Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes “Cashing In,” a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com
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Dear Cashing In,
If I transfer my American Express Delta card balance to a lower interest card, will this affect my Delta elite status in any way, either now or in the future? I still will be using my Delta card. – Steve
A lot of people complain that airline rules for redeeming frequent-flyer miles are complicated. That level of complexity has nothing on the rules governing airline elite status.
For many years, airlines have sought to give extra perks to their best customers. Airlines used to made that determination by examining the number of miles their customers flew. If you flew 25,000 miles in a calendar year, for instance, you might qualify for the lowest elite level and earn the right for occasional upgrades to first class and have certain fees waived.
But as technology became more sophisticated, airlines developed a new way of determining who their top customers actually were, and it wasn’t necessarily those who were flying a lot of miles. Airlines began to look at how much money customers actually spent with the airline to gauge whether to lavish the flyer with upgrades and other perks.
How airlines determine elite status
Today, acquiring elite qualifying miles requires a mix of spending and flying, and the formulas can be complicated – all the more so because using airline credit cards factors into the equation.
To qualify for the lowest tier of Delta’s elite program, known as Medallion Status, you must earn at least 25,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs), which are roughly the number of miles you fly but are adjusted based on the cost of your ticket. Or, instead of flying those miles, you can fly 30 flight segments in a year.
In addition, you have to spend $3,000 a year with Delta. If you have an American Express Delta card, Delta will waive that spending requirement – if you spend $25,000 or more in a year on that credit card. (American Express offers four different Delta credit cards, ranging from one with no annual fee to one with a $450 annual fee that comes with airport lounge access.)
Those are the basic requirements, though there are plenty of additional rules about, for example, rolling miles over from one year to another, as well as higher spending and flying thresholds for the higher tiers of the program, which come with enhanced benefits such as a greater likelihood of upgrades.
Miles toward elite status won’t change if you transfer balance
As it relates to your Delta card, the waiver of the spending requirement by using your card has nothing to do with whether you carry a balance. Once the spending is on the card, you qualify for the waiver of the Delta spending for elite status, regardless of what later happens with those charges.
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In general, using a card for rewards doesn’t make financial sense if you carry a balance, because the fees and interest you pay typically total more than the rewards you earn. It might make sense to transfer that debt to a lower-interest credit card, but watch out for fees there, too.
It’s also worth noting that certain rewards cards also offer a boost to help meet requirements to earn elite status. For instance, the American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles card (annual fee: $195) gives you a bonus of 10,000 miles toward elite status when you spend $25,000 a year on the card. Cards sometimes have sign-up bonuses that include miles toward elite qualification.
Airline elite status can be a complicated topic, but if you fly a lot, it’s a topic that can be worth mastering – and understanding how rewards cards can help you achieve that status.
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