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Want to be elite? Know that all miles aren’t created equal

Question for the expert

Dear Cashing In,
I just found out that the miles that I’m getting on my card don’t help me get elite status on my airline’s frequent flier program. I’ve done a little looking around and it seems like most cards have the same policy, but why? Why aren’t all miles created equal? — Landon

Answer for the expert

Dear Landon,
Frequent flier miles are not the same as elite qualifying miles (EQMs). Frequent flier miles help you qualify for a free flight or upgrade, but they don’t count toward elite status with an airline. Only actual miles flown or elite qualifying miles do that.

If your goal is to qualify for elite status, you have to fly at least 25,000 miles a year on one airline or have a credit card make up the difference in elite qualifying miles. You’re right that most cards offer garden-variety frequent flier miles. Those that throw in elite qualifying miles often come at a price — higher annual fees and tougher standards for qualification. As travel rewards go, elite qualifying miles are the most coveted, so they attract the big spenders. It’s not unusual for a premium-elite cardholder to spend as much as $40,000 per year on a card.

If all miles were created equal, airlines would soon end up with more elite members than they could possibly accommodate, and the value of membership would plummet. Elite membership allows access to upgraded seating, for example, and airlines have only so many premium seats available. If anything, the number of premium seats has been shrinking, along with the number of flights themselves.

Depending on the level, elite status can mean seat upgrades, access to the airline’s club lounges (where you can get free food and beverages), waived baggage fees, shorter lines at check-in and faster boarding. If you’re close to achieving elite status, but don’t fly enough to qualify, it may be worth paying extra for a card that earns elite miles. Elite qualifying miles can allow you to travel less and still qualify for elite status when you do fly. Achieving base-level elite status usually requires 25,000 of the elite miles. If you’re only flying 20,000 miles per year due to corporate cutbacks, an extra 5,000 EQMs via credit card spending can put you over the minimum.

However, cards that offer elite qualifying miles are often aimed at high rollers who like to travel in style. The Chase Continental Airlines Presidential Plus card, for example, will give you 1,000 EQMs every time you spend $5,000 on qualifying purchases — but it will cost you $395 in annual fees. For that price, you can have full membership benefits for the United Club — the new name for the former Continental Presidents and United Red Carpet clubs — which is now accessible to elite members on either of the newly merged airlines. That card also offers waived baggage fees, Hyatt Gold Platinum membership and Avis rental car upgrades.

Recognizing that they have to restrict access to elite membership in order to keep it elite, airlines have, however, found ways in recent years to offer some benefits of elite membership to other members of their frequent flier programs. After all, they don’t want to lose loyal customers, no matter how often they fly.

It’s worth noting that some of those perks are now offered as individual rewards on non-elite qualifying credit cards. For example, Chase’s Continental Airlines OnePass Plus card — a downscale version of the Presidential Plus card — offers 25,000 miles as a sign-up bonus, but no elite qualifying miles, for a $95 annual fee. It won’t help you qualify for elite membership, but it will give you some of the same perks, including one free checked bag for you and your travel companions on every flight and two lounge passes per year. That may be all the elite treatment you need at a quarter of the price.

If you find you don’t qualify for or can’t afford the premium cards that offer elite qualifying miles, and you don’t fly enough to make up the difference, look into cards that offer at least some of the benefits you’re seeking.

See related:Compare airline rewards cards, How high is too high for a card’s annual fees?

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