Elite status can be addictive. There’s a certain rush that comes with goodies like free upgrades, lounge access, and first-class treatment. But it’s not just the benefits that get frequent travelers' heart rates up. There’s also the thrill of the chase—of figuring out how to plan your travel creatively so that you get as much bang for the buck as possible. Somehow all that work makes the rewards feel even sweeter.
Mileage runs (flying on cheap flights for the sole purpose of racking up miles) used to be the preferred way of earning status on the cheap. Unfortunately, this tactic is becoming less advantageous now that many airlines are moving to new programs that award miles based on how much a traveler has spent, rather than how many miles are flown. But never fear; there are still some fantastic ways to rack up elite status without having to actually log the miles. Here are some of my favorites:
Credit Card Bonuses
Many credit cards now give you elite-qualifying miles or points if you use them enough. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles card and Delta Reserve cards are particularly generous. The Platinum card gets you 10,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) if you spend $25,000 per year and another 10,000 MQMs if you spend $50,000 per year. Since Delta’s Silver Medallion status only takes 25,000 MQMs, that gets you pretty close to the target. The Reserve card offers as many as 30,000 MQMs per year.
The new JetBlue Plus credit card from Barclaycard does even better—it’s the only card that doles out a full elite status when you spend $50,000 per year. (Compare this to the 15,000 points per year it usually takes to earn Mosaic elite status with JetBlue). Mosaic level benefits include no change fees on tickets, free cocktails onboard, free checked bags, bonus points for flights, and access to better seats. (American Airlines’ Citi AAdvantage Executive card also offers 10,000 elite qualifying miles, after only after the card holder spends $40,000 a year.)
Some credit cards even offer elite-like travel benefits just for signing up (even if you don’t spend that much). The JetBlue Plus card automatically comes with six points per dollar spent with the airline, 5,000 bonus points each year, and a discount on award tickets. Even the version of the card with no annual fee comes with bonuses like 50 percent savings on in-flight purchases, triple points on the airline’s flights, and double points at restaurants and grocery stores. And if you prefer to earn elite status with a hotel chain, the American Express Platinum Hilton HHonors Surpass and Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature cards come with automatic, free Hilton HHonors Gold status.
Many hotel chains and airlines have reciprocal agreements to give their partners’ elite members automatic status. In March, Southwest Airlines also gifted A-List elite status to many passengers who entered their Pre-Check Known Traveler Number into their loyalty program profile. (Editor's note: This promotion has since expired.) Delta also regularly offers special promotions with hotel partners like Hilton, doling out 250 MQMs for qualifying stays.
To earn your business, airlines routinely offer status matches to top fliers who usually travel with competing airlines. Some match status outright while others allow you to fly a reduced number of miles to achieve status. It is one of the faster and easier ways to score elite status (assuming you have elite status already with a competing airline). The handy online tool Status Matcher can suggest which airlines you should try.
Benefit from Foreign Airlines
Earning elite status with a foreign airline can provide unique benefits. Copa Airlines, for example, gives you free United Club access on domestic travel (as well as free upgrades on Copa) if you have Gold or Platinum status. And since Copa is a member of Star Alliance, you can get there by status match or by flying other airlines in the alliance. Platinum members with Copa also get three regional upgrades that can be used on United. If you hold status with a non-Star Alliance airline, it may be worth trying for a match.
Air Berlin offers similar perks like domestic Admirals Club lounge access when flying its Oneworld partner American Airlines, and the German carrier regularly offers status matches to other alliance airline’s elite members.
August 22, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect that Southwest's elite-status promotion ended May 2016.
Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.