Should you buy hotel or airline elite status?

Dec 18, 2019

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Hotel and airline elite status is serious business for many frequent travelers — especially at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. And it makes sense — if you are going to spend a good chunk of your life “up in the air,” you want to be sure the ride is as comfortable as possible. Hotel and airline elite status can put you at the front of the plane, get you extra legroom, protect you from fees, open up better customer service, provide free breakfast, included snacks, bigger rooms, shorter lines and more. But, it isn’t always easy earning elite status the old-fashioned way. In fact, even The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly, doesn’t earn all of his elite status via travel.

To give some examples, earning top-tier Delta Air Lines Diamond elite status requires racking up 125,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles each and every year. If you earned one of those elite-qualifying miles for every mile you flew, you’d be the equivalent of over halfway to the moon since the moon is around 239,000 miles from the earth. Alternatively, 125,000 miles takes you around the earth five times at about 25,000 miles per lap. That’s a ton of flying. Unless you just have to fly that much, you might be interested in an easier way to secure your elite status for 2020 and beyond.

In fact, you might wonder if simply buying elite status makes more sense. The good news for those who don’t want to fly over halfway to the moon each year just to secure fancy elite status is that buying elite status is possible via a number of ways. And in select cases, it can be worth it to buy the status you need instead of spending weeks of your life in the sky or on the road.

Related: Best credit cards for earning elite status

Here's to another year of comfy flying (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)
Here’s to another year of comfy flying (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

Do the math

To determine whether or not you should buy your way to the top (or middle) of the elite status pack, you’ll need to do a little math. First, you’ll have to figure out how much it will cost you to buy the status — more on that in a minute. Then, you need to be brutally honest with yourself about how much the perks are worth. The perks are worth approximately nothing if you don’t use them, so you’ll need to at least generally know your travel plans for the following year.

For example, if you are chasing elite status that comes with two confirmable first-class upgrades, you need to know how much that is worth for you. Is a domestic upgrade worth $150? $300? You be the judge. If the upgrade is a long-haul international upgrade, that number might be much higher, but the valuation is really personal to your situation. (Though TPG is happy to lend our opinion, too.)

If it will cost you $500 to buy-up to elite status that will give you $1,500 in perks, then it may very well make sense to open up your wallet and lock it in. But, also weigh buying it against earning it via a mileage run or similar. I’m not doing a mileage run in any near term, but mattress runs (hotel check-ins you don’t really need) and mileage runs (flights you don’t really need) can be cheaper ways to earn status than buying it in one swoop.

Just be sure you’re factoring into your calculations that some programs have a spending requirement to status, so don’t accidentally spend money to “earn” more miles or similar and still come up short on the spending side of things.

American Airlines First class (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
American Airlines First class (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

How to buy elite status

There are a few different ways to buy elite status, so we’ll break down each one.

Credit cards

The easiest (and sometimes cheapest) way to buy your way to elite status may very well be via a credit card. Some credit cards come with elite status by a virtue of holding the card. Others require a certain amount of spending on the card to earn the status. In either case, factor in the annual fee for the card, plus potentially the cost of any spending you would be shifting to the card in order to earn the status.

As a pretty easy example, if you want Hilton Diamond top-tier status, you can get it simply by having The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. The card has a $450 annual fee (See rates & fees), but confers immediate Hilton Diamond status, which can get you free breakfast at many Hilton properties, Hilton lounge access, potential upgrades, bonus points and more. I wouldn’t say doing this cost you $450 for Diamond status since the card also comes other valuable perks including an annual up to $250 airline fee credit, up to $250 Hilton resort credit, 150,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months and more. But, there certainly is an annual cost to having the card.

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex 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.

There are a large number of credit cards that can dramatically short-cut your way to hotel elite status, or provide the status you are chasing outright just by having the card.

Related: Easy ways to earn hotel elite status

Breakfast with a view was free at Conrad Bora Bora thanks to Hilton Gold status (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Breakfast with a view was free at Conrad Bora Bora thanks to Hilton Gold status (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

On the airline side, there’s not really a credit card you can just sign up for and get instant elite status, but there are certainly cards than can help you get there faster.

Related: Credit cards that help you earn airline status faster

If you are chasing Delta elite status, the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (annual fee $195; $250 if application received on or after Jan. 30, 2020; see rates & fees) awards 10,000 elite qualifying miles after $25,000 in spending in a calendar year and another 10,000 after $50,000 in spending. That won’t get you halfway to the moon, but knocking 20k miles down just by swiping a card might be easier than flying almost a full lap around the earth in some situations.

Buy elite qualifying miles

United Airlines will sell you elite qualifying miles outright if you have an existing reservation. This is a pricey way to go about securing status, but it does help get you the miles you need. It does not help you with the spending requirement portion of the elite status equation.

In fact, this is how I closed the gap of about 2,000 more miles to United Gold status for 2020 since I did not want to add any more flying to my end-of-year schedule. Note that beginning next year, United is going to an almost purely spending-based frequent flyer program, so buying elite qualifying miles likely won’t be relevant in MileagePlus after this year.

Buy status outright

Some airline programs allow certain members to buy their elite status outright for a fee. Often, these offers appear after you just missed out on status in January. But if status is important to you, don’t just sit around and just hope for the offers to appear next year. Check your inboxes now for targeted offers.

You can also head to the Elite Renewal page on American’s site and enter your AAdvantage account information to see if you have an available offer. Several weeks ago, American Airlines began sending out buy-up status offers to certain members with prices that ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the situation.

Delta Air Lines also has Elevate Your Status offers where members can boost their MQM, MQS and MQD balances without ever stepping foot on an aircraft. This includes Delta SkyMiles Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond members who weren’t gifted their status, as well as general members who are within striking distance of Silver.

Sadly, this route is likely very expensive. We’ve seen pricing to the tune of $999 to earn 1,000 MQMs, 3 MQSs and $999 MQDs. That’s plain awful in 99.99% of situations, but there’s always that .01%. You can check for available offers here.

If you are racing the end-of-year clock on securing your airline elite status for 2020, these are for you:

Should you buy elite status?

There are those who say you should get off the ‘”hamster wheel” of caring about and chasing elite status. They’d tell you that you shouldn’t spend real money chasing benefits that don’t always come through. Instead, they’d argue, you should use that money to buy the perks you need when you need them. They’re not necessarily wrong, but I love my mid-tier airline elite status.

United Gold status saves me money with free same-day changes, free E+ seats for two at booking, a shot at complimentary upgrades, reduced award fees and better mileage earning rates than a lower-tiered or general member. I spent real money to essentially buy-up to that status level, and I’ll reap the benefits many times over for the next 12 months.

If a higher-tier elite status level is on the line, it might be even more “worth it.” However, buying your way into the club can be very, very expensive, especially when you are talking about some of the official offers that the airline sends out. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation on whether or not you should buy elite status beyond just do the math. You must not only do the math on the offer in front of you, but also consider if there is a better way to status via credit cards, mileage runs, etc.

And while status does matter to many travelers, don’t stress too much about making the right decision. Unless lifetime elite status is on the line, you’ll get the chance to make all these same decisions about elite status again next year.

Featured image by Katie Genter/The Points Guy

For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles card, click here.

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