How to Earn Airline Elite Status With Credit Card Expenses

Airline elite status comes with a slew of benefits that separate you from the average traveler. You get free checked bags and are among the first to board the plane. Elite flyers sit in better seats, and they receive mileage bonuses according to their status. On the upper end of the scale, they get free upgrades to a higher class of service.

The qualifications for elite status are steep, however, and they’re going up all the time. For entry-level status, Delta and American require 25,000 flown miles and a minimum of $3,000 in spending with the airline; United’s requirements are going higher than that in 2020. For the occasional flyer—or even someone who travels once a month on business—it’s getting harder and harder to qualify.

The good news is there are some co-branded airline credit cards that give you a jump on status by granting a certain number of qualifying miles, points or dollars in exchange for spending on the card. Here’s a roundup of the options.

Delta

American Express is the sole issuer of Delta credit cards, and some exciting changes are coming as of January 30:

The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card will give you 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $1,000 in purchases within the first three months. In addition, you can take advantage of Status Boost: When you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year, you receive 10,000 MQMs, plus an additional 10,000 for the next $25,000. The annual fee is going up from $195 to $250 on January 30. Terms are the same for the business version of the card.

The Delta Reserve Credit Card yields 10,000 MQMs after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. You’ll get 15,000 MQMs if your spending reaches $30,000 in a calendar year, plus another 15,000 for the next $30,000. The annual fee goes up from $450 to $550 on January 30.

If you have multiple SkyMiles cards, you can earn stackable MQMs on all of them.

American Airlines

Both Barclays and Citibank issue AAdvantage credit cards, but only two of them allow you to get a jump on elite status:

The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard allows you to earn 10,000 AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. The annual fee is $450.

Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard gives you 5,000 EQMs for the first $20,000 in spending each calendar year, and another 5,000 for the next $20,000. In addition, you can earn Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs): $3,000 for the first $25,000 in spending, and another $3,000 for the next $25,000. The annual fee is $195.

Note: You can no longer apply directly for this card. You must currently have the Red Aviator Mastercard and request an upgrade.

United

Beginning January 1, United has overhauled its elite requirements. Members will earn Premier Qualifying Flights (segments) and Premier Qualifying Points (dollars); the qualifications have been raised across the board, and elite status will be more difficult to earn.

The credit card benefits are changing as well. Consumers holding United cards from Chase will earn 500 PQPs for every $12,000 in spending, with a maximum of 1,000 PQPs per year. Given that it now takes at least 4,000 PQPs to earn entry-level Silver status, this benefit no longer means much.

There’s further bad news: United cardholders will no longer be able to earn a PQD waiver (or PQP, in 2020 parlance), devaluing the cards even more.

JetBlue

Things are refreshingly easy, as JetBlue only has one elite tier called Mosaic. To qualify, you must earn 15,000 Base Flight Points in a calendar year or fly 30 segments plus 12,000 Base Flight Points.

With the JetBlue Plus Card from Barclays, you earn Mosaic status after spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year. The annual fee is $99.

Southwest

Chase issues four cards that help you get an edge on elite status: Rapid Rewards Plus ($69 annual fee), Premier ($99), Priority ($149), Premier Business ($99) and Performance Business ($199). They each earn 1,500 tier points for every $10,000 spent on the card. Given that the entry-level status on Southwest requires 35,000 tier qualifying points, this isn’t a tremendous incentive.

However, the Southwest cards also give you a head start toward earning the Companion Pass, one of the best deals in the travel world, which allows unlimited travel for your designated companion. Beginning in 2020, the pass will require 125,000 qualifying points (different from tier points), and signup bonuses count toward that total. The Plus, Premier and Priority cards offer a bonus of 40,000 points after meeting spending requirements; the Premier and Performance Business cards can net you 60,000 and 70,000 points respectively.

Is Airline Elite Status Worth It?

Now that you know the requirements, the answer is obvious: only if you travel regularly for business or pleasure. If you’re an occasional traveler, you might be better off with a co-branded airline card that gives you some of the most important benefits of elite status (priority boarding and free checked bags).

Bottom Line

For frequent travelers, there are some credit cards that will speed up the process of gaining airline elite status. The best options are the co-branded Delta cards from American Express, which offer the largest tier qualifying bonuses for spending. The bonuses are most useful for someone trying to obtain entry-level status, or for the traveler whose flying is suddenly reduced and wants to maintain his or her status for the following year.