The New Airline Restrictions That Could Keep You From Earning Elite Status

The big carriers have changed the requirements to achieve—and keep—elite status. Here’s what you need to know.

The New Airline Restrictions That Could Keep You From Earning Elite Status

American Express for Digitas

Courtesy of Delta Air LInes

You’re not alone if you find the new wave of airline loyalty program changes confusing. It shouldn’t take a PhD to figure out how to navigate the path to elite status. It’s easy to fall prey to simple mistakes that could nix your chance at elite status, but if you pay attention early enough in the year, you can avoid them. Beware these pitfalls that could stymie any plan for coveted airline elite status.

Do you spend enough?

Airlines have always tracked your “elite qualifying miles” toward status, but now they monitor your spend, too. It can be tracked on your frequent flier profile page, and United even created a dedicated site to monitor it.

Even if you fly a lot, not all partner airlines count toward elite status spend. United Premier status is the toughest in this regard because its Star Alliance partners are ineligible for crediting elite dollars spent unless they are part of a ticket issued by United itself. That means the ticket number should start with “016,” but if booking through a third-party site like Expedia or Orbitz, that isn’t always a given. Basic economy tickets don’t count at all no matter what they cost.

To avoid this hiccup, you can acquire one of the airline’s cobranded credit cards. For example, if you spend at least $25,000 per year on them, your “qualifying dollar” requirement is waived for status up to Platinum (top-level 1K still requires spending $12,000 on United). On Delta, you must spend $25,000 per year on a cobranded American Express card for a waiver up to Platinum status, but a waiver for Diamond Medallion requires spending a quarter of a million dollars on an eligible Delta-branded card!

Cards like the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard award $3,000 in EQDs toward American Airlines status after spending $25,000 in a calendar year. Neither Delta nor United offers the chance to earn “elite qualifying dollars” via credit card spending, so this is huge for AAdvantage members. The JetBlue Business Card automatically gives you Mosaic elite status for spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year.

Important tip: Log onto your credit card account to verify the exact annual spend to make sure you hit the threshold; the airline website only updates once a month and doesn’t take into account returned purchases or balance credits.

Another bummer: Credit card fees do not typically count toward this spending waiver.

Do you fly enough miles . . . and on the right airlines?

To guarantee status, you have to fly far enough and spend enough. But, there’s more; at least for United, you must take a minimum of four flights on United or United Express (no basic economy fares allowed). This caveat is an outlier from most programs and can be restrictive on travelers who fly mostly overseas to cities only served by Star Alliance partners.

If you’re short on earning American “elite qualifying miles,” there are two credit cards—Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard and Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Silver World Elite MasterCard—that award as many as 10,000 EQMs for hitting spending thresholds per year. If you put a lot of charges on the card, you might be close to earning those extra elite qualifying miles. Luckily, neither American or Delta requires you to take a minimum number of flights on their own planes.

It’s even possible to earn (measly) Delta Silver Medallion status simply through $60,000 in credit card spend within a year of enrolling for the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express.

Do you review mileage accounts regularly?

Usually, frequent flier miles post within a few days of travel, but not always when earning miles on airline partners. It is imperative that you keep boarding passes on partner airlines until the miles post (it can take up to two weeks sometimes). You may be close enough to earn status, but if a partner flight fails to post, you miss the all-important threshold.

Always check that your partner number is printed on the boarding pass as a safeguard before you board.

Do you “mileage run”?

If you’re close to status, it can be worth taking extra flights for the sole purpose of reaching that next level whether you need elite qualifying miles or dollars (or in the case of United, to meet the four-flight minimum).

Don’t count on airlines being generous or flexible to move you to the next level if you’re just a few miles short. To quote a United representative on bumping up to the next status level even if just 20 miles short, “It wouldn’t be fair to the others that have earned it.” Since when have airlines become so egalitarian?

The practice of mileage running was more lucrative when miles were awarded based upon distance, but it still makes sense if you’re close to scoring that magic elite status.

>>Next: 10 Small Hotel Loyalty Programs With Big Rewards

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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