class seat with drinks and internet access isn't too bad.
Delta has wifi on its entire domestic fleet. It costs extra, but if you fly enough and want to use it for work or entertainment while in the air, it's great.
I'm not sure what opportunities are out there for other airlines, but if you choose to go with Delta, I would look into one of the Delta Amex cards. Until you earn status, it will give you your first bag free, priority boarding, extra miles and if you get the Reserve card, you'll get Sky Club access.
I've found FlyerTalk (linked below) to be a good resource for any airline or other frequent traveler information.
I started full time travel again in September and did ~65K miles this year, 59 on united and 6 on Delta. Delta's customer service has noticeably gone to hell since I was platinum. Their FF program is more difficult to reach the highest level than United's program. As a Gold on United, I consistently get more upgrades than my colleagues who are Diamond on Delta. Their phone App is useless and their website is not much better. The only advantage I have seen is that lounge access is easier. I travel international weekly, so I get that anyway.
FWIW, I started getting First Class upgrades on United at around 20K miles. I think their system may have an algorithm to detect long term flight patterns of frequent flyers.
They have the worst redemption options for award tickets in the domestic market. If you fly internationally, Skyteam is a pretty good alliance that will give you options, but if flying domestically (or internationally on a Delta operated flight) and you are wanting to actually use your miles, then it can be tough.
This especially holds true when trying to redeem first/business class seats which give you the most value per redemption.
Not all is bad at Delta - As missnd posted, if you value upgrades on paid fares, then Delta may be the best domestic airline for you (although you have to be gold and really platinum before you will see a lot of upgrades).
Agree on checking out flyertalk. Lots of good information there.
I believe it's a Mastercard with Chase. It has pretty much the same level of perqs.
SWA probably flies direct from Midway to every location you'd want (maybe), but I'm sure United would have the deepest coverage. Non-stop flights. That's what you're after. Connecting is just doubling the things that can go wrong in transit. For those of us that travel frequently, nothing beats non-stop service.
By the way, I have BOTH SWA and United FF programs. I would suggest enrolling in both because you'll accumulate huge points on either and it gives you more non-stop choices.
If your profile information is correct and you are in Chicago, that gives you three options:
1) United (ORD)
2) American (ORD)
3) Southwest (MDW)
I am (or rather will be after my flight today) Gold on United, so I can tell you about their program.
This biggest perk United has over any other airline is Economy Plus, although Delta is starting to add these seats now. Economoy Plus seats are regular economy seats width-wise, but have much more leg room (typically 36" which is 5-6" more than standard seats). As a United Premier member, you have access to these seats, but when you get access depends on your status level.
If you are Premier Silver (25,000 miles or 30 segments) you get access at check-in. I've yet to have a flight where I couldn't get into Economy Plus, but have had to settle for a middle seat a few times and you have to be on top of checking in right at the 24 hour mark. If you are Premier Gold or higher (50,000 miles or 60 segments) you get access at booking. Seats always look to be available then.
You can also look forward to automatic upgrades to Business or First, but don't expect it too often if you are only Silver. I've had over 50 flight this year and only gotten upgraded twice (and one-time my connecting flight was cancelled due to weather, so I didn't even get to enjoy first class).
Other United perks for Silver members are:
- Reserved check-in counters at most airports
- 1 free checked bag (bumps up to 3 with Gold)
- Dedicated Security lanes at most major airports
- Access to TSA Pre-Check
- Early boarding (group 3, group 2 for Gold)
- 25% bonus on miles earned (50% for Gold)
The special check-in and security lines have saved me before during really crowded travel times (like trying to get out of NY the day before Sandy hit). While the regular lines were an hour or more, the Premier lines were 15 minutes at most. Boarding early means you never have to worry about overhead bins being full.
The other benefit to United is that they are Star Alliance partners with US Air, and although I always hate flying US Air, it's nice to be earning qualifying miles while you are doing so.
The one downside to United is they are stingy with their club access. No level of status gets you unlimited club access. With Gold and higher, you get club access when travelling internationally. I'm not sure how other airlines work.
A note on earning miles, there are two kinds of miles with United (and I assume other carriers). There are the miles you earn that are redeemable for free tickets or upgrades. These get the 25% bonus and can be bought. Then there are Premier Qualifying Miles (or as I like to call them Ass In Seat miles). These are the miles that count towards earning status and only count when your ass is in the seat. You can't buy them. You can't even buy a ticket and then not show up. You only get credit if you actually take the flight. The 25% bonus doesn't apply to them. The only perk is that if the flight is on United or United Express and you have status, the minimum amount you can earn per flight is 500 miles.
I like United's program a lot. Are they the best airline -- no. But if you have status, they are pretty darn good. The fact that they are huge and fly everywhere doesn't hurt either.
One word of caution: with United having a major hub in Chicago, there will be a ton of status members flying through there (either departing directly or connecting through). This will make Economy Plus and upgrades pretty scarce at times.
I have a friend who flies Southwest a lot and had status with them, but I'm not sure what its benefits are. I think priority boarding and free wifi if you are high enough, but I'm not positive.
You can buy them. If you check in at an airport kiosk, you will be offered the opportunity to pay money to double or triple your mileage credit for the segment. On Boston-Houston, the charge is $57 to double the miles (~1600 mi).
Also, regarding speed through security... the separate status lines aren't always faster. I've seen it at IAH terminal C where the priority line is sometimes slower than the general line, though it's usually a difference of five minutes or less and only when there isn't much of a line on either side. I think it can be similar at Logan terminal A, where the general access line is a good bit longer but it also moves faster because there are more agents on ID check.
I ended up not having to, but I was going to be about 2000 miles short of Gold this year and was looking at taking a meaningless roundtrip somewhere to get it. Buying them would be much easier, but only if I really need to.
What was stated above is kind of correct. You can double or triple your miles at check-in at the kiosk or online. These miles usually cost about $0.02-0.03 per mile. However, in order for them to count toward premier status, you have to add the premier accelerator, which costs more like $0.10-0.30 per mile. It gets much more expensive later in the year when people know how many miles they need to hit the next level.
You don't actually have to fly the trip to get these miles. Just book a ticket, wait 30-60 minutes until it gets ticketed, go back online and purchase the accelerator miles, wait a few hours for them to get credited to your account, and cancel the ticket within the 24 hour cancellation that United allows with no penalty. That being said, your 2000 miles would have probably cost you about $500-600 right now.
But for $500, I can fly RT to Hawaii and pick up 4700 miles. It would cost me a weekend, but a weekend in Hawaii is a win in my book.
Or work can send me to Boston and I can pick up the miles that way.
I've never tried it, though. I was going to be something like 100 mi short of silver status on my planned travel this year, so I added a round trip.
Largely the same shtick with regard to dedicated check-in and priority boarding (though with AA you board with first class not just in a higher group). At platinum there are complimentary domestic upgrades and you earn "500 mile" upgrades as you fly. I think I have 20 of them at the moment. No economy plus but I have only missed an upgrade once on an early-morning flight from DFW to PHL. The food in first class is better in AA than other domestic first class cabins I've experienced (US Air is particularly bad; I've never flown first on an Asian or Middle Eastern airline so I obviously can't compare). And 100% bonus miles too.
Out of Chicago I'd probably go with United. But AA ain't a bad deal.
I ended up in first class for a trip because the first class fare and economy fare were the same price. It was terrible.
When traveling internationally, United was OK. Qantas was better. Emirates was the best. It was only a 4 hour flight from NZ to Australia, and we still had a full meal in economy on Emirates and it was great.
Also, on the the United boarding groups:
1 - Global Services, 1K, First Class
2 - Premier Platinum & Gold
3 - Premier Silver & higher end credit cards
4 - lesser credit cards
5,6,7 - general boarding.
I would emphasize that United is an "elite-heavy" airline, so it's tough to be upgraded even at a level such as Gold. But that all depends where you're flying, what type of aircraft, etc.
One more piece of advice that I cannot recommend enough: join the Global Entry program. This will allow you to go through the TSA PreCheck line. I fly regularly on United out of O'Hare and this has saved me plenty of time and hassle. You have a dedicated security lane that rarely has a line, and you don't need to take off your shoes, belt, jacket or anything (e.g. laptop) out of your bag. For someone that travels quite a bit, Global Entry is probably the best $100 I've ever spent.
I went through the application process several months ago, and have gotten accepted in the PreCheck line every time since (you have to scan your boarding pass and hope for 3 beeps).
Edit: It's also nice to have the option of US Airways if you choose to fly United and vice versa. I was booked via US Air and had a two hour delay. I walked up to the counter and ask if they could transfer my ticket over to United since their flights were running on time. They transferred me and I was home right on time instead of hours later. Not sure if that's typical procedure, but it's nice to have the option.
It's a carry over from before deregulation, but all the major carriers have continued to abide by it. You can get transferred to another airline if they can get you there more quickly than your original delayed or cancelled flight.
Also, while Global Entry automatically give your access to TSA Pre-Check, you don't have to enroll in Global Entry to get TSA Pre-Check. You can enroll in that program for free if you have status with most of the major carriers. TSA Pre-Check is for domestic flights. Global Entry for returning through customs for international.
I can't speak for whether Global Entry members are more likely to get the express security than just the regular TSA Pre-Check people though. I imagine the Global Entry background checks are more in depth.
And I never cleared through PreCheck (as a lowly Silver) until I signed up and completed the Global Entry process. Now I haven't missed once.
That was the only reason I did it, since I rarely travel internationally.
I just signed up for PreCheck. I won't be able to use to at JFK, but I'll see next time I fly out of LAX.
150k/year flyer here and would go with United if Chicago was home base...
It's nice to have perks like access to lounges, but not at the expense of having to connect through Atlanta to get everywhere, as opposed to flying non-stop.
I would also avoid airlines that are truly miserable, like US Air.
12 years ago, I choose to fly Delta connecting through Atlanta for a long-term series of weekly flights.
I made platinum medallion in 6 months, but the extra time and inevitably flight delays were NOT worth it.
If you do fly weekly, it may be worth paying the fee for the club lounge initially, especially if the airline has the lounges in the cities you visit.
Look to see if there's anything to get you frequent flyer status earlier as well. I know independent consultants who have called up airlines, stated that they were flying between x and y weekly for the next z months, and were able to get the initial level of frequent flyer status. (which gets you through security faster)
edit: added "NOT"
Happy New Year!
What are your most common destinations?
When choosing an airline loyalty program those are the most pressing concerns. If you are flying out of a hub with multiple airlines like O'hare with United and American than you have some more to think about.
you can be a bit pickier perhaps. You'll have to see which hubs the airlines connect to and from there which ones have the best connections to your ultimate destination. But if you are in a hub like DFW for AA, Chicago for United, Charlotte for US Scareways, or Atlanta for Delta (etc.) it's best to go with the big boy at that airport.
At this point, the destinations are in flux.
a couple of factors.
1 - which airport are you closer to? This may be a big factor that could you cost you a lot of time every week
2 - If you want upgrades you won't get them on Southwest since they don't have first class.
3- If you are closer to Ohare you can choose between American and United. I'd say that decision is probably a toss-up. You could call both and try to get a status challenge - that may make your decision for you.
Being a no frills airline they aren't going to have those perks and upgrades outside of business select which lets you board earlier. Mainly Rapid Rewards is good for free flights. That leaves United and American out of O'Hare. I would be leery of going with American right now. Even though it looks like they're going to emerge from bankruptcy, there's still a lot of pressure from the unions (and shareholders) to merge with US Airways. I've told some of these folks that they're trading one set of bastards for another that in some ways might be worse, but they're so blinded by their anger at AA management they can't think straight. Right now I'd say go with United since the Continental management seems to have them going in the right direction.