Sunday Reader Question: How Can You Spend Your Way to Airline and Hotel Elite Status?

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Savvy TPG reader thegasguru asks:

“I’d like to see a post on how to “spend” your way to status in various programs. Can the very top tier status be obtained without ever stepping foot on the plane or in the hotel? If not, what’s the highest you can go via spend only”

These days, its not about how much you fly or how many nights you spend in hotels – its all about the benjamins, baby. That’s right, most airlines and hotels give elite status for spending on credit cards. Here is a rundown of the ways to get elite status without stepping foot on a plane or putting your head on a hotel pillow:

Airlines:
American: AA was the last holdout of the major airlines to offer elite miles via credit card and they just recently launched their co-branded card that offers EQMs.
Citi Executive AAdvantage
 card which gives 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles when you spend $40,000 in a calendar year. Other benefits include: Admirals Club lounge access, no foreign transaction fees and free checked bags. Current sign-up bonus: 25,000 regular miles with $1,000 spend within 4 months. Annual fee: $450.

Continental/United
Continental Presidential Plus card. 1,000 Flex EQMs for every $5,000 spent. Other benefits include: Red Carpet/Presidents Club lounge access, no foreign transaction fees, 2 free checked bags, Hyatt Platinum, Avis Presidents Club. Current sign-up bonus: Nothing. Annual fee: $395
Continental Presidential Plus for Business. 1,000 Flex EQMs for every $5,000 spent. Other benefits include: Red Carpet/Presidents Club lounge access, no foreign transaction fees, 2 free checked bags, Hyatt Platinum, Avis Presidents Club. Current sign-up bonus: Nothing. Annual fee: $395

Another way to rack up Continental elite miles without stepping foot on a plane is by buying refundable tickets and taking advantage of the Elite maximizer. Continental will give you the option of doubling your miles – buying regular miles at about 3.5 cents a piece and then also giving the option to get EQMs as well. The thing is, once you buy the maximizer, you automatically get the miles- not when you fly. So you can cancel your ticket and you’ll still keep the EQMs – granted at a steep price. As the end of the year nears they raise the price of the EQMs because they know people get more desperate. For more info, check out my post on it from last December.

Delta: Delta is the king of giving away elite miles (MQMs) like candy! Not only can you get miles from their multiple credit cards and through any Membership Rewards Amex card, they also run lucrative promos like MQMs for Hilton stays, MQMs for charity donations and they even let you rollover your excess MQMs from year to year. In addition, they offer several ways to rack up monster MQMs from their credit cards (and remember Amex will let you have multiple credit cards – especially personal and business – so think of all the possibilities):
Delta Reserve Card: 10,000 MQMs with first purchase, 15,000 MQMs if you hit $30,000 within a calendar year and then an additional 15,000 when you hit $60,000. Other benefits include; Delta SkyClub access, domestic first class companion ticket (this works for coach and discounted first class so it’s actually pretty valuable), free checked bag. Current Sign-up Bonus: 10,000 MQMs after first purchase. Annual fee: $450. Maximum potential MQMs with sign-up bonus = 40,000.
Delta Business Reserve Card: 15,000 MQMs + 15.000 bonus miles when you spend $30K in a calendar year. Then, get another 15K MQMs + 15K bonus miles when you reach $60K the same year. Current Sign-up Bonus: 10,000 MQMs with first purchase. Annual fee: $450. Maximum potential MQMs with sign-up bonus = 40,000.
Delta Platinum Card: Earn a Miles Boost of 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) when you reach $25,000 in eligible purchases during a calendar year. Earn an additional Miles Boost of 10,000 MQMs when you reach $50,000 in eligible purchases the same calendar year. Current sign-up bonus: 20,000 regular miles and 5,000 MQMs with first purchase. 5,000 more miles when you add two additional users. Annual fee: $150. Maximum potential MQMs with sign-up bonus = 25,000.
Delta Business Platinum Card: Earn a Miles Boost of 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) when you reach $25,000 in eligible purchases during a calendar year. Earn an additional Miles Boost of 10,000 MQMs when you reach $50,000 in eligible purchases the same calendar year. Current sign-up bonus: 20,000 regular miles and 5,000 MQMs with first purchase. 5,000 more miles when you add two additional users. Annual fee: $150. Maximum potential MQMs with sign-up bonus = 25,000.
As a Skybonus member, I just got this targeted offer for the Business Platinum which expires 10/31/11: Sign-up bonus: 25,000 miles (5,000 of which count as Medallion® Qualification Miles) will be awarded after your first purchase. Earn another 30,000 bonus miles, including 10,000 MQMs, when you spend $10,000 in six months, plus the regular mileage boosts at $25,000 and $50,000 in spend. Total MQMs with $50,000 spend = 35,000.

Delta has also been offering upto 25,000 MQMs for making transfers from regular Amex Membership Rewards accounts (from Platinum, Premier Rewards, Gold and Green cards). The last one expired 9/30/11 and there were two others in recent history (here and here), but its anyone’s guess whether they will run it again in the future.

If you took advantage of the max MQMs from all 4 co-branded cards and did a 25,000 MQM transfer, you could essential get 165,000 MQMs which would get you their top-tier Diamond status and allow you to roll over 45,000 MQMs to the next year which would almost get you to Gold – all without stepping foot on a plane.

US Airways
US Airways doesn’t have a credit card that offers elite miles, has a Barclay’s US Airways Premier World Mastercard that offers up to 10,000 preferred miles. Current Sign-up Bonus: 40,000 miles Annual fee: $89, waived for the first year.

They also certainly don’t beat about the bush when it comes to outright selling elite status. They offer is for straight up purchase with their Buy Up to Preferred program (starting at $1,499 for Silver and up to $3,999 for Chairmans). They also have a Trial Preferred program which sells status for 90 days and gives you the opportunity to keep it if you fly a certain amount.

Hotels:
Hilton:
The Hilton HHonors® Surpass Card by American Express gives instant Gold status (room upgrades, free internet, 25% point bonus on Hilton stays) for the first year and each year with $20,000 in spend, Diamond status (upgrades, club access, free internet, room guarantee, amenities) if you spend $40,000 in a calendar year. Other benefits include 500 point bonus when the card is used to make Hilton bookings online, Priority Pass membership (but you still have to pay for lounge visits), PointStretcher reduced awards, elite-only access awards. Current Sign-up: 40,000 points after first purchase and 2,500 bonus points for each of your first eight eligible stays when the stay is paid for with your Surpass Card within the first 18 months of Cardmembership. Annual fee: $75.

Hyatt
Hyatt gives instant Platinum status (mid-tier level) for anyone with their Chase Hyatt Visa. Current sign-up bonus: 2 free nights at any Hyatt and a night at a 1-4 hotel every year upon renewal. Annual fee: $75.
You can also get Hyatt Platinum with the Continental Presidential Plus card.

Marriott/ Ritz-Carlton
Marriott Premier Visa gives 15 nights toward your next Elite membership level every year upon account anniversary and 1 extra night qualification for every $3,000 in spend. Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points with your first purchase and a free category 1-4 night. Annual fee: $85, waived for the first year.
Marriott Visa gives 10 nights towards elite status each year and 1 extra night qualification for every $3,000 in spend. Sign-up bonus: 30,000 point sign-up bonus, 2 free nights at a category 1-4 hotel Annual fee: $45, waived for the first year
More details on these cards here.

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards card grants free Gold status for the first year and then it is maintained with $10,000 in yearly spend. Other benefits: 3 Club level upgrades annual, room upgrades, $200 airline credits, $100 in hotel credits per 2 night stay. Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after first use. Annual fee: $395.

Hilton HHonors Card by Citi gives free Silver status (15% point bonus on stays, gym access). Current sign-up bonus:  40,000 points after spending $1,000 within 4 months. No annual fee.

Priority Club:
Priority Club Visa by Chase gives Gold status (10% bonus on points earned on stays). Other benefits: A free night certificate every year (which more than pays for the $49 annual fee), 10% rebate on all award bookings (you get 4,000 points back for a 40,000 point Intercontinental award), no foreign transaction fees, rotating list of PointBreaks hotels that only charge 5,000 points a night. Current sign-up bonus: 60,000 points (80,000 targeted to many). Annual fee: $49, waived for the first year.

Starwood
Starwood gives out Gold status pretty easily, but Platinum is only achieved by hitting the 25 stay/50 night threshold. Their co-branded cards offer 2 stays/5 nights credit towards status, so if you had the personal and business cards, you’d only need to complete 21 stays or 40 nights to get Platinum.
Starwood American Express offers Gold status after $30,000 in spend (4pm check-out, room upgrades) as well as 2 stays/5 nights towards elite status qualification every year. Other benefits include transfers to many airlines at a 25% bonus per 20,000 points transferred, Cash & Points redemption option, 5th night free. Current sign-up bonus: 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase and an additional 15,000 when you spend $5,000 in 6 months. Annual fee: $65 – waived for the first year.
Starwood American Express offers Gold status after $30,000 in spend (4pm check-out, room upgrades) as well as 2 stays/5 nights towards elite status qualification every year. Other benefits include transfers to many airlines at a 25% bonus per 20,000 points transferred, Cash & Points redemption option, 5th night free. Current sign-up bonus: 10,000 Starpoints after your first purchase and an additional 15,000 when you spend $5,000 in 6 months. Annual fee: $65- waived for the first year.
American Express Platinum Card gives members instant Starwood Gold status, you just need to call 1-888-625-4990 and request it. Current sign-up bonus: 25,000 points when you spend $1,000Annual fee: $450.

For more info on hotel credit cards, check out my past Reader Question on the topic.
To browse credit cards by rewards type, please feel free to visit TPG sister site travelcreditcards.com.

So, to sum it up, I think the most generous airline when it comes to elite status is Delta and the best hotel Hilton (that is if you can meet their steep spend requirements). Otherwise, it depends on what you want out of your hotel status and whether your credit card will simply augment your existing stays or whether you need it to do the majority of the heavy lifting. It all depends on your needs

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