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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here – Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Card, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, British Airways Visa Signature Card, Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express, Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, United MileagePlus Explorer Card
Ready for a fresh start? Now that it’s 2016, it’s time to start working on your points and miles strategy. Of course, credit cards can play a huge role in helping you redeem some great travel awards. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen is here to help you see which cards can get you the best perks (and how).
The end of each year brings the craziness of the holidays as well as an end to the elite status qualification year. But with 2016 officially here, now’s a great time to start thinking about your points and miles strategy for the new year. Credit cards and their various benefits can play a big role in this, so today I want to discuss eight credit card perks that you should think about working toward in 2016.
1. British Airways Travel Together Ticket
The first perk that can be quite lucrative is the British Airways Travel Together Ticket. If you hold the British Airways Visa Signature Card, you can earn this by spending $30,000 in a calendar year, and it essentially offers a buy one, get one free on British Airways award flights. You redeem your Avios for a flight and your companion can travel with you without spending any additional Avios (though you will have to pay additional taxes and fees). TPG used this for a flight from Newark to Paris-Orly on OpenSkies last year, saving a boatload of Avios in the process.
Unfortunately, there are some significant restrictions to this ticket, including (but not limited to):
- Flights must be on British Airways metal, meaning you’ll have to pay the carrier’s infamous fuel surcharges.
- You must start and end your trip in the US.
- The ticket is valid on round-trip flights only (though TPG was able to score a one-way ticket).
- The cardholder and companion must be on the same ticket and travel the entire itinerary.
You’ll generally see the ticket post to your online account four to six weeks after you earn it, and in most cases it can be redeemed online. It’s good for two years from the date of issue, and you can even book your return travel after the expiration date (though your outbound must depart prior to that date). You can also mix and match travel classes and can book open jaws, though the latter must be booked over the phone. And even though the Executive Club program underwent a significant devaluation earlier this year, there are still some ways to get great value out of redeeming Avios.
The card is currently offering a total of 100,000 Avios; you’ll earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening and an additional 25,000 bonus Avios when you spend $10,000 total on purchases within your first year. Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus Avios when you spend $20,000 total within your first year.
2. Delta MQM and Mileage Bonuses
Another spending threshold that you should work toward applies to a couple of Delta American Express cards and will help you qualify for Medallion status. Both the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express and the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express award you bonus miles and/or Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) for hitting certain thresholds:
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card: 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $25,000; another 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $50,000.
- Delta Reserve Credit Card: 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs after spending $30,000; another 15,000 bonus miles and 15,000 MQMs after spending $60,000.
If you’re really interested in qualifying for status and can spend $110,000 on the two cards in 2016 ($50,000 on the Platinum and $60,000 on the Reserve), you’ll take home 50,000 MQMs and enjoy automatic Gold Medallion status through January 2018. This includes benefits like complimentary upgrades, lounge access when traveling on an international SkyTeam flight, access to the Crossover Rewards program with SPG and bonus miles.
The Platinum card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 5,000 MQMs and 35,000 miles after you spend $1,000 on your new card in the first three months. The Reserve card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 10,000 MQMs and 10,000 bonus miles after your first purchase on the card. Both cards also waive foreign transaction fees and offer cardholders a free checked bag on Delta flights, and the Reserve card includes access to Delta SkyClubs.
In addition to providing access to these bonuses, these cards can also help with our next perk…
3. MQD and PQD Waivers
Back in 2014, both Delta and United implemented revenue-based requirements for elite status (and both were raised for 2015). Flying the required number of miles or segments is no longer enough; you also need to spend a certain amount of money on your tickets and certain eligible charges to hit Delta’s Medallion Qualification Dollar (MQD) requirement and United’s Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) requirement.
However, if you spend at least $25,000 on a co-branded credit card, you are exempt from these requirements. In addition to the Platinum and Reserve cards mentioned above, the following cards will also provide this waiver for Delta travelers:
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
- Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
- Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
- Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card from American Express
The following cards offer a similar waiver for United travelers:
- United MileagePlus Explorer Card
- United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card
- United MileagePlus Club Card
- United MileagePlus Club Business Card
- United Presidential Plus Credit Card (no longer accepting new applicants)
Note that United doesn’t provide this waiver for its top-tier Premier 1K level, though last year it did offer select members a waiver.
4. Bonus United Miles
In addition to helping with your elite status qualification, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card can also boost your account balance. Hitting the $25,000 spend mark in a calendar year will also award you 10,000 redeemable miles that can be used toward your next award ticket. This bonus is worth $150 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, so while it may not be the most lucrative perk out there, it’s nevertheless a nice added benefit, especially if you need the PQD waiver.
The card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. You’ll also earn double miles on United purchases, gain access to additional award inventory and pay no foreign transaction fees for purchases made outside the US.
5. American EQM Bonus
The other major legacy carrier also offers a credit card with a bonus to help your elite-qualifying endeavors. If you spend $40,000 in a calendar year on the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, you’ll earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) that will help you reach the next level of AAdvantage elite status. TPG views Executive Platinum as the most rewarding top-tier airline status out there, though the elite aspect program is changing slightly for next year.
The card is currently offering a welcome bonus of 50,000 AAdvantage miles after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. It also gives you full Admirals Club membership (and was recently updated to offer club access to authorized users as well), double miles on American purchases, a credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck and a free checked bag on American flights.
6. Hilton Honors Diamond Status
If you’re after Hilton elite status, there are two different credit cards that provide access to the brand’s top-tier Diamond status. Both the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card and the Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express include automatic Gold status, but if you spend $40,000 on either card in a calendar year, you’ll be upgraded to Diamond status. This provides additional benefits like upgrades and bonus points, and this would also put you well past the $10,000 spending threshold needed for an additional weekend night certificate on the Reserve card (which is based on card member year rather than calendar year).
The Reserve card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of two weekend night certificates after making $2,500 in purchases within the first four months of account opening. The Surpass card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months of card membership. Both cards also offer bonus points for purchases at Hilton properties and waive foreign transaction fees when you’re traveling abroad.
7. Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Rewards Elite Status
Two other chains that make it relatively easy to enjoy status through credit card spending are Marriott and Ritz-Carlton. The programs are essentially identical, and status with one provides benefits across both portfolios of properties. Here’s what you’d need to spend on each program’s co-branded credit card:
- Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card: Automatically offers 15 elite night credits plus an additional credit for every $3,000 spent on the card (awarded on a monthly basis). You would thus need to spend $105,000 on the card to earn Gold status and $180,000 on the card to earn Platinum status, assuming you don’t have any eligible stays during the year.
- The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card: Currently includes automatic Gold status for the first year, though you can maintain this status by spending $10,000 during your account year. If your spending hits $75,000, you’ll be upgraded to Platinum status.
It’s important to note that the timing of these benefits is quite interesting, as they’re based on a cardmembership year, while elite status qualification is based on a calendar year. As a result, you need to carefully consider your spending to make the most of the benefits.
The Marriott card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from your account opening. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of two complimentary nights at any participating Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
8. Starwood Preferred Guest Gold Status
The final perk you should consider applies to both the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express and the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card from American Express. If you spend $30,000 on either one of these cards in a calendar year, you’ll be upgraded to Gold status. This unlocks benefits like bonus points, upgrades to “enhanced” rooms and access to the Crossover Rewards program with Delta. You’d also take home at least 30,000 SPG points for these purchases, and TPG regularly pegs Starpoints as his most valuable loyalty currency out there. In fact, he recommends the SPG Amex as a terrific option for non-category bonus spending.
That being said, Gold status only requires 10 stays or 25 nights in a calendar year, and it’s also included as a benefit on the Platinum Card® from American Express. Be sure to consider your own travel plans carefully before committing such a large chunk of spending to a status that could be obtained through other means.
Both the personal and business SPG Amex cards are currently offering welcome bonuses of 25,000 Starpoints after $3,000 and $5,000 in purchases, respectively, within the first three months. Both cards also enjoyed a makeover earlier in the year, including the removal of foreign transaction fees and complimentary unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi. Though the annual fee did jump to $95, it may still be worth it depending on your travel and spending patterns.
A new year brings a wave of resolutions, but it also resets the counter on many credit card perks. If you haven’t started thinking about your approach to spending in 2016, now’s a great time to start! I hope this list has given you some food for thought as you consider the benefits you want to earn this year.
What credit card perk(s) do you plan to pursue in 2016?