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Can You Earn Airline Elite Status Through a Credit Card?

Dear Tim,

Can you earn elite status on an airline by charging a lot on a credit card? For example, I have the Hilton HHonors American Express card. After 100,000 points, I became a Diamond-level member even though I stayed only a few nights in Hilton hotels.


Dear Zack,

The airlines have been considerably less forthcoming than the hotels when it comes to awarding elite status for credit card use. The reason is that the principal benefit of elite status, for airline and hotel programs, is upgrades. And there’s more demand for premium airline seats than for premium hotel rooms. The hotel programs can accommodate more elite members without reaching the limits of their ability to provide them with upgrades. By contrast, the airlines have to carefully manage the number of elite memberships, to avoid overwhelming the very limited supply of first-class seats available for upgrades.

With the above constraint in mind, travelers shouldn’t be surprised that opportunities to earn airline elite status through credit card use are few and far between. In fact, among the larger U.S. carriers, only two such opportunities currently exist.

The US Airways Signature Visa card allows cardholders to check in at first- or business-class counters—a benefit typically accorded elite members—and earn up to 10,000 elite-qualifying miles for charges, if they use the card to make purchases totaling $25,000 or more annually.

And with United Airlines’ newly relaunched Mileage Plus Visa card, cardholders can redeem up to 50,000 credit card points for as many as 5,000 elite-qualifying miles and five elite-qualifying segments per year. But would you give up enough miles for two free tickets in order to get only 20 percent of the way to elite status?

On a slightly different note, American awards lifetime elite status to AAdvantage members who earn one million miles. Since those miles can be earned for any qualifying activity, including charges to the program’s co-branded credit card, you could secure elite status by charging aggressively.

So unfortunately, there are no easy routes to elevated status in airline programs. You still have to attain elite perks the old-fashioned way: by earning them.

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