Last-minute tips for locking in airline elite status

Nov 19, 2019

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With only a few weeks left in the year, now is the time to evaluate where you stand in terms of requalifying for airline elite status, and how much farther you need to get before the clock runs out on Dec. 31. We’ve talked about specific last-minute elite-qualification strategies for Delta, United, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest, but today we’re going to take a more general approach and talk about methods you can use no matter what airline you’re trying to earn status with, or whether you’re shooting for a year of top-tier elite perks or trying to move from general member to your first taste of elite status.

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Is it worth making a final push for airline elite status?

We’re already nearly 90% of the way through the year. If you haven’t yet qualified for the elite status you want, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth the time, effort and cost to make a big push during the busy (and expensive) holiday travel season.

Every year TPG Points Lab Senior Editor Nick Ewen goes through and values the different tiers of elite status with the major U.S. airlines to give you an idea of the type of return you can expect in exchange for a year of loyalty. However, there’s one huge caveat: Nick’s math assumes that you fly 20% more than the minimum number of miles required to earn each tier of status, since the value of many elite perks are directly tied to how often you get to use them. If you’re flying less than the normal amount needed to earn status and only getting there with a last minute push, you’ll need to readjust the numbers down based on your own situation.

You can check out Nick’s valuations here:

Another important consideration, at least if you’re flying with the three legacy airlines, is that elite status is directly tied to the amount you spend each year. If you fly 100,000 miles but they’re all on award tickets, you won’t get so much as an extra pack of peanuts to show for it. Make sure you don’t end up overspending to move up a rung of status, especially if you don’t travel all that frequently to begin with.

Credit cards that help earn airline elite status

While the end of the year might not be the best time to start working on a large, tiered spending bonus, if you regularly use a cobranded airline credit card in your day-to-day life, you might be close to hitting one already.

Related: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

One of the most popular ways to do this is with a Delta credit card. Both the business and personal versions of Amex’s premium Delta cards offer “miles boost,” which lets you earn both redeemable and Medallion® Qualification Miles after hitting certain spending targets. Note that these Amex and Delta are changing these benefits in January 2020 as part of a broader overhaul of the Delta card portfolio, but for now here’s what you can do:

Since Delta also offers a Medallion® Qualification Dollar (MQD) waiver up through Platinum status after spending $25,000 a year on your Delta credit card, you might be able to kill two birds with one stone by earning both MQDs and MQMs from the same spending.

If Delta isn’t your airline of choice, you can also earn bonus Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) towards American Airlines AAdvantage status by spending on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®. Specifically, you’ll earn an extra 10,000 EQMs by spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year.

Mileage runs

While mileage runs — the act of flying somewhere solely for the purpose of accruing miles — used to be a rite of passage among serious award travelers, the value proposition has dropped precipitously as airlines have changed their programs to award miles based on the cost of the ticket rather than the distance flown. If you find yourself coming up just short of elite status, taking a quick mileage run this holiday season might be the most cost-effective way to put you over the top.

Related: How and why you might want to book a mileage run

Rather than discussing individual flight deals, I’ll share a couple of tips that any would-be mileage runners can consider using:

  • FlyerTalk is your friend: Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, take a look at FlyerTalk’s dedicated mileage-run page which offers up-to-date deals for all the major airline alliances. No matter what status you’re pursuing, you’ll find actionable deals here.
  • Connect, connect, connect! Most sane people normally look for the fastest routings possible to get to their destination, but if you’re trying to mileage run you’ll want to add in as many stops as possible to increase the distance of your ticket. If you can pick up a few hundred (or a few thousand) extra miles for less than $10, that seems like a no-brainer.

  • Beware of basic economy: Of course you’ll want to keep your costs low when mileage running, but booking the cheapest tickets might end up backfiring. Each airline has a slightly different policy on how basic economy fares earn elite-qualifying miles, but some accrue at such a low rate that it defeats the purpose of a mileage run.
  • Great Circle Mapper is a handy tool: The fastest way to estimate how many miles you’ll earn on a given flight is by plugging your route into Great Circle Mapper and multiplying by any fare-class bonus you may receive. Speaking of which…
  • Leverage partner earning rates: If you’re yearning for the days of distance-based elite-qualifying mileage accrual, you may be able to get a dose of sweet nostalgia by booking a flight with a partner airline instead. Especially if you can find a reasonable fare in premium economy or business class, this can be one of the fastest ways to earn elite-qualifying miles thanks to the combination of a distance-based earning chart and high class of service multipliers.
  • Consider a trip to China: I know, I know, this came totally out of left field, but hear me out. The ultimate goal of a mileage run is to find the longest, cheapest flight you possibly can. On any given day, Shanghai (PVG) and Beijing (PEK) are two of the cheapest destinations you can fly to from the U.S. This $313 flight from Los Angeles to Beijing is cheaper than any flight to Europe on the same dates, even from budget carriers like Norwegian. Yes, you’ll have to deal with a visa, but you’ll rack up 10,000-15,000 elite-qualifying miles on the trip, depending on your routing.

Buy-up to status

If you’re really desperate for status and don’t have the time to mileage run, you can consider buying up to the level you want, though I have to warn you that this is almost universally a bad value. For example, Delta recently released its offer to buy up to Medallion elite status, and the prices are pretty insane. The cheapest package, which only earns 1,000 MQMs, 3 MQSs and $999 MQDs, costs a full $999 to buy.

The rates get a bit better as you go up the chart, but if you were to buy up to Silver status from scratch (the most expensive package shown), it would cost you $3,599. Meanwhile, Nick Ewen only values Silver Medallion status at $775. This hefty expense might make more sense if you were buying up from Platinum to top-tier Diamond, but again it’s a tough sell.

American’s elite status offers are a bit less egregious, with a few TPG staffers receiving offers to buy up to AAdvantage Gold status for anywhere from $649 to $1,415. American also lets you redeem miles to buy up to elite status, though at a pretty grim rate of 1 cent per mile or even less. Unlike Delta, these offers are targeted to individual users based on their year to date activity with AA, so make sure to check your account to see your offer.

Bottom line

Requalifying for airline elite status seems to get harder with each passing year. If you’re just short of your goals for 2020 status, hopefully one of these strategies can help you make that last final push before the year ends. For more information, you can also check out our airline-specific guides for last-minute elite status qualification tips with Delta, United, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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