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How Can a Credit Card Help You Earn Airline Elite Status?

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If you fly a lot, the cost of things like ticket changes, checked bags and onboard snacks can add up quickly. If you spend enough with an airline, though, you can earn elite status and enjoy many of these perks automatically and without cost when flying.

Normally, elite status is earned by flying frequently with one particular airline and its partners. But some airline credit cards can earn you miles or points toward elite status as well. Here's a look at what airline elite status is, why you might want it and how credit cards can help you earn it.

What Is Airline Elite Status?

Elite status is a special rank that airlines give their most frequent flyers to thank them for their business. Requirements vary from airline to airline, but you'll usually have to fly more than a certain number of miles or flights and spend more than a specific amount on tickets each year to earn it. As you continue to fly and spend, you'll move up into higher echelons of elite status and enjoy more benefits.

How to Earn Airline Elite Status

Earning airline elite status usually requires flying tens of thousands of miles or dozens of flight segments each year (a segment is one takeoff and one landing). Some airlines also have spending requirements in place so that you must purchase a certain amount in airfare to qualify. These requirements can vary dramatically among airlines.

Currently, many airlines are modifying their elite status programs due to COVID-related travel shutdowns. The numbers discussed below reflect a normal year and should only be used as a reference.

American Airlines' AAdvantage mileage program, for example, has four tiers of elite status. To earn the first level, Gold, you have to fly 25,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) or 30 elite-qualifying segments (EQSs) and spend at least $3,000 in elite-qualifying dollars (EQDs) on airfare not counting taxes and fees in a calendar year. Most economy fares earn 1 EQM per mile flown on American, while premium-economy fares earn 1.5 EQMs per mile flown. Discounted business- and first-class fares earn 2 EQMs per mile flown, and full-fare business- and first-class fares earn 3. So for an average traveler who purchases coach tickets, you'd have to take either 30 flights or cover 25,000 miles while also spending at least $3,000 on airfare.

The next tier, Platinum, requires flying 50,000 EQMs or 60 EQSs and spending $6,000 EQDs. Platinum Pro requires 75,000 EQMs or 90 EQSs and $9,000 EQDs. Each tier's benefits improve upon the one before it on up to Executive Platinum status at 100,000 EQMs or 120 EQSs and $15,000 in EQDs. Your status is usually good through the rest of the calendar year in which you earn it, the entire calendar year following and through January 31 of the year after that.

The Benefits of Elite Status

The perks of elite status differ from airline to airline and tier to tier. However, most offer a similar set of benefits at the lowest levels, including bonus mileage earning, priority treatment at the airport, free checked bags and a shot at upgrades to business or first class.

To stick with American AAdvantage, once you hit Gold status, you'll earn 7 award miles (ones you can redeem for flights) per dollar spent on airfare instead of the 5 miles per dollar a normal AAdvantage member would earn. Gold members can also expect priority check-in, security and boarding at the airport, and receive one waived checked bag fee when traveling in the Main Cabin on American Airlines and American Eagle flights. They can bid on upgrades on flights within North America using 500-mile certificates, get standby on flights for free under certain circumstances and get a slight discount on Admirals Club airport lounge membership.

Platinum and Platinum Pro members earn even more bonus miles, receive an additional checked bag and have a better chance at upgrades, among other perks. Finally, with Executive Platinum status, you'll receive 11 award miles per dollar spent on airfare, the highest level of priority services at the airport, and waived fees on up to three checked bags. Executive Platinum members also enjoy the best chance at seat upgrades, including four systemwide upgrade certificates that can bump them up from economy to business or first class, even on some of the airline's longest routes, including from Dallas-Fort Worth to Hong Kong.

How Airline Credit Cards Can Help You Earn Elite Status

Sounds like you have to buy a lot of airline tickets and spend a lot of time on planes, right? Not necessarily. Some airlines partner with credit card issuers and allow cardholders to earn points or miles toward elite status simply by spending. The airline credit cards that do so are among the most premium available and may come with high annual fees and require you to have excellent credit just to apply.

Using these credit cards for an elite boost also means spending a lot of money on them each year. Still, putting all your regular expenses on an airline credit card and paying them off every month might give you just the lift you need to hit that next tier of status and save some cash at the airport.

The Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, for example, has a $550 annual fee. Its perks include access to Delta Sky Clubs and American Express Centurion Lounges in the U.S. and Hong Kong when flying Delta (and using your card to book your ticket in the case of Centurion Lounges), and earning 3 miles per dollar on Delta purchases. However, cardholders can also earn 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward elite status after spending $30,000 on eligible purchases with their card in a calendar year, up to four times per year. A cardholder who spends $120,000 on purchases in a year would earn a full 60,000 MQMs without even setting foot on an airplane. That's enough for mid-range Gold Medallion status with the airline, which usually requires flying 60 segments or 50,000 elite-qualifying miles and spending $6,000 qualifying dollars.

Barring a once-in-a-lifetime shopping spree, though, spending $25,000 on eligible purchases in a calendar year with the card will let Delta SkyMiles members waive the usual spending requirements of $3,000 to $9,000 on airfare for Medallion status up to all but the topmost tier of Diamond (that requires $250,000 spent on the card, or $15,000 on Delta airfare under normal circumstances).

But that's just one example. Here are other airline credit cards—many of them with more modest spending thresholds—that can help flyers earn or boost their elite status simply by spending as usual.

The Best Airline Credit Cards for Earning Elite Status

Whether you fly American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest or United, there are options out there for you.

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

Elite-qualifying activity: Cardholders who spend $40,000 or more on eligible purchases in a calendar year receive 10,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs). That gets you almost halfway to the AAdvantage program's first level of elite status, Gold. Each AAdvantage member can only earn 10,000 EQMs from this card per calendar year.

Annual fee: $450

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

Elite-qualifying activity: Earn 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) toward elite status after spending $30,000 on purchases with the card in a calendar year. This is possible up to four times per year—so $120,000 in eligible spending and 60,000 MQMS. It is also worth remembering that this card usually fields welcome offers that include MQMs in addition to bonus award miles (the ones you can redeem toward flights) for hitting certain spending thresholds. So if you are applying for this card and plan to spend a lot on it in the first year, you could really rake in the MQMs and go for some of those higher tiers of status.

Annual fee: $550

JetBlue Plus Card

Elite-qualifying activity: Cardholders who spend $50,000 or more on purchases each calendar year with their card enjoy JetBlue's Mosaic status, which comes with benefits like free checked bags, waived change and cancellation fees on tickets, the ability to redeem points for Even More Space seats, and even free cocktails on board when available.

Annual fee: $99

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Elite-qualifying activity: You can earn up to 15,000 Tier-Qualifying Points per calendar year with this card. The airline's A-List status requires earning 35,000 of them, so this could be a big boost along your way. Cardholders earn 1,500 Tier-Qualifying Points per $10,000 spent on eligible purchases up to $100,000 per calendar year.

Annual fee: $149

UnitedSM Explorer Card

Elite-qualifying activity: United recently overhauled its elite status program and the requirements for hitting its various levels, so it's a confusing mix of spending and flight thresholds. However, folks with this card who spend $12,000 on eligible purchases with it in a calendar year can earn 500 Premier-Qualifying Points (PQPs), up to $24,000 in spending and 1,000 PQPs per year. That's about a fifth of the way toward the first rung of Premier Silver status, but could help you qualify if you're close.

Annual fee: $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $95

Things to Consider

Whether you're hoping to earn the base level of elite status using your credit card, or you want to use it to get a boost up to the next one, you should keep a few things in mind:

  • First, airline credit cards that reward spending with elite-qualifying points or miles tend to charge expensive annual fees and require you to have excellent credit even to qualify.
  • Second, the spending requirements for elite status are usually tens of thousands of dollars per year, so be sure you can take them on responsibly.
  • Finally, many airline credit cards already offer elite-style perks like priority boarding and free checked bags. These might not be as comprehensive as those enjoyed by actual airline elites, and they don't include upgrades. However, they will still make the airport and flight experience better, all without having to put in the time and money to earn elite status by actually flying. If you regularly earn elite status and spend a lot on your credit cards anyway, though, it might be worth getting one of these credit cards to help you get to that next level of status.

If you think an airline credit card would make you a happier traveler without causing you to unnecessarily rack up debt in pursuit of rewards, check your credit score for free through Experian to see if it's in good enough shape to qualify you for a card.

All information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®, Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, JetBlue Plus Card, and UnitedSM Explorer Card has been collected by Experian and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card. Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® is longer available through Experian. Offer details may be outdated.

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