Shortcuts to Earning Elite Status with Airline Credit Cards

Jun 16, 2015

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As someone who flies American Airlines all the time, I really value my AAdvantage Executive Platinum status. Airline elite status can make your trip smoother, more comfortable and even less expensive, so there are plenty of reasons to pursue it. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at credit card strategies to help you move up the frequent flyer ranks.

The Holy Grail for many frequent travelers is a free upgrade to first class, and shortly behind that are perks like priority service and fee waivers. These are the primary benefits of elite status, and earning them can be much easier when you use the right credit card. In this post I’ll look at current opportunities to earn elite miles through co-branded airline credit cards, so that you can determine whether any of them will help you attain the status level you have in mind.

Amex offers several co-branded Delta cards that can help you earn Medallion Qualification Miles.

Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card and Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business Card from American Express

These cards offer Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) both with the welcome offer and every year. The current limited-time offer for the Platinum Delta SkyMiles personal card features 60,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $2,000 in the first three months, plus a $100 statement credit after making a Delta purchase in the first three months.

In addition, you can earn 10,000 MQMs each calendar year when you spend $25,000 on your card, and another 10,000 MQMs (20,000 total) when you reach $50,000 in purchases. So with this card alone, you can conceivably earn 30,000 MQMs (enough for Silver Medallion status) before even stepping on an airplane. You also get an annual domestic economy companion certificate, along with perks like priority boarding and a free checked bag. There is a $195 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.

Delta Reserve Card and Delta Reserve for Business Card from American Express

Like the Platinum SkyMiles card, the top-of-the-line SkyMiles Reserve card also offers MQMs as a welcome bonus and for spending each year. In this case, you earn 40,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $3,000 within the first three months. You’ll earn 15,000 MQMs every calendar year that you make $30,000 in purchases, and another 15,000 MQMs when you reach $60,000 in purchases. The companion certificate in these cards is superior to the Platinum SkyMiles cards, as you can use it in premium cabins. The Reserve cards also come with SkyClub access (when flying on a Delta-operated flight). There is a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.

American Airlines plane 3
The AAdvantage Executive card offers elite qualifying miles as well as full Admiral’s Club membership.

Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

This card offers 10,000 AAdvantage elite qualifying miles when you spend $40,000 within a calendar year. In addition, new cardholders receive 50,000 miles after making $5,000 in purchases within three months of account opening. And of course, this card comes with a host of perks including Admiral’s club membership, free checked bags, priority service and discounts on in-flight purchases like food and entertainment. You can also now get up to a $100 statement credit for a Global Entry ($100) or TSA PreCheck ($85) application fee. There is a $450 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card (and business version) from Chase

These cards offer up to 15,000 Tier Qualifying Points each calendar year. You’ll earn 1,500 points for every $10,000 you make in purchases. Since entry-level A-List status requires 35,000 Tier Qualifying Points or 25 (paid) one-way flights, one bonus only gets you about half way there. However, with both the personal and business cards (which is a great way to earn the Southwest Companion Pass) you can get most of the way toward A-List status. There is a $99 annual fee for each card.

With Virgin Atlantic Gold status you can access clubhouse lounges like this new one at LAX.

Virgin Atlantic World Elite Mastercard from Bank of America

This card offers one tier point for every $2,500 you put on the card each month, with a maximum bonus of 2 points per month and 24 points annually. You can earn Flying Club Silver status at 15 tier points, so you can easily reach this entry level elite status from credit card spending alone, even though you have to spread it out. The current welcome bonus is for 20,000 miles after your first purchase, plus 50,000 miles after you spend $12,000 in purchases in your first 6 months. You can also get 5,000 more miles for adding authorized users to your account. There is a $90 annual fee for this card.

Virgin America Premium Visa Signature Card from Comenity Capital Bank

This card offers up to 15,000 status points per calendar year at a rate of 5,000 points for every $10,000 spent. Furthermore, the card allows you to roll over any unused points toward qualifying in the next year. You get a few other benefits like a free checked bag, a $150 discount on a companion fare and a 20% discount on in-flight purchases. There is a $149 annual fee for this card.

Some of these cards offer strong value, but not necessarily because of the elite miles.


When you’re picking a credit card to earn elite status, there are some good options available, but not all of them provide great opportunities. It’s important to compare the spending requirements and points received to the actual value of the elite status earned.

In most cases having just one of these cards will propel you only part of the way to entry level status, which typically doesn’t provide as many benefits as it did previously. However, when you use one (or more) of these cards in combination with actual revenue flying, the extra elite miles can easily make the difference between reaching the next level of status or falling just short.

The Delta SkyMiles cards from American Express come out on top of this pack, as they offer many opportunities to earn MQMs, and Delta Medallion status becomes extraordinarily valuable as you reach the two highest levels, Platinum and Diamond. Furthermore, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card currently has a strong welcome bonus offer, as 60,000 miles are worth $720 in TPG’s latest monthly valuations. In conjunction with the $100 statement credit, there’s plenty of value to be had apart from the elite miles.

Another useful aspect of the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express is that it grants cardholders an additional level of upgrade priority above other travelers with the same status who don’t hold the card. If getting upgraded on Delta is important to you, having the Reserve card can help. In extreme cases, it’s even possible for big spenders to reach the upper echelons of Delta Medallion status just by having multiple (both business and personal) versions of the SkyMiles Platinum and Reserve cards.

Southwest’s co-branded cards have their uses, but earning elite status isn’t one of them.

While I’m a big fan of the Citi AAdvantage Executive card due to its numerous perks, its offer of just 10,000 elite qualifying miles for spending a whopping $40,000 is much less valuable than any of the Delta SkyMiles cards. Nevertheless, this opportunity is still better than any you’ll find with United, which no longer offers a card that earns Premier Qualifying Miles (existing holders of the Presidential Plus credit card can earn PQMs, but you can no longer apply for this card).

Also on the weak side are the Southwest Premier cards, which max out well short of entry-level status, even when spending $100,000 in a year! Furthermore, elite status on Southwest is distinctly less valuable than it is on other carriers, as the airline has no first-class cabin. These cards are still great for earning the Companion Pass, but unless you’re a devout Southwest Airlines flyer, I wouldn’t bother with trying to earn the bonus Tier Qualifying Points.

Finally, you have the cards from both Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic. Virgin America’s Silver elite status is somewhat valuable, as it includes potential upgrades to premium economy and even Upper (first) class. Thankfully, the credit card offers as many as 15,000 of the 20,000 points necessary to get there (after you spend a total of $30,000). For frequent business travelers, this can be a relatively low hurdle to clear.

With Virgin Atlantic, you can get all the way to Flying Club Silver status by spending $37,500 (spread out strategically throughout the year). Unfortunately, that mostly just gives you some bonus miles, priority services and access to a few lounges in the UK. The really good benefits (including extra legroom and unlimited lounge access) come with Gold status, which requires 40 points. Since you can only earn two tier points a month, you can only reach 24 points in a year by spending $5,000 a month. That won’t get you to Gold, but if this card will make the difference between reaching Gold versus only reaching Silver, then it’s certainly a good deal.

To decide whether these cards should be part of your elite status strategy, figure out how much you value the status you’re working toward. You can then decide whether that value justifies the opportunity cost of putting the added spending on your card (rather than putting it toward earning other bonuses or more valuable points).

Do you use an airline credit card to help you earn elite status?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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