Here’s an interesting statistic: On the average domestic flight, less than half of the first class passengers paid to be in their first class seat. The other ~55%? They bought an economy ticket for the same price that you did, and then got upgraded for free because of their “Elite” status.
Now, if you live out of your suitcase like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, you’ve probably already earned elite status organically. But what about the rest of us? Is it possible to become an airline elite without flying hundreds of thousands of miles a year?
Absolutely. And we’ll show you how.
The Benefits of Elite Status
Elite status is designed to reward frequent flyers for being loyal to a single airline or network. The idea is that the more you fly with one airline, the more they’ll reward you for flying with them.
Seat upgrades are just one aspect of the elite flyer experience, and nearly every major carrier has three or four “levels” of elite status, each with their own requirements for entry and benefits.
If you want to get into the value of each airline’s program and elite level, The Points Guy has a great, super-detailed article.
But, most every program offers some variation on the same theme that includes some level of:
- Free seat upgrades when they’re available
- Early boarding
- Priority check-in
- Bonus mileage earning
- Free baggage
- Fee-free cancellations
- Special reservation/support phone lines
The higher “level” of elite status you earn, the better your benefits become. For example, if you’re a Delta “Sliver Medallion” low-level elite, you have access to upgrades 24 hours before your flight. If you’re a Delta high-level “Diamond Medallion” elite, you have access to those same upgrades five days before your flight departs.
Practically, that means on a busy route, particularly one with business travelers, you’re pretty unlikely to be upgraded as a low-level elite because all the available upgrade seats will have been taken by higher-level elites. But, there’s still quite a bit of value from the other benefits of your status.
Gaming the System With Mileage Runs
The secret to gaming the airline elite status system used to be something called “mileage runs.” Flyers would find error fares or particularly good deals, and then spend their free time flying halfway around the world just for the chance to earn miles and status.
A typical mileage run might leave New York on a Tuesday morning, connect through Atlanta and Paris on the way to Singapore, and then turn around and do the whole thing in reverse before Thursday evening. Exhausting, but a quick way to earn elite status for some flyers.
Sadly, this doesn’t work as well as it used to. Between 2014 and 2016, Delta, United and American all changed their programs so that they weren’t just based on how much you flew with the airline, but how much you spent with the airline. Now, for example, flying 100,000 miles in a single year isn’t enough to earn you United’s highest-tier elite status; you’ll also need to spend $12,000 with the airline.
Of the major carriers, Alaska Airlines is the last major holdout. Its elite status is still entirely mileage based; however, even it recently made things a bit tougher. In the past, you could find a mileage run on Alaska’s network of global partners, credit it to Alaska and quickly earn elite status. But recently, Alaska changed its system so that you’ll only earn 25% of the miles you fly in economy for most of its international partners. However, premium economy, business and first class partner tickets still earn 100% or more of the miles you’d normally earn.
Still, miles flown still are one component of earning elite status on every airline, if you’re looking to shortcut that part of your path to elite status.
Getting Around Spend Requirements
If you’re not going to spend enough with Delta, American or United to meet their minimum spend requirements, there are some other options. Mostly, those options are through spending lots of money on an airline-branded credit card.
- United will waive minimum spend requirements if you spend more than $25,000 on one of its credit cards.
- Delta will likewise waive minimum spend requirements if you spend more than $25,000 on one of its credit cards.
- American Airlines is the worst of the big three airlines when it comes to this. It lets you waive the lowest-tier status requirements with a $25,000 spend or the Platinum (AA’s mid-tier status) with a $50,000 spend.
Key Strategies for Earning Elite Status
Pick an Airline, Then Stick to It
You’ll have the easiest time earning status, and get the most value out of it, if you pick the airline you fly most frequently. If you live near a hub, then you’ve got an obvious choice. Otherwise, spend some time thinking about where you typically fly and which airline offers the best value and routes to your typical destination.
Use Booking Classes to Your Benefit
Most programs reward you for booking in higher classes and punish you for booking cheaper fares.
For example, if you fly United’s new (and terrible) “Basic Economy” N fare, you won’t earn any miles at all, whereas if you purchase a first class ticket, you’ll earn a 300% bonus.
When you’re shopping for a flight, consider mileage bonus or penalty of the class you’re booking before you book your flight.
Use Partner Networks
All the major U.S. carriers belong to an alliance, a network of airlines that lets you earn miles and experience some benefits on any carrier in the network.
Sometimes, you can shortcut your elite status by flying on a partner. For example, earlier this year you could fly from Seattle to Munich on Condor Airlines business class for about $1,200. As an Alaska partner, that trip would give Alaska frequent flyers a 200% bonus on top of their actual miles flown.
Plug those numbers into a mileage calculator, and you find that you’d be earning over 31,000 in a single trip—enough to qualify for Alaska’s lowest-tier MVP status.
Watch for Deals & Book Them Fast
When it comes to finding good mileage run deals, FlyerTalk is your best chance. Its Mileage Run Deal forum is probably the internet’s best source for finding great deals, along with its companion Premium Fare Deal forum.
Just remember that great deals usually come, and go, fast. So you’ll need to be on the lookout and ready to book a trip at the drop of a hat.
Status Match Shortcuts
If you earn elite status on one airline, it might be possible to get another airline to match your status. Some will give you a straight-up status match, and others will issue a “status challenge” that temporarily grants you status that can be extended by flying a specific amount during the challenge.
Use StatusMatcher to see where others have had success, and be aware that this is typically a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for most airlines.
Earn Status Without Flying
Want to earn elite airline status without ever leaving the ground? It’s possible, but it’s not easy or cheap.
- American Express’ legendary Centurion “Black Card” comes with complimentary Delta Platinum status. The downsides: Membership is by invitation only (spend over $100K/yr on an American Express Platinum card, and you can probably request an invitation), and membership is $2,500/yr after you pay an initial $7,500 initiation fee.
- If you earn Marriott Platinum Elite status, you’ll get complimentary United Silver Earning Platinum Elite status with Marriott requires 75 stays. A Marriott Credit Card will earn you 15 nights every year, plus an additional 1-night credit for every $3,000 you spend, but getting all the way to Platinum Elite would take putting $195,000 in spend on the card.
- If you’re willing to get four Delta branded credit cards, pay $1,290 in annual fees and spend a combined $220,000 on the cards, it’s possible to manufacture Delta Platinum, or even Diamond elite status.
- If you put $100,000 on a Delta Private Jets card (which you could use for normal Delta flights), Delta will go ahead and hook you up with their highest elite status.
Now you’re armed with the knowledge you need to be one of those people sitting in first class at economy class prices. So get going!