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With the halfway point of 2016 fast approaching, it’s crucial to have your elite status qualification strategy nailed down. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen shares some of the top tips for meeting revenue, segment and elite-qualifying mile requirements.
We are coming up on the midpoint of 2016, so with almost half of the year in the rearview mirror, now’s a great time to assess your current elite status qualification (or requalification) progress. Many American flyers may have front-loaded their travel this year due to the upcoming change to revenue-based earning, but for other carriers you may be a bit behind. Today I want to go through some strategies to ensure that you’ll end the year with the same (or higher) elite status than you currently hold on your preferred airline.
1. Track Your Travels in a Spreadsheet
The first thing to do won’t actually help boost your account balance but is critical to identify any risk of not reaching your desired threshold: Track your progress using a spreadsheet. I’m no longer a road warrior, but when I was racking up 100,000+ miles in the air for work every year, I wanted to make sure that I knew where I was in relation to the different levels of Delta Medallion status (my carrier of choice at the time). I regularly utilize Excel both for my job and for tracking other things in my life, and here’s a sample of what mine looked like:
Since this was from 2014, I had to track not just MQMs but Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) as well, and I used conditional formatting to highlight when I hit each subsequent level of Medallion status with a different color. As you can see, I requalified for Platinum by the skin of my teeth thanks to the increased sign-up bonus on the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express (which was offering 15,000 MQMs in the summer of 2014). As my fall travel schedule came into focus, this spreadsheet clearly showed that I needed to boost my earnings.
Which leads me to my next strategy…
2. Earn Elite-Qualifying Miles from Credit Cards
The simplest way to increase your chances of hitting your desired level of elite status is through the use of airline credit cards. Many of them allow you to earn elite-qualifying points or miles through spending or as a sign-up bonus, so this is a great way to boost your elite qualification prospects. In fact, if you are a big spender, you may even be able to earn elite status without flying at all!
Here’s a quick rundown of the cards that offer these miles/points:
- Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard offers 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after $40,000 spent on purchases every year.
- Barclaycard’s AAdvantage Aviator Silver (converted from US Airways’ pre-merger MasterCard and not available to new applicants) offers 5,000 EQMs for each $20,000 in annual purchases (up to 10,000 EQMs per year).
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business Credit Card from American Express both offer 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) when you spend $25,000 in a calendar year and another 10,000 MQMs when you spend $50,000 in a calendar year (plus a limited-time sign-up bonus of 10,000 MQMs after spending $2,000 in the first three months).
- Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express and Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card both offer 10,000 MQMs after your first purchase as a sign-up bonus plus 15,000 MQMs when you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year and another 15,000 MQMs when you spend $60,000 in a calendar year.
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card offers 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) for every $10,000 spent on the card (up to 15,000 TQPs per year).
- Virgin America Premium Visa Signature offers 5,000 status points for every $10,000 you spend (up to 15,000 status points per year)
United is notably absent from this list, as only cardholders who’ve held onto the United MileagePlus Presidential Plus Card (a holdover from pre-merger Continental) can earn Flexible Premier Qualifying Miles (Flex PQMs) at a rate of 1,000 Flex PQMs for every $5,000 you spend. They can then be redeemed for actual PQMs immediately or for three full calendar years after they were earned.
In addition to these options, there’s actually one carrier that allows you to earn status outright through spending on a co-branded credit card. If you spend $50,000 in a calendar year on either the JetBlue Plus Card or the JetBlue Business Card, you’ll earn automatic Mosaic status. Though this isn’t the most rewarding level out there, it still beats traveling with no status!
Remember too that both Delta and United have revenue-based requirements for elite status qualification, so you can’t just hit the mileage thresholds. However, both carriers do offer waivers to those who spend $25,000 or more in a calendar year on one of their respective credit cards (though United’s waiver doesn’t apply to earning top-tier Premier 1K status).
3. Look at Extra Late Summer/Early Fall Trips
The summer tends to be a popular travel time across the US, but as you get into the fall and kids head back to school, airfares often drop a bit. If you aren’t beholden to a school calendar, consider booking flights for this lower-demand time. While pricing will (of course) depend on many factors aside from dates, this can be a good way to steer clear of high-demand travel times, add an extra trip or two to your calendar and boost your elite-qualifying balance in the process.
Here’s a quick example I found just by searching for a few minutes. If you were looking to fly from New York-LaGuardia (LGA) to Orlando (MCO) for a week, the cheapest prices for a Saturday to Saturday trip in mid-August are $349.20:
Just four weeks later, you can save over $100 per person in Basic Economy, while regular coach fares are $93 cheaper:
These lower fares are also available on just about every nonstop flight in September, whereas you’re much more restricted in August.
Of course, even during the summer there are flight deals to be had, which brings me to my next strategy…
4. Consider a Mileage Run (or Two)
Another great option for enhancing your elite qualification prospects is to take a mileage run. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s taking a trip solely for the purpose of earning miles (be them redeemable or elite-qualifying). Many of these are in coach, though there are ways to grab low fares in business class and enjoy a much more comfortable travel experience. These itineraries can be quite complicated and involve several connections, and you may never actually leave the airport! Of course if you can actually enjoy some time at the destination, that makes it even sweeter.
So how can you find these cheap flights? The first strategy is to regularly check our site or follow TPG on Facebook and Twitter (including our deals-focused account) for flight deal alerts, like the recent one to Hong Kong. You can also check out the mileage run forum on FlyerTalk for additional details and discussion around these options. While these trips do involve out-of-pocket expenditures, you can help minimize these costs by utilizing a card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, which lets you redeem miles for travel statement credits.
5. Book Connecting Flights Rather Than Nonstop Flights
You can also improve your chances of earning elite status by utilizing flexible routing rules when booking flights. If you book a connecting flight instead of a nonstop one, you’ll earn an extra segment toward elite status qualification and may wind up earning more elite-qualifying miles as well.
For example, let’s say you had to fly from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Denver (DEN). Checking a random date in October, there are multiple nonstop flights on both American and United for $168, a flight that would earn you 888 elite-qualifying miles. However, you could pay a small premium on both carriers to connect in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). Here are some of the options on American, where the premium for a connecting flight is as low as $26:
Here’s a similar itinerary out of Chicago on United, where the connecting flight will set you back an additional $37:
In both cases, this itinerary would earn you 1,444 EQMs/PQMs, a ~63% boost over the earning rate of the nonstop flights.
This can also come into play with same-day flight changes. Some carriers will allow you to change from a nonstop flight to a connecting flight when switching your flight on the day of departure, so even if you lock in the cheaper nonstop itinerary, you may still have the chance to increase your elite-qualifying mileage accrual by modifying your flight at the last minute. Just be aware that the individual routing rules of your ticket will govern when this is possible, and it’s all based on availability, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work every time.
6. Utilize United’s Premier Accelerator
Another strategy applies specifically to United: the carrier’s Premier Accelerator program. This allows you to purchase additional PQMs for a given itinerary. However, the rates tend to be quite high and will vary based on a number of factors, including your current Premier status and the specific itinerary you’re taking. They’ll also get pricier and pricier as the year goes on and the carrier recognizes the desperation of some travelers to boost their elite qualification prospects. There are some extensive FlyerTalk threads devoted to these rates, but expect to pay at least 10 cents per PQM, though I’ve seen some reports of rates up to 35 cents apiece!
The end of June is a great time to reflect on your travel thus far and make plans for the rest of the year, and qualifying (or requalifying) for elite status is a critical part of this. If you’re finding that you’re not as far along as you want, there’s still a lot of time to make up ground. Hopefully this post has given you some strategies for doing just that!
For more detailed suggestions for the major three carriers, check out the following posts from last year (most of the suggestions still apply):
- Last-Minute Elite Status Strategy in 2015: American Airlines AAdvantage
- Last-Minute Elite Status Strategy in 2015: Delta Medallion
- Last-Minute Elite Status Strategy in 2015: United MileagePlus Premier
How are you planning your air travels for the rest of 2016?
Featured image courtesy of Delta Airlines.Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express