Your credit card can make you elite

Achieving elite status on a frequent flier program may be easier than you think -- especially if you have the right credit card.


In the movie "Up in the Air," George Clooney plays a corporate traveler who flies 350,000 miles a year, netting him star treatment by his airline. He picks up a fellow road warrior in an airport lounge by comparing loyalty cards. "This is pretty sexy," she says, admiring his faux-graphite American Airlines Concierge Key card. "We're two people who get turned on by elite status."

They are not alone. Entry-level elite status comes with 25,000 flight miles a year and means free checked bags and shorter lines. Platinum or executive level traditionally means free drinks in the club lounge and upgrades to first class.

You get to that elite level by earning a lot of miles. How many? That's tough to say. Airlines are reluctant to reveal what triggers an invitation. Flying a lot helps, but so can credit cards. Randy Petersen of has amassed 17 million frequent flier miles, but only part of them came from flying. "Using credit cards is now the easiest, most convenient way to earn miles," he says.

However, not all of those miles are created equal. Typically, miles earned by taking a full-fare flight will go toward achieving elite status, but miles from credit card purchases will not. That means that cardholders striving to emulate Clooney's character in "Up in the Air" should make sure their card offers so-called elite qualifying miles.

More than just status
So why does elite status matter? Road warriors don't want free flights; they have more miles than they can use. They want comfort -- the kind that comes with premium seating, fast check-in and club lounges. Those are the kinds of perks that elite status can bring.

Petersen says baggage fees and longer lines are also pushing people to seek status. Luggage fees, typically $25 to $35 per checked bag, add up fast on a family vacation and beefed-up security can mean waiting in line for 20 or 30 minutes. "Upgrades are nice, but elite status also allows you to save time and money," Petersen says. "You never have to pay for a bag, and you don't have to wait in line."

Airlines want elite members. Loyalty guarantees bookings and frequent fliers are big spenders. "Average expenditure on many of these airline credit cards is $36,000 to $40,000 a year," says Petersen. "That's pretty good when you consider that the average credit card customer spends $6,000 to $8,000. This is a high-spend group and the airlines like that." So do banks. 

Determining the right card for you
Before you begin charging your way to elite status, it's a good idea to analyze your travel habits.

1. Focus on the status perks you need. If you travel with family or equipment, check-in fees may be killing you. A card that offers baggage waivers can cover an extra $100 in annual fees with one trip. If you'd like lounge access but fly infrequently, use your airline card to purchase day passes or consider a card, like Continental's Presidential Plus, which offers club passes as a bonus.

2. Make miles count. If the economy has reduced your business travel from 30,000 to 20,000 miles, a credit card that gives you a 5,000 elite qualifying mile boost may be enough to maintain your status.

One big overseas trip may be all it takes, if you plan ahead. American's AAdvantage Elite Status Challenge lets you earn up to 10,000 elite qualifying points if you rack up a lot of miles on their carriers in a certain period of time.

3. Choose the right airline for you. If your city is a major hub for American Airlines and most direct flights are on American, United is probably not the best choice for a loyalty card, even if you prefer the program.

4. Maximize miles when you shop online. Using your airline credit card to shop online can rack up miles, including elite qualifying miles, but you can get even more by connecting to shops via the airline's website. United, for example, has 500 merchants associated with its mall. "You're going to end up on Best Buy, Sears or the Gap anyway, you just need to start at United," says Petersen, referring to the airline's Mileage Plus Shopping site. In addition to elite qualifying miles for using your credit card, he says, "all of the airline malls now offer bonus miles as well."

Look into deals this holiday season. Ordering flowers online from FTD via United Mileage Plus earns 30 miles per dollar spent. Delta ran a promotion in September offering 25,000 bonus miles for spending $500 at SkyMall.

5. Don't get caught up in status-seeking. Why go for platinum if gold will do? Karen Fawcett of flew 137,000 miles last year, enjoying membership in United's exclusive 1K club, but she plans to let her status drop a level this year.

One perk she'll lose is lounge access. "Some of the United lounges in Asia are incredibly wonderful," she says. "If I'm stuck in Hong Kong for three hours, it's not unpleasant." Fawcett hasn't found the same benefit stateside. "Most of the United lounges in the United States are pretty crummy," she says. She plans to buy individual passes for long flights.

Maybe her credit card will offer the means. "My guess is we will see more EQMs linked to credit card use in one way or another in the future," says Tim Winship, editor of Possibly fewer than card companies would like. "Airlines have to draw the line somewhere or else dilute the value of elite status -- and that's bad for everybody, including the credit card issuers."

Airline credit cards and elite qualifying miles (EQMs)
Airline frequent flier program Credit card Elite miles that can be earned Sign-up bonus Annual fee
American Airlines AAdvantage Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Mastercard None 30,000 miles (no EQMs) $85
Continental OnePass Chase Continental Airlines Presidential Plus Card 1,000 Flex EQMs for every $5,000 in purchases Presidential Club membership & lounge access $395 ($95 credit after first purchase)
Delta SkyMiles Delta Platinum SkyMiles card from American Express Earn up to 20,000 EQMs* for $50,000 charged per year 5,000 EQMs* plus 15,000 miles with first purchase; 1 companion ticket per year $150
United Mileage Plus Chase United Mileage Plus Visa Select Earn up to 5,000 EQMs/year (Get 1 EQM for every $1 purchased directly from United.) 30,000 miles (no EQMs) $95
United Mileage Plus Chase Mileage Plus Access Visa Earn 5,000 EQMs for $35,000, plus 1 EQM for ever $10 above that. (Max of 10,000 EQMs) 20,00 miles and $100 United discount gift certificate after you spend $250 $275
US Airways Dividend Miles US Airways Premier World Mastercard from Barclays Earn up to 10,000 EQMs per year
First-class check-in. One day pass per year $89
* Delta refers to EQM as MQM (Medallion Qualifying Miles)

See related: Credit card statistics, Just 1 in 4 credit cards have annual fees, Frequent flier programs are evolving

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Updated: 03-26-2019