Often when we think about gaining elite status with a company, we are looking for the immediate benefits. However, we are also looking to spend as much time at the front of the aircraft in business and first class cabins. In many cases the perks of both tend to overlap.
Both status and premium tickets often feature priority boarding, internationally they also come with lounge access at least when you get mid tier status. Domestically neither include lounge access. So, is it worth it to pursue elite status if the most immediate gains can be had with a purchased or reward travel in upper class cabins?
It's an interesting thing to look at. The benefits of traveling in upper class cabins means that many of the perks you want while flying can be had even if you don't have status with the airline or alliance that you happen to be flying with at that time. However, elite status has its place.
The most obvious benefit to having elite status even when flying in premium cabins is that you earn more redeemable miles. When we are trying to make use of miles and points as much as possible, gaining an edge on redeemable miles is important. Beyond the miles earning comes other benefits, the most dramatic being at the top teir levels of elite status. Airlines often offer upgrade certificates to top tier travelers. This means you can buy a cheap economy trip and fly in business class. These vouchers are extremely valuable, potentially saving you thousands of dollars on premium travel. Additonally, these vouchers mean that you are making a purchase for these flights so that they still earn miles and elite status qualifying miles.
Top tier status also includes many other perks. Delta offers a membership to Delta Sky Club lounges, even if you aren't flying Delta, these allow you to gain access to Delta lounges worldwide.
So at the end of the day, buying premium class tickets will get you many of the immediate benefits, but elite status gives you more perks and pads your miles wallet. So yes, elite status is preferrable, but paying for upper class cabins will get you most of what you need. So loyalty isn't required and this does give us the power to float from company to company depending on who offers the best value at the time. Weigh your options, the answer isn't clear cut here.
Rocket Scientist, Travel Junkie, and Ruler of the 4th Moon of Omicron Persei 8