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How Your Credit Card Can Make It Easier to Earn Airline Elite Status in 2021

By Eric Rosen

Jan 29, 2021

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Hawaiian Airlines is among the operators that have reduced qualifying thresholds.

Photo by Eric Broder Van Dyke / Shutterstock

Hawaiian Airlines is among the operators that have reduced qualifying thresholds.

If you’re not flying as much as you used to (and who is?), you might still be able to earn airline elite status by spending more on your credit card.

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The new year is normally when hardcore frequent fliers map out a strategy to ensure they travel enough in the coming 12 months to achieve or retain elite status. After all, the higher echelons confer benefits like upgrades to business or first class, access to airport lounges, the opportunity to rake in bonus miles, and more mundane amenities like priority boarding and free checked bags. As with everything else these days, elite status looks different than it did before. As travel restrictions persist and borders remain closed, most folks are flying far less than usual. In response, airlines have adjusted the requirements to earn elite status and added interesting new ways to help fliers attain it this year.

Here’s how airlines have changed their elite status rules in 2021 and how your credit card can make it easier to earn.

Of course, whether you even want to do so will depend on how comfortable you feel traveling right now and for some time to come. That decision is deeply personal and based on factors such as your own personal well-being, the health situations in your home and any prospective destinations, your employment and financial outlook, and simply whether you feel equipped to take on new safety requirements at the airport and onboard. These are ideas for how you can make any travel plans work to your advantage if and when you feel ready to fly again.

Fewer flights, more status

According to travel analytics firm Cirium, airline passenger traffic was down 67 percent globally in 2020 compared to 2019. Although aviation might begin to rebound with more widespread vaccine rollouts toward the second half of the year, the numbers still look depressed for 2021 so far. As countries around the world experience further coronavirus surges, and a new administration in the United States begins introducing revised travel guidelines, airlines are looking at another tough year ahead.

To hang onto their most loyal customers, many of the major airlines took a few decisive steps early on in the pandemic. They suspended the expiration of not just frequent flier miles but also of other benefits like upgrade certificates and lounge memberships. Most also extended their frequent fliers’ elite status through the end of 2021 since many folks didn’t fly last year. Among the U.S. airlines that did so were Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, and United.

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Now that airlines are looking at a longer stall in traffic, some have announced lower elite qualification thresholds in 2021 for those who want to earn status for 2022. For example, American Airlines AAdvantage members can usually reach the first rung, Gold, by flying 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments and spending $3,000 on airfare in a calendar year. For 2021, though, they only need to fly 20,000 miles or 20 segments and spend $2,000. For top-tier Executive Platinum status, you’ve got to hit 80,000 miles or 95 segments and $12,000 versus the normal requirements of 100,000 miles or 120 segments and $15,000 in spending.

JetBlue has cut its flight and spending stipulations for Mosaic status by 50 percent in 2021, so if you fly the airline even occasionally, you might have a decent shot at becoming an elite right now. To hit Mosaic normally, you must either earn 15,000 flight points (equivalent to spending $5,000 with the airline), or fly 30 segments and earn 12,000 flight points ($4,000 spending) in a calendar year. For now, though, you need to earn just 7,500 flight points ($2,500 spending) or 6,000 flight points ($2,000 spent) and 15 segments. 

Hawaiian Airlines halved its qualifying thresholds for Pualani Gold and Pualani Platinum this year. Now might be the time to plan a Hawaiian vacation. The islands are open to visitors thanks to pretravel testing and modified quarantine protocols, and you could theoretically hit Pualani Gold status with as few as two round trips between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii depending on where you are flying. That’s because you need to earn just 10,000 qualifying miles.

For the few who are flying in 2021, it will be much, much easier to earn elite status by actually flying thanks to achievement thresholds that have been reduced by a third to a half by some airlines. If you do have any trips coming up, make sure you are on top of program changes your airline may have recently instituted in order to ensure your flight activity gets you closer to those qualifying marks.

Bonuses and boosts

Many airlines are also either automatically rewarding their members with miles or running promotional bonuses where travelers can earn extra credits for trips.

Southwest is among the most generous in this respect. It is crediting all Rapid Rewards members with 15,000 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) and 10 qualifying one-way flight segments in 2021; that’s nearly half of what’s needed to earn A-List status with the airline. Members will also receive 25,000 points and 25 one-way flight segment credits toward qualifying for the airline’s ultra-valuable Companion Pass.

Alaska Airlines is rewarding its Mileage Plan members with a 50 percent elite-qualifying mileage boost on its own flights taken between June 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. Since the airline also lowered its qualification thresholds for this year, you could leverage this bonus to hit the basic MVP tier by flying just 13,334 miles (and flying at least two segments on Alaska Airlines itself).

United lowered its qualification thresholds by about a quarter across the board for this year. Perhaps more interestingly, though, the airline recently announced that regular (i.e., nonelite) MileagePlus members would earn a 50 percent bonus of Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs), and Premier elite members would earn double PQPs, on their first three trips with United from January through March 2021. The airline is also automatically crediting Premier members with 25 percent of the PQPs they need to retain their current spot toward requalifying this year. That ranges from 875 PQPs for Premier Silvers up to 3,750 for Premier 1Ks.

Delta Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) you earn above the highest elite tier for which you qualify usually roll over from the current year toward your qualification in the next. So let’s say you earned 30,000 MQMs in 2018 and qualified for Silver Medallion status at 25,000 MQMs. You’d have started 2019 with 5,000 MQMs already banked in your account. For now the airline is rolling over any 2020 MQMs in your account (including rollover ones from 2019) toward your status qualification in 2021. So depending on how much you flew in 2019 and 2020, you could be starting 2021 with a healthy hoard of MQMs to set you on the path toward Medallion again.

If you haven’t checked your frequent flier account lately, log in soon to see if you might already have some elite-qualifying activity to your name, and to get a better snapshot of what else you might need to do to hang onto your status or hit a higher rank for next year.

Where credit card spending comes in

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While many fliers might be grounded for some time to come, that doesn’t mean they have stopped carrying their cobranded airline credit cards. And carriers are banking on customers using them on everyday purchases to continue racking up award miles and to help them keep their status intact for another year.

Airlines including Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United all allow their credit cardholders to earn at least some elite-qualifying activity through spending. If you have the JetBlue Plus Card, for instance, you can earn Mosaic elite status by spending $50,000 or more on qualifying purchases in a calendar year.

Delta—Medallion Qualification Miles and Dollars

Those with Delta American Express cards can use their spending power to avoid the airline’s Medallion Qualification Dollar requirements, too. 

Spend your way to a waiver: If you have the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, or the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and spend $25,000 or more on purchases in a calendar year, the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) spending requirements are waived for Silver, Gold, and Platinum Medallion status (it takes $250,000 to do so for Diamond Medallion). It’s worth noting that the Platinum and Reserve versions’ welcome offers also typically include the ability to earn MQMs in addition to award miles (those that you can redeem toward travel).

More spending, more MQMs: Recently, though, Delta and American Express launched a spending promotion specifically for 2021 to provide a 25 percent bigger MQM boost than usual.

  • Delta Platinum Amex: Earn 12,500 MQMs (instead of the usual 10,000) after spending $25,000 on purchases in the calendar year, up to a total of $50,000 and 25,000 MQMs. 
  • Delta Reserve: Instead of 15,000 MQMs per $30,000 spent on this card, you can rake in 18,750 MQMs per $30,000 this year—up to $120,000 in spending and 75,000 MQMs. That’s a lot of wear and tear on your credit card, but if you do get there, you could reach Platinum Medallion status without even flying.

United—Pay your way to Premier Qualifying Points 

In addition to earning Premier Qualifying Points and Premier Qualifying Flights, United MileagePlus members must spend a fair amount on airfare each year to retain their status. However, those with a cobranded credit card can get ahead through everyday spending.

In normal times, you can earn PQPs only toward Premier Silver, Gold, and Platinum status, but not top-level Premier 1K. This year, though, 1K is also on the list of possibilities. We will see if the airline continues to allow it after 2021.

  • United℠ Explorer Card: When you spend $12,000 on purchases in a calendar year, you can earn 500 PQPs toward status, up to $24,000 spending and 1,000 PQPs. That’s about a third of the way toward first-level Premier Silver in a typical year.
  • United Club Infinite℠ Card: This higher-end card offers an identical spending-based PQP perk to the Explorer. 

American Airlines—First-time spending waivers

This year for the first time, American Airlines is getting in on the credit card spending waiver game. If you make $30,000 or more in purchases this calendar year with the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, or others like the Citi®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® and the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, you will also find your spending requirements for AAdvantage elite status waived—for Gold, Platinum, and Platinum Pro, but not Executive Platinum. This is instead of having to lay out $2,000–$7,000 on airfare, depending on your tier.

Among its other many perks, like Admirals Club lounge membership and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee statement credit once every five years, the Citi/AAdvantage Executive card also allows members to earn 10,000 elite-qualifying miles after spending $40,000 on purchases within a calendar year.

Southwest—Take home the TQPs

Southwest credit cards that normally cap the number of Tier Qualifying Points you can earn through spending have removed those ceilings this year. 

While none of these lower requirements, automatic boosts, or spending bonuses will get you to elite status on their own, by leveraging some or all of them, you could qualify more easily than practically ever before. That is, if earning elite status is on your list of priorities this year.

If it is, though, be sure to go over any 2021-specific promotions your airline of choice might be offering and see whether your prospective travel plans can help you take advantage of them. These special circumstances might also make it the right time to switch your loyalty to a new airline since you can achieve status with much less effort than it typically takes, and then enjoy the attendant benefits throughout 2021 and 2022.

While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they are subject to change at any time, and may have changed or may no longer be available.

>> Next: How to Earn, Redeem, and Maximize Marriott Bonvoy Points

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