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Frequent flyers with elite status seem like the Samurai caste of travelers: they cut to the head of lines, waltz into airport lounges, and luxuriate in first-class upgrades. However, elite status has become much harder to attain in recent years. The three legacy U.S. airlines have raised their requirements and instituted spending minimums to make certain that elite members represent a financial advantage to the company.

airline elite status through credit card
There are ways to earn airline elite status through credit card spending. Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Earn Airline Elite Status Through Credit Card Spending

More and more frequently, travelers are reaching their elite requirements with a boost from a co-branded credit card, such as some of those featured as some of the best miles credit cards.

Is it possible to attain top-tier status without flying? No, but knowing the shortcuts can help you get a valuable jump on your goal. You can also attain many of the perks of elite status with the right credit card application. First, let’s look at what it takes to earn elite status on the major U.S. carriers.

Earning Elite Status the Hard Way

American, Delta and United each have four elite tiers. You qualify by accumulating a combination of a minimum number of miles flown, segments and dollars spent (although United has abolished the concept of miles altogether—more on that in a moment).

Earning Status on American

You’ll need a certain number of either Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs), plus a minimum amount of Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs), in this order:

  • Gold: 25,000; 30; $3,000
  • Platinum: 50,000; 60; $6,000
  • Platinum Pro: 75,000; 90; $9,000
  • Executive Platinum: 100,000; 120; $15,000

Benefits include free checked bags, priority boarding, mileage bonuses (40%/60%/80%/120%) and upgrades. Executive Platinum comes with four systemwide upgrades. Upgrades for the higher tiers clear first, but most of the time they’ll be the only ones to get them.

Earning Status on Delta

At Delta, you earn Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) and Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQMs). The requirements are close to American but slightly different:

  • Silver: 25,000/30/$3,000
  • Gold: 50,000/60/$6,000
  • Platinum: 75,000/100/$12,000
  • Diamond: 125,000/140/$15,000

Benefits are similar as well, but with one important exception: You can roll over any MQMs in excess of your tier level to the following year. If you qualify for Gold with 65,000 miles, you’ll have 15,000 MQMs in the bank for the following year.

Earning Status on United

As of January 1, United instituted some dramatic changes in their elite program. Miles are no longer in the picture. Each dollar spent becomes a Premier Qualifying Point (PQP), and segments are now PQFs (Premier Qualifying Flights).

You qualify based on either combined PQFs and PQPs, or on a higher total of PQPs alone:

  • Premier Silver: 12 PQF and 4,000 PQD, or 5,000 PQD
  • Premier Gold: 24 PQF and 8,000 PQD, or 10,000 PQD
  • Premier Platinum: 36 PQF and 12,000 PQD, or 15,000 PQD
  • Premier 1K: 54 PQF and 18,000 PQD, or 24,000 PQD

Earning Status on JetBlue

JetBlue has only one elite tier, Mosaic. You need 15,000 Base Flight Points in a calendar year to qualify, or you can fly 30 segments plus 12,000 Base Flight Points.

Earning Status on Southwest

Southwest gives you three opportunities to achieve elite status:

  • A-List: 25 one-way qualifying flights or 35,000 tier qualifying points
  • A-List Preferred: 50 one-way qualifying flights or 70,000 tier qualifying points
  • Companion Pass: 100 one-way qualifying flights or 125,000 tier qualifying points

The Companion Pass is one of the sweetest deals in travel. It allows your designated companion to fly free, with the payment of taxes and fees. The pass is valid until the end of the following year in which it is earned, so it makes sense to try and snag it as early as possible.

Earning Status with A Co-Branded Credit Card

Looking at the big three and comparing their requirements to five years ago, elite status has become much harder to obtain. Unless you’re in the air every week of the year, it’s probably not possible to earn top-tier status from flying alone. Even then, it may be out of the question if your business takes you on short, regional routes.

Fortunately, there are cards that allow you to obtain a head start toward qualifying if you know how to work the system. As an added bonus, many of these credit cards are some of the best credit cards for international travel.

Delta Cards That Help with Elite Status

Delta’s credit cards are issued by American Express. They present the best opportunities for frequent flyers to get a jump on status.

The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card will award 10,000 MQMs when you spend $25,000 on the card in a calendar year, plus an additional 10,000 MQMs for the next $25,000 in spending in the same year. MQMs are used to determine Medallion Status and are different from the miles you earn toward flights. The annual fee is $250 (See Rates & Fees).

The rewards have also changed in 2020 for the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card. With Status Boost, you can earn 15,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $30,000 in purchases on your new card in a calendar year, up to four times per year. Plus, the welcome offer is the ability to earn 45,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new card in the first 3 months. The annual fee is $550 (See Rates & Fees). 

If you have both the Platinum and Reserve cards, you can earn benefits on both and stack them toward elite status.

One unique feature of the Platinum and Reserve cards is the opportunity to earn the Medallion Qualification Dollar Waiver. If you fail to achieve the required MQD spending, you can still qualify for Silver, Gold or Platinum Medallion status if you meet either the MQM or MQS thresholds and spend at least $25,000 on one of the cards. You can even achieve the MQD waiver for Diamond status, although it takes $250,000 in spending within a calendar year.

Learn more: Best Delta credit cards

American Airlines (AA) Cards That Help with Elite Status

The information for the AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard® and the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® has been collected independently by Johnny Jet. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Even though AAdvantage cards are issued by both Barclays and Citibank, only two of them allow you to get a head start on elite status.

With the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®, you earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) with $40,000 in spending within a calendar year. The annual fee is $450.

Barclays AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver Mastercard® allows you to earn 5,000 EQMs for the first $20,000 in spending each calendar year, plus another 5,000 for the next $20,000. You can also accumulate Elite Qualifying Dollars through spending: $3,000 for the first $25,000, and another $3,000 for the next $25,000. The annual fee is $195.

However, you can no longer apply directly for this card. You need to hold the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® and request an upgrade.

Learn more: Best Credit Cards for American Airlines Fliers

United Cards That Help with Elite Status

Prior to January 1, United flyers had the possibility of earning a PQD waiver with credit card spending, which has now been eliminated. The chance to earn PQMs has obviously disappeared as well since they no longer exist.

However, all four co-branded cards issued by Chase will allow members to earn 500 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) for the first $12,000 in spending during a calendar year, plus another 500 PQPs for the next $12,000. Given that the new elite tiers now require between 4,000 and 24,000 PQPs to qualify, this inducement has limited value.

Learn more: Best United Credit Cards

Earning Status with the JetBlue Credit Card

The information for the JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by Johnny Jet. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

As mentioned, JetBlue only has one elite tier (Mosaic). If you have the Barclays JetBlue Plus Card, you can reach Mosaic by spending $50,000 in a calendar year. The annual fee is $99.

Earning Status with Southwest Credit Cards

The information for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business card has been collected independently by Johnny Jet. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The five co-branded Southwest cards from Chase earn 1,500 tier points for each $10,000 in spending. Those cards are the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card ($69 annual fee), Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card ($99), Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card ($149), Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card ($99) and Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card ($199).

Since Southwest elite status begins at the threshold of 35,000 tier points, this also isn’t much of an inducement.

However, there’s a twist: while credit card bonuses don’t count toward regular elite status, they do help you earn the coveted Companion Pass. If you operate a small business, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business card offers a signup bonus of 70,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

This takes you more than halfway toward the 125,000 points you need to bag a year or more of free travel for your designated companion.

Learn more: Best Southwest credit cards

Get the Benefits of Elite Status Without Flying

If your head is spinning at this point, ask yourself one simple question: Does airline elite status make sense for you? Unless you’re a road warrior, the answer is probably no.

For occasional flyers, there’s a great solution. On the lower end of the elite scale, the most important benefits are priority boarding and free checked bags (entry-level elites aren’t likely to get upgrades in most cases). You can get those two perks when you sign up for a range of co-branded airline cards.

Examples include:

  • Delta: The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card and Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card, as well as the Delta Reserve® Credit Card, offer priority boarding and one free checked bag for those traveling with the cardholder. Learn more: Airline Credit Cards
  • American: The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®, and the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® also give you priority boarding and one free checked bag. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® provides priority check-in, airport screening, and boarding as well.
  • United: The co-branded Chase cards also come with priority boarding and free checked bags. Learn more: Airline Credit Cards

To a large extent, these benefits can help take the hassle out of air travel.

However, if you aren’t loyal to one airline and perhaps prefer flexibility when flying, consider travel credit like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Capital One Venture. Both cards come with the ability to transfer points/miles. While you get some of the perks you’d get with a co-brand airline credit card, you will have the flexibility to use more airlines and their transfer partners.

Compare the Chase Sapphire Preferred vs Capital One Venture to learn more.

Summary of How to Earn Airline Elite Status Through Credit Card Spending

If you are loyal to one airline and spend a lot of time up in the air, earning airline elite status through credit card spending is a good option. You will get the airline perks that come with the credit cards. You’ll also get closer to reaching your status goals. However, note that most of the cards will come with an annual fee along with high spending requirements.

For rates and fees of Delta SkyMiles® Platinum Business American Express Card, please click here.

For rates and fees of Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, please click here.

Mark Spivak
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