How to plan your elite status requirements for 2020

Dec 26, 2019

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Veteran award travelers like to refer to elite status as a hamster wheel: Once you hop on, the wheel never stops spinning and it’s hard to get off. For example, I will requalify for my Marriott Titanium elite status on Dec. 29, just two days before the end of the calendar year, and I’m already making plans to ensure I can qualify again in 2020. Some of you might have met your elite goals last year with plenty of room and time to spare, while others might have been forced to resort to a last-minute mileage run or mattress run to get the status you wanted. Today we’re going to take a look at how you can plan in advance for 2020 so you won’t have to spend your next holiday season meticulously counting your Elite or Medallion qualifying miles.

In This Post

Know the requirements

Elite status qualifications are like constantly moving goalposts and 2020 ushers in one of the biggest shifts since the addition of revenue requirements (“elite qualifying dollars”) a few years ago. United is eliminating the concept of Premier Qualifying Miles in favor of a scheme that focuses almost entirely on how much you spend. American Airlines is testing a similar program for targeted members. Given the way the three legacy U.S. carriers copy each other on almost every element of their loyalty programs, it won’t be long until hard cash is the only way to qualify for elite status in the U.S.

Further Reading: United Airlines makes big changes to how we earn elite status, upgrades

Whether United’s changes are good or bad depends a lot on your travel style. Business travelers taking expensive last-minute trips are likely to come out ahead. Still, the main takeaway here is that you need to know the requirements for earning elite status in order to plan your year effectively. It’s unlikely that airlines will make any more seismic changes like this for the rest of 2019, but they can tweak plenty of things like partner earning rates with little to no notice, so stay up to date on all the industry news.

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Leverage cobranded credit cards

Depending on what airline and tier of status you’re pursuing, you may be able to get there faster by taking advantage of the right credit card. Generally this happens in one of three ways: credit cards offer elite status spending waivers; credit cards offer elite status qualification boosters, or credit cards outright give elite status to cardholders.

The last category is the simplest, but it only applies to hotel elite status and not airline status. You can use the following credit cards to get started on earning hotel elite status:

Credit card Elite status
The Platinum Card® from American Express ($550 annual fee; see rates and fees) Hilton Honors Gold status

Marriott Bonvoy Gold status

Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express ($450 annual fee; see rates and fees) Hilton Honors Diamond status
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card ($95 annual fee; see rates and fees) Hilton Honors Gold status (earn Diamond by spending $40,000 in a calendar year on the card)
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card ($450 annual fee; see rates and fees) Marriott Bonvoy Gold status (earn Platinum by spending $75,000 in a calendar year on the card)
Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card ($125 annual fee: see rates and fees) Marriott Bonvoy Silver status (earn Gold by spending $35,000 in a calendar year on the card)
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card Marriott Bonvoy Silver status
 The World Of Hyatt Credit Card World of Hyatt Discoverist status
IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card IHG Platinum status

 

In addition, Marriott Bonvoy cardholders have the advantage of earning 15 elite night credits each year to help them qualify for elite status, though this perk is limited to one set of credits per Bonvoy account not per credit card.

When it comes to using credit cards to help with airline elite status, you’re more likely to find a partial boost instead of cards that offer status automatically. Here are your options for expediting your elite status qualification with the three major US airlines:

Delta Air Lines

Delta offers three different avenues to help qualify for elite status with its credit cards. Some cards offer bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs), such as the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, which is currently offering new applicants 40,000 redeemable miles and 10,000 MQMs after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first three months. The card has an annual fee of $450 ($550 if application is received on or after Jan. 30, 2020) (see rates and fees).

No matter which Delta Amex card you have, you can waive the pesky revenue requirement (Medallion Qualifying Dollars, or MQD), by spending on your card. Spend $25,000 in a calendar year and you’ll receive an MQD waiver all the way up through Platinum status; however, to waive the MQD requirement for Delta’s top-tier Diamond status you need to spend a whopping $250,000 in a year.

Delta offers six cobranded credit cards issued by Amex. There are three tiers, with Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express being the entry-level card with a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year (see rates and fees), Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express in the middle with a $195 annual fee ($250 if application is received on or after Jan. 30, 2020) (see rates and fees), and Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express in the premium sweet spot on top (as well as business versions of each). The Platinum and Reserve cards also include a “Miles Boost” feature which awards bonus MQMs for reaching certain spending thresholds. Note that Amex announced some pretty significant changes to its Delta credit cards, including the Miles Boost feature. As part of this overhaul we’ll see an opportunity to earn more MQMs but the redeemable-mile component will be going away.

Further Reading: Delta Amex cards adding major new benefits, changing others in 2020

Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express cardholders will receive 10,000 MQMs after spending $25,000 in a calendar year and again after spending $50,000, while Delta Reserve cardholders will get 15,000 bonus MQMs after spending $30,000, $60,000, $90,000 and $120,000 a year.

United Airlines

With United doing away with Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) and focusing almost entirely on customer spending instead, the old Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQDs) waivers that could be earned with the United Explorer Card and United Club Card are changing as well. As a reminder, qualifying for United elite status now requires the following number of Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs, which roughly correspond to pre-tax spending on airfare and select other purchases) or PQPs and Premier Qualifying Flights ({PQFs):

You can earn up to 1,000 PQPs a year through spending on United cobranded credit card: 500 after spending $12,000 and another 500 after spending $24,000 total.

The information for the United Club card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

American Airlines

American Airlines is rather unique in that it has cobranded credit cards issued by both Citi and Barclaycard, but the only card open to new applicants that can help you with your elite status goals is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®. You can earn 10,000 bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. That’s a pretty high spending requirement and you can only earn the bonus once per year.

keep an eye out for cheap fares, especially on partner airlines

When you try to cram a mileage run into the final weeks of the year, you’re often looking to take the shortest trip possible and might miss out on a chance to explore a cool destination. If you start planning at the beginning of the year, you can pounce on good deals as they pop up and work them into your vacation calendar with less time pressure.

Although mileage earning in the U.S. is increasingly dominated by ticket costs, most partner airlines still accrue miles based on the distance flown. This means that if you can find a cheap, long-haul business-class fare on an alliance partner, you can earn way more redeemable miles than by simply flying a U.S. carrier (although when it comes to elite qualifying miles, you’ll have to look at the specific fare class to see which airline comes out ahead).

Take a look at this round-trip business class ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to Shanghai (PVG) on Hainan Air, with a connection in Xi’an (XIY) in both directions. First of all, at only $1,693 round-trip, this is an amazing deal. If you don’t like the idea of spending that much cash, you could opt to pay with points on a card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® by paying with ~113,000 Ultimate Rewards points.

Hainan Air partners with Alaska Airlines, so you could earn Mileage Plan miles on this flight. The long-haul legs book into the “I” business-class fare bucket, while the domestic flights within China are in the “C” fare bucket. Based on Alaska’s earning chart for Hainan, you’d earn the following:

  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Xi’an (XIY) and back: 13,652 elite-qualifying miles and 27,304 redeemable miles
  • Xi’an (XIY) to Shanghai (PVG) and back: 3,960 elite-qualifying miles and 5,544 redeemable miles

This means a single trip can net you 17,612 elite-qualifying miles (over 70% of the way to MVP status) and 32,848 redeemable miles with Alaska (worth $591.26 based on TPG’s most recent valuations).

Just be sure to carefully review the mileage accrual charts for the airline loyalty program to which you are crediting your flights. Some fare classes give bonuses for premium cabins that count toward elite status while others do not. And some partners — like Ravn Alaska for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan — don’t count toward elite status at all.

bottom line

If you want to use up all 365 days of the year qualifying for elite status, you can do that, but a little planning early in the year can save you a lengthy and potentially expensive mileage run at the end of the year. We’re seeing a radical shift in the way airlines award elite status, so make sure you know what your target is well in advance and track how much travel you have planned to see if you’ll need to supplement it with any mileage runs or additional vacations.

Featured image by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy

For rates and fees of the Amex Platinum card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Aspire card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Honors Surpass card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Marriott Bonvoy Business card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles card, click here.

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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