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Can a credit card get me elite status faster?

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 16, 2013

QHi Eva,

While looking around rewards cards for the airline I fly (Delta), I keep seeing stuff about different tiers of status. How does that work? Do I have to use my card to earn a certain number of points or what? What happens when I get to those levels? Will having a card with the airline help me get there faster? — Ryan

ADear Ryan,

You're not the first to be confused about airline miles, elite status and what qualifies you for what. For those who travel frequently and have the time and patience to learn the details of the airline elite status programs, there are many perks — including seat upgrades and lounge access.Ask Eva

However, elite status is not for everyone, so making your credit card decision based on elite-status perks may not be worth it to you.

Regular vs. elite miles
Airlines have added many more options for people to earn miles for their frequent flier accounts. In addition to airline credit cards, consumers can also earn miles via affiliated vendor partners, such as hotels and car rental companies, which offer miles as an incentive to do business with them.

However, airlines still want to give extra rewards to customers who fly frequently with the airline. Frequent fliers are airlines' most important customers, and it just makes good business sense to offer their most faithful extra perks in return for their loyalty.

To do this, airlines have created tiered rewards structures in their frequent flier programs: Consumers earn “regular” frequent flier miles via airline credit cards and affiliated vendors purchases. “Elite-qualifying” miles are earned by actually flying with the airline.

So, what's the difference? Regular frequent flier miles still give you the benefits most people associate with airline rewards, such as the ability to get free trips when you've accumulated enough miles. In addition, people who gain elite status have access to a whole other tier of attractive frequent flier perks.

The perks of elite status include more free checked bags, free access to airport lounges, priority check-in and priority boarding. In some airports, you even enjoy priority security checks. Elite members may also earn more miles for each flight they take, up to twice as many as the actual miles flown, which makes it easier to stay in the elite segment once you've reached it. And oh, did I mention that once they reach a certain level, elite members in some airlines' programs also enjoy free upgrades to first class when space is available?

How to join the elite club
So what does it take to qualify for elite status? You need to accumulate elite-qualifying miles (EQMs), which are actual flown miles with the airline or its partners. EQMs go by different names, depending on the airline: United, Continental and American Airlines refer to them as Elite Qualifying Miles; Delta Airlines refers to them as Medallion Qualification Miles (or MQMs).

Unfortunately, the bar is set pretty high: Depending on the airline, count on having to accumulate at least 25,000 EQMs a year to get to and keep first-tier elite status. That usually means 25,000 flown miles a year. Given that the typical U.S. round trip is between 3,000 to 4,000 miles, that is a lot of trips for most people.

Can a credit card get me there faster?
You can get some help attaining elite status if you sign up for an airline credit card that offers EQMs as part of its sign-up bonus. The American Express Platinum Delta card, for example, will give you 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles after you make your first purchase and 10,000 bonus MQMs if you spend $25,000 annually. If you spend $50,000 annually, you get another 10,000 miles bonus.

There is a price, however: The Delta Platinum card comes with a $150 annual fee.  For an annual fee of $450, the American Express Delta Reserve card will let you earn up to 30,000 bonus MQMs per year –15,000 MQMs for spending $30,000 annually and another 15,000 MQMs if you spend $60,000 annually on the card.

That's a steep premium to pay. So going for elite status makes a lot of sense if you travel a lot, and it's fairly easy for you to accumulate 25,000 flown miles a year. It can also make sense if money isn't an issue and you don't mind paying a steep annual fee for an airline credit card to earn extra miles toward elite status.

For many people, however, accumulating regular airline miles to earn free airline tickets affords the best perks at the lowest cost. And, because you don't have to constantly worry about accumulating enough EQMs to reach or keep your elite status, those perks also come with far fewer headaches. For most busy people, that's a wonderful perk in and of itself.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.