Make Your Own Airline Elite Status

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Airline Elite Status Requirements are Getting Tougher

Before Delta and Northwest Airlines merged, each carrier had a top tier elite level which required 75,000 flown miles in a year. After the merger, Delta began requiring 125,000 flown miles for top tier.

Airlines like United and Delta are making elite status a bit harder to get. First, they imposed minimum spending requirements (in addition to flying) at least for their US members in order to earn elite status. Then they raised those minimum spending requirements.

You can ‘buy your way out’ of spending requirements by putting $25,000 worth of spend in a year on a Delta co-brand American Express card or a United card. (United will only let you waive the spending requirement up to their Platinum status.)

The First Level of Elite Status Has Gotten Less Valuable

At the same time elite status requirements are rising, benefits are disappearing from the lowest elite levels. Delta, American, and United only let their first tier (‘25,000 mile’) elite flyers book their extra legroom coach seats if available at check-in. Taking away economy plus seating from United’s Premier Silver elites was apparently what the airline’s CFO had in mind when he called elites ‘over-entitled’.

Meanwhile, the shift at Delta and United (and to a lesser extent American) towards unlimited complimentary upgrades means more upgrades for top elites, and fewer upgrades at the lower elite levels.

Airlines Give Much of the Benefits of First Tier Status to Credit Card Holders

I believe top tier elite status is hugely valuable. As an American Executive Platinum I am upgraded domestically most of the time, and am given 8 confirmed upgrade certificates valid on any American flight, even international, when upgrade space is available.

But the benefits of first-tier elite status is fairly limited. And many of those benefits are replicated for an airline’s co-brand credit card holders. Merely having an airline’s credit card, it seems, is as valuable to an airline as a customer who flies 25,000 miles in a year even in a world where that status requires minimum spend on tickets of $3000 (on United, and Delta, for US residents).

Delta’s co-brand American Express, the United card, and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® all offer a free checked bag. They all offer priority boarding.

Credit Card Elite Status Can Be a Better Strategy

Checked bag fees are one of the great annoyances in travel (and precisely why card companies pay airlines to waive those fees for cardmembers, it’s a great benefit that encourages signup and use). Airlines recognize the value in a co-brand credit card customer, who both carry the airline’s brand in their wallet and whose everyday activity generates revenue for the airline in the form of miles purchased by the credit card company.

Priority boarding means not having to gate check your carry on, since you can board while there’s still overhead bin space. In my view, you don’t want to be the first to board (and spend extra time on an aircraft), you just want to be not last (when the bins are full).

There are other card privileges too, of course — the United Visa for instance gives 2 United Club passes each year (something elites don’t get for free) and allows access to last seat availability on United flights for extra miles (something United is unique among US airlines in not offering to all members anyway).

Put another way, I think top status is well worth going for. First-tier status may not be, it may make sense just to carry the airline’s co-brand credit card.

And for someone who flies regularly, but not quite enough to earn status, having these cards makes good sense.

I don’t think they’re great for putting spending on, they’re not as rewarding as cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred for actual spending. But they’re great cards to get and have and stick in a drawer.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of advertisers Citibank, Chase, American Express, Barclays, Capital One or any other advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.


  1. — cardholders “allows access to last seat availability on United flights for extra miles ” ??

    What do you mean? Award? What extra miles?
    Please give a little details for us. Thanks.

  2. @Johnny United’s “standard” awards — these used to be referred to as “double miles awards” but for premium cabins especially the cost can be 2.5x – 3x the saver price. American, for instance, makes these kinds of awards available to all members, and makes the last paid seat on a flight available this way. United only lets elite members and credit card holders book the last available seat on a flight this way. General members can spend extra miles like this, but don’t always get availability on flights that are expected to sell out.

  3. @Miles – Mid-tier elites have higher upgrade percentages, earn more miles, can at least confirm at booking extra legroom coach seats, that’s got real value. Whether ‘the juice is worth the squeeze’ is a different question. But mid-tier isn’t a giveaway level that you can mostly replicate by being a credit card holder.

  4. @Gary, for the less than frequent flyer on AA which of Barclays AAdvantage Red or Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select would you say is the better bet to keep on an ongoing basis?

  5. @win – very similar cards, red is $6 less expensive, i’d keep that one (even if you don’t have the 10k annual bonus that posts with your fee) if only because you cannot get it again. you can always go back to the citi-issued card later.

  6. As a lowly UA Silver, the real benefit is priority security! Something DL doesn’t give its Silver members!

  7. @Win,

    If you are only getting one, the reason I would recommend the Citi-issued card is that in my experience they ALWAYS waive the annual fee if you call and ask them.

  8. As someone who did a status match from UA to DL I would point out two differences that were very important in my decision to leave UA. With DL, even with silver, I can reserve exit row seats when I make my reservation. Not so on UA. Do I get the upgraded snacks and free alcohol that now comes with EC when I sit in the exit row? No, but I am guaranteed to have even more legroom if I decide not to take advantage of the EC upgrade at 24 hour prior to departure and my upgrade to first doesn’t happen (and it does for me on DL from time to time). Second, as a DL AMEX card holder I get a SECOND checked bag for free – one for my status, one for being the card holder. Not true with UA – whose reps laughed at me when I suggested I should get two for having the UA VISA and silver status. That second free bag is more than worth the annual fee of the DL AMEX and then some!

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