I receive compensation for content and many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. American Express, Citibank, Chase, Capital One and other banks are advertising partners of this site. Any opinions expressed in this post are my own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by my advertising partners. I do not write about all credit cards that are available -- instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).
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’.
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.