Get the Benefits of Airline Elite Status Without Qualifying

In recent years, airline elite status has become both less rewarding and harder to obtain. Along with minimum amounts of either miles or segments flown, American, Delta and United have all imposed spending requirements. For frequent flyers, the most frustrating thing about the loyalty programs is that upgrades have largely dried up: airlines with First Class cabins are doing everything possible to monetize those seats, including offering attractive buy ups at check-in.

American and Delta now have virtually identical elite tiers (United recently revised theirs, keeping the four levels but raising spending levels):

  • 25,000 actual miles flown or 30 qualifying segments, plus at least $3,000 in spending.
  • 50,000 miles or 60 segments, plus $6,000 in spending.
  • 75,000 miles or either 90 or 100 segments, plus $9,000 in spending.
  • 100,000 miles or either 120 or 140 segments, plus $15,000 in spending.

If you’re an occasional (or even monthly) business or leisure traveler, you have little chance of meeting those requirements. For the upper tiers, the spending thresholds make it almost impossible unless you fly in premium cabins. It’s becoming rare to see a top-tier elite who isn’t a CEO or major corporate executive.

Apart from upgrades, what are the current benefits of elite status? Basically, priority boarding and free checked bags. All three programs offer enhanced mileage earning, depending on the status level. Example: United gives mileage multipliers of 7, 8, 9 and 11 miles per dollar spent, compared to 5 for non-elites. The legacy carriers offer some cushy benefits at the top level, such as lounge membership or systemwide upgrades, but not much more in between.

With every major airline (and some others), there are credit cards that give you priority boarding and free checked bags—which is probably all you’re going to get anyway. Some cards even offer mileage incentives and lounge access. Here’s a rundown of the options by carrier:

Delta Air Lines

American Express is the sole issuer of Delta cards. If you’re an occasional flyer, your best bet is the Gold Delta SkyMiles card, which has a low annual fee of $95 (waived the first year). You get your first checked bag free, along with double miles on Delta tickets and a 20% discount on inflight purchases; the bonus is 30,000 moles after spending $1,000 in the first three months, plus a $50 statement credit when you make a Delta purchase. Those who travel more often might want to splurge for the Platinum SkyMiles card ($195 annual fee), which also gives you Main Cabin Priority 1 boarding, an annual companion certificate, a 35,000 miles bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months and a $100 statement credit after a Delta purchase. The signup bonus includes 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles, and you can earn an additional 10,000 miles and 10,000 MQMs for every $25,000 spent each year—but then you’re chasing elite status, and you already have the core benefits you’re likely to use.

United Airlines

 The United cards are issued by Chase. For casual travelers, the MileagePlus Explorer card makes the most sense. The annual fee of $95 is waived the first year. You receive the 40,000-mile signup bonus after spending $2,000 in the first three months. The additional perks include priority boarding, one free checked bag for yourself and a companion (provided you purchase your ticket from United, using the Explorer card), two United Club passes each year, two miles per dollar on a restaurant, hotel and United purchases, and a 25% discount inflight.

American Airlines

 As a result of the merger between US Airways and American, both Barclays and Citibank issue AAdvantage cards. For the average flyer, the clear winner is Barclays’ AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, which has an annual fee of $99. There’s a bonus of 60,000 miles with no minimum spending requirement—simply pay the annual fee and make your first purchase within 90 days. The card comes with preferred boarding, one free checked bag for yourself and up to four companions, double miles on American purchases, a 25% inflight discount and a suite of travel insurance protections.

Southwest Airlines

 Since the carrier doesn’t charge for checked bags and also has a unique, first-come-first-served boarding system, credit card priorities are different. If you don’t fly often, the Rapid Rewards Plus card from Chase is a good deal: You earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in your first three months, and an extra 20,000 points after an additional $12,000 within the first year. There’s a 3,000-point bonus on your cardmember anniversary and two points per dollar on Southwest purchases.

JetBlue Airways

 None of the three cards (issued by Barclays) offer priority boarding, but the Plus card gives you a free checked bag for yourself and up to three companions. There’s a bonus of 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days; the earning rates are strong (six points per dollar on JetBlue purchases, two points at restaurants and grocery stores), and you receive 10% of your points back on redemptions. The annual fee is $99.

If your goal is to replicate the benefits of elite status, you’re confined to a co-branded airline card. If lounge access is important to you, though, don’t overlook The Platinum Card from American Express and the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN. The annual fees are steep ($550 and $595 respectively), but you receive access to the proprietary collection of Centurion Lounges as well as Priority Pass, Lufthansa and Delta lounges (when flying Delta the same day), Airspace, Escape and Plaza Premium lounges—a total of more than 1200 VIP sanctuaries around the world.

Source: frugal travel guy

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