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As a fairly infrequent leisure traveler flying mostly on award tickets, airline elite status simply hasn’t been part of my travel equation. It’s a given for work travelers, but I hardly travel for work, and it’s difficult to earn airline elite status without flying regularly.
But this year will be different. I’m on track to earn elite status for the first time (maybe twice over). Granted, it’ll be lower level, and I probably won’t see any of the benefits. But the cool thing is, I’ll receive both by spending very little out of pocket.
How to earn airline elite status without flying all the time
It’s true…earning airline elite status is mainly for those who rack up the many thousand butt-in-seat miles from regular work travel. But there are actually ways for less frequent flyers to earn status. I’m aware of a couple different routes, including using a foreign program to more easily earn alliance status after only a few cheap long-haul trips and being granted status as a gift from a jet-setting friend or family member.
But since not everyone has a friend waiting in the wings to grant them status, the more common route is to use credit cards to augment or waive status requirements. This is the focus of this post. I’ll lay out ways you can utilize what’s in your wallet to help earn status with Delta, United, and American.
Delta: how to earn airline elite status without flying
Delta is arguably the easiest airline with which you can earn airline elite status without flying all that much. Due to the several credit cards they offer, you can potentially earn up to Platinum Medallion status without ever setting foot on a plane. If you fly a reasonable amount and have a good amount of business spending that you are willing to dump on one or more Delta credit cards, you almost can’t help but earn Gold or Platinum Medallion.
Delta offers a medallion qualifying dollar (MQD) waiver if you spend at least $25,000 across any of your Delta co-branded credit cards (except the Blue Delta SkyMiles card). This waiver applies to Delta Silver, Gold, and Platinum MQD requirements. It used to also apply to Delta Diamond, but someone at Delta or Amex decided you needed to shell out a whole lot more for this status waiver and the required spend was increased to $250,000 last year. This was sad news for people who liked to hack Delta status, but it certainly makes the status a bit more exclusive. Except in Atlanta where every person is a Delta Diamond.
Besides the MQD waiver, you can earn extra MQMs with Delta with four different co-branded American Express cards: the Platinum Delta SkyMiles cards (personal and business) and the Delta Reserve card (personal and business). These are the “premier” credit cards offered, as the annual fees are $195 for the Platinum card and $450 for the Reserve. You still have to shell out a bit of cash for the ability to augment your elite status.
The Delta Platinum card allows you to earn an extra 10,000 MQMs after $25,000 in spending on the card in a calendar year, and then another 10,000 MQMs when you hit $50,000. The Reserve card can earn you 15,000 MQMs after $30,000 in net spending, and then another 15,000 when you reach the $60,000 mark. So you can definitely earn a good number of extra MQMs, but you’ll be swiping your Delta credit cards like crazy.
But, if you hold one version of each card (one Platinum and one Reserve) and meet the necessary spending on each ($50,000 on the Platinum, plus $60,000 on the Reserve) to earn the maximum amount of MQMs available to you, you can literally reach Delta Gold Medallion status without ever setting foot on an airplane.
Obviously, the spending requirements to earn these extra elite MQMs are beyond most people’s ability. Our family can certainly hit the $25,000 mark for the MQD waiver and 10,000 extra miles on the Delta Platinum card, but anything beyond that would require a bit of creativity.
Still, with an obvious avenue to earn lots of extra MQMs, Delta is the easiest airline with which to earn airline elite status without flying.
My scheme to earn Delta Gold flying only 3 roundtrips
Here is my own example of what I described above: late in 2017 I picked up the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card. I ended up meeting the spend around the first of the year, so the bonus miles and 10,000 bonus medallion qualifying miles (MQMs) ended up posting in 2018.
Fast forward three months and I’ve racked up just over 10,000 Delta MQMs due to two (nearly) cost-to-coast work trips. This means Delta Silver is in the bag as long if I meet the credit card waiver (since that’ll net me another 10,000 MQMs at the $25,000 spend level, putting me at 30,000 total MQMs). I’ve decided to shoot for the $25,000 spend this year.
Additionally, I have one more trip planned on Sky Team partners airlines that will net me approximately 11,000 more MQMs in a couple months, putting my total in the neighborhood of 41,000 MQMs. Then a week ago I picked up the business version of the Delta Platinum card [SEE: 7 American Express Delta Cards (now with bonuses as high as 70,000 Skymiles)], which will add another 10,000 MQMs to the total after I meet the minimum spend, putting me just over the 50,000 MQM mark for Delta Gold.
I will have spent no more than $330 out of pocket for this privilege (both credit card fees minus a $60 Amex credit). I’m not even really counting that as a true cost because the combined total of 140,000 redeemable miles were the real reason I picked up the cards.
Is Delta Gold going to be worth anything to me? Honestly, I’m not sure. My wife and I will have quite a pile of Delta miles (250,000+ between the two of us) after I get done with the spending on the card to meet the MQD waiver, so they may be our airline of choice for 2019.
Using the United credit card for PQD waiver
United has its own route to help earn status, albeit nothing as nice as Delta. Using your United MileagePlus Explorer or United MileagePlus Club card throughout the year can help you earn United premier status through the premier qualifying dollar (PQD) waiver. If you spend a combined $25,000 across your co-branded Chase MIleagePlus cards, you won’t have to meet the premier qualifying dollar requirement for United Silver, Gold, or Platinum status. There is no PQD waiver available for earning United 1K.
Last year I hit the $25,000 mark on my United MileagePlus Explorer card, but I didn’t fly enough to earn even Silver (I was actually simply shooting for the 10,000 bonus miles). Now that I have both a Chase Sapphire Reserve (SEE: Should I upgrade my Chase Sapphire Preferred to a Reserve?) and a Chase Freedom Unlimited card in my pocket, my United card is has been rendered pretty obsolete for everyday spending.
Unfortunately, there is no way to earn extra PQDs with any United credit card a la your Delta Amex. You still have to fly the miles needed. But the waiver makes low-level United status attainable to travelers who fly a handful of cheap, long-haul international trips each year (such as the routinely available $489 nonstop SFO-PEK route) and otherwise wouldn’t meet the PQD requirement. You could potentially hit United Gold after 4 round-trips to Asia.
Supplementing your American EQDs to earn status
I consider American a bit of an oddball when it comes to leveraging your credit card to help you earn status. To earn airline elite status without flying American regularly, you’re sorta in the same boat as with United. It’s just slightly more complicated. Instead of having a simple waiver, you can augment your elite qualifying dollars (EQDs) with credit card spending.
The Red, Blue, and Business Barclaycard Aviator cards allow you to earn between $3,000 and $6,000 EQDs per year to help you reach American Airlines status. You earn $3,000 in EQDs after $25,000 in card spending on your Aviator card (any among the Red, Silver, or Business, but on one specific card). With the Aviator Silver, you can earn a second $3,000 in EQDs when you hit the $50,000 spending mark. The benefits from the various cards are not stackable. On other words, $6,000 EQD is the max you can earn.
The benefit over the Delta and United methods is that these EQDs can be used to help reach top-tier Executive Platinum status. The downside is that there isn’t a great way to augment your miles like with the Delta cards. The Aviator Silver and Citi AA Executive cards do let you earn up to 10,000 elite qualifying miles (EQMs) per year, but this only puts a small dent in the overall requirements.
In a nutshell, American Airlines co-branded credit cards have some of the features of both United and Delta, but they don’t really help you come that far. For a traveler that flies several times per year, including a couple long hauls, sticking with AA might really make some sense. But if you’re starting from scratch, Delta is probably still the winner. They are hands-down the easiest carrier with which to earn airline elite status without flying.
Status with other carriers
I don’t know of many ways to earn or augment elite status with other carriers without flying all the miles needed. Virgin Atlantic does come to mind, as their co-branded credit card issued by Bank of America allows you to earn tier points from credit card spending.
In some cases it’s honestly easier to just credit your miles to a program that doesn’t have a spending requirement (i.e. pretty much all except the U.S. “Big 3”). Some programs used by savvy travelers to earn alliance status include Asiana, which requires only 40,000 miles in two years. Seriously. Not to mention their redeemable miles have serious value. I’m not going to go into detail. Do some research and see if a foreign airline is a better fit for your travel plans. You may find that you can earn a reasonable alliance status by a relatively small amount of flying.
Is airline elite status worth anything if you don’t fly regularly?
Here’s the rub: if you don’t fly enough to earn elite status without augmenting it with either mileage runs or extra qualifying miles from a credit card, you probably won’t really experience the benefits of the status. I think it’s cool that I’m track to earn Delta elite status this year, but it won’t do much for me if I hardly fly Delta in the next 18 months.
Status tends to induce irrational behavior (which usually includes you spending more money), so my suggestion for most leisure travelers is that you simply don’t bother trying to earn it. Chase cheap fares and use your miles for high-value award tickets instead. But if you’re still looking for a way to earn airline elite status without flying or maybe augmenting your elite status (easiest in the case of Delta), you can leverage any of the avenues described above.
While it is definitely easier to earn airline elite status by jet-setting on a weekly basis, there are still a few avenues for people looking to earn airline elite status without flying a whole lot. In reality, if you don’t fly regularly, you probably won’t realize (m)any of the benefits afforded by status. But if you fly a limited number of paid tickets, you could potentially use some of the above methods to maintain status a tier or two higher than you normally would.
What are your status plans for 2018? Do you use credit cards to help you meet your goals?
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