Why Elite Members Should Consider Their Airline’s Credit Card

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In the monkey see, monkey do world of US airlines we’ve seen Delta and then United and then American institute minimum spend requirements for elite status and then set those requirements at exactly 12 cents per mile flown regardless of status level and airline.

And they’ve all offered a way to circumvent this requirement by spending on a co-brand credit card. Remember that the margins selling miles to a bank are much higher than actually providing transportation. (At the outset of United’s pre-inaugural Boeing 777-300ER Polaris flight, CEO Oscar Munoz remarked that the bears they’re giving out were selling on eBay for nearly $100. I suggested they go into the toy business and stop flying, higher margins, he said he’d consider it.)

I’ve written about using an airline’s co-brand credit cards to get the key benefits of elite status, so if you fly an airline a good amount but not enough for status you should get the co-brand card. Priority boarding keeps you from having to get check your carry on bag, and free checked bags are a real cost savings. Plus with both American and United you’ll avoid the carry on bag ban from Basic Economy if you have their cards.

But elites can make earning status easier by avoiding the minimum spend requirement for status. And there are other benefits as well.

The United Explorer Card gets elites complimentary upgrades on domestic award tickets. It also waives the spending requirement for elite status up to the 75,000 Platinum level if you put $25,000 a year on the card.

That happens to be the amount of spending which also earns a 10,000 mile bonus, making it a reasonable rebate on your spend. Since the card has a limited-time 50,000 mile signup bonus offer it’s a great time to sign up.

Note that:

  • Spending across multiple United cards counts towards the $25,000
  • Spending by authorized users on your account counts towards your $25,000 (the United Explorer Card will even give you 5000 bonus miles for adding a no annual fee authorized user and making a purchase within 3 months of account opening)
  • You cannot waive the spending requirement for 1K 100,000 mile status.

Interestingly, American Airlines has two different major bank issuers in the U.S. and while the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard® is offering a limited-time 50,000 point signup bonus offer it does not let you waive American’s elite spending requirement.

Instead this is only available on Barclaycard-issued cards. Applications became available again in mid-December.

  • Spend $25,000 on a Barclaycard-issued American AAdvantage credit card and earn 3000 elite qualifying dollars.
  • Spend $50,000 on a Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Silver credit card and earn an additional 3000 elite qualifying dollars.

You cannot combine spend on more than one credit card to reach these spend thresholds (in contrast to Delta and United). It has to be $25,000 (or $50,000) on a single card. And you can not earn 3000 elite qualifying dollars (or 6000) from multiple cards.

The only way to get the Aviator Silver at this point is to get an Aviator red card and then after 90 days you can upgrade and you won’t even be charged the higher annual fee for the Silver card during that first year.

There are several things interesting about this.

  1. It’s not a complete waiver. At Delta if you spend $25,000 on a co-brand card it doesn’t matter how much you spend on tickets. If you spent less than $1 on tickets you could still earn status based on your paid flying. Here you earn enough Elite Qualifying Dollars to make Gold ($25,000) or Platinum ($50,000 on the right cards) only.

  2. These are earned Elite Qualifying Dollars. They combine with the qualifying dollars you earn from flying anyway. So you can earn qualifying dollars both with credit card spend and with ticket spend, and make Platinum 75,000 or Executive Platinum levels. United, in contrast, only offers their credit card spend waiver up to the 75,000 mile elite status level — you have to spend on tickets if you want to make their 100,000 mile 1K level.

  3. These are valuable even to customers meeting minimum spend already. Even if you’re going to earn elite status with sufficient ticket spend, you may want to earn elite qualifying dollars with credit card spend also. That’s because an extra $3000 or $6000 in elite qualifying dollars can still be helpful, since sometime in 2017 American is going to order their upgrade list based on elite status and then prior 12 month elite qualifying dollars earned.

  4. Timing when you meet spend matters. When you hit the spend levels of your credit card matters (when the qualifying dollars post). You’ll have to consider whether you want to earn it quickly and at the beginning of the year, spread out 3000 EQDs on the Silver card early and 3000 later, etc. My approach will be to hold off crossing the spend threshold until the new upgrade priority algorithm goes into effect ‘later’ in 2017 in order to maximize the amount of time that it will help me on upgrade lists.

Meanwhile, Delta which led the way with this is more like United — combining spending across different cards including the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card count towards your $25,000 to waive spending requirements. They’re also the most generous in that $25,000 spend completely waives the spend requirement, it isn’t capped (like United) and doesn’t just get you part of the way towards the requirement (American).

United Explorer Card
Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card

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 Milepoint.com, 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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  1. @Gary (or anyone else)
    Do you know when the new 50K offer on the United card will expire? I am just over 5/24 but will be just under it in a few months. Thanks.

  2. This is definitely my strategy for maintaining EXP. I do not fly a legit 100K miles a year, so the 10K EQMs from Barclay (Aviator Silver) and also the Executive Citi card give me 20K EQM via spend. Now in the points and miles spectrum, that’s not great utilization of spend but status is important to me for the best available seats when I fly.

  3. If you’re going to spend $25k on a Delta card you get more bang for your buck with the Platinum Delta Amex even with the $195 annual fee. At $25k you get 10k MQM + 10k skymiles, and a domestic companion cert which can maximized to wipe out the fee. Only way I would get the gold delta card would be if I didn’t fly that much but then who cares about the 25k spend? You’d just use the card for the status-lite benefits.

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