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February 17, 2016

For frequent flyers, airline elite status can be an addiction; once you get a taste, it's hard to give up. While airlines have cut back on elite benefits over the past several years—selling upgrades instead of giving them away, and including priority boarding with credit-card membership—having status still makes travel more tolerable. The most valuable perk is enhanced customer service. Say your New York to Los Angeles flight is cancelled due to a mechanical issue: every single passenger will want to get on the next one. But elite members generally get booked first, automatically.

It's gotten harder and harder to get VIP airline status, with airlines making travelers spend a certain amount of money in addition to accumulating miles to qualify. But there are ways to get to elite faster—and there are even ways to do it without having to fly. If you understand how elite programs work, scroll down. If not, start here.

The Basics of Elite Status

To reach the elite ranks, you generally have to fly a certain amount within a calendar year. Most airlines give you two options: miles or segments. Miles are calculated by totaling up the distance of your flights. JFK to San Francisco is 5,172 miles roundtrip, so on Delta it would take five round-trips to reach Silver status (25,000 miles), 10 trips for Gold status (50,000 miles), etc.

To recognize flyers who fly short (but often expensive) distances, airlines will also let you qualify with segments, or the number of takeoffs. Say you travel weekly Chicago to Pittsburgh; each roundtrip would only give you 816 miles, so you'd need to take 30 roundtrips before getting base elite status. Instead, you could qualify after 15 roundtrips (30 takeoffs) with United. You don't need to select whether you'll qualify on segments or miles—it is whatever you hit first.

While programs like Southwest and JetBlue have elite programs, their breadth and benefits pale in comparison to the "Big Three," American, Delta, and United.

There Are Revenue Requirements Too…

Even if you fly the required amount, United and Delta make you spend a certain amount on tickets before they grant you status. The minimums are:

United: $3,000 for Silver, $6,000 for Gold, $9,000 for Platinum, and $12,000 for Premier 1K. You also must fly on four paid flight segments on United and/or United Express during a calendar year. To be exempt from the revenue requirements, you can spend $25,000 on a United co-brand credit card, except for 1K—there is no waiver for that status.

Delta: $3,000 for Silver, $6,000 for Gold, $9,000 for Platinum, and $15,000 for Diamond. To be exempt from the revenue requirements, you can spend $25,000 on a Delta co-brand credit card. Spending enough on a Delta credit card exempts you from all requirements, even for their top tier.

You Can Reach Elite With Credit-Card Spending

That's not the only way you can use credit cards to your advantage. When it comes to elite status, there are miles and there are elite qualifying miles. (Guess which ones get you special status?) The most obvious EQMs are the ones you get by flying. But you can also score them by spending.

Delta is the most generous airline on this front. You can earn 5,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles for getting a Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card and spending $1,000 in the first three months. You can earn another 10,000 MQMs each calendar year after spending $25,000, and an additional 10,000 MQMs after spending $50,000 in a calendar year. In other words, you can reach the lowest tier of status without setting foot on a plane. As I've written before, accumulating points on cards, like the Chase Sapphire, that have many transfer partners is generally the best option. However, none of those cards offer elite perks.

The Delta Reserve American Express has a sign-up bonus of 10,000 MQMs after the first purchase. You can earn an additional 15,000 MQMs by spending $30,000 in a calendar year, and another 15,000 MQMs after spending $60,000 in a calendar year. These MQMs are unique in that you can gift each of the 15,000 MQM bonuses to a friend or family member who may need them to get to the next status level.

American Airlines has two credit cards that offer elite qualifying miles. The Citi Executive AAdvantage card grants 10,000 EQMs after you spend at least $40,000 within a calendar year.

The Barclaycard Aviator Silver card is not available for new applicants, but if you have an existing Aviator Red card you can call and ask to be upgraded the Silver. That card has a higher annual fee ($195), but allows cardholders to earn 5,000 EQMs by spending $20,000 in a calendar year and another 5,000 for $40,000 of spending in a calendar year.

Matches, Challenges, Boosts, and Other Little-Known Tricks

A number of carriers will "match" your VIP status with another company. Alaska Airlines is one of the few airlines that does it without requiring any flying or fee, for elite members of AeroMexico, Air Canada, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United, and Virgin America. To request a status match, e-mail elite.flyer@alaskaair.com with a copy of your current elite card (both sides), an e-statement with your current elite status, and your driver's license.

For a limited time, American Airlines is offering its Executive Platinum status to United 1K and Delta Diamond members, though you need to fly 35,000 EQMs in 90 days. As part of the match, you'll get four system-wide upgrades, which can be applied to any coach fare for upgrade to business class, or to upgrade from paid business class to first class. AA also offers challenges, through which you can score elite membership by flying a certain amount in 90 days. It's a great way to fast-track your way to status, if you can meet the requirements in the short window.

Delta will consider matching to Silver, Gold, or Platinum status on other airlines; to apply, you need to fill out a form.

Flyers who have reached really lofty elite levels are able to give lower-tier status to others. Delta Diamonds members can give Gold status to a friend, for instance, and Delta Platinums can bestow Silver status. This also works on a corporate level: businesses that are enrolled in frequent flyer programs, including Delta SkyBonus and American BusinessExtrAA, can redeem low-level elite status for employees. If you work for a company that has a relationship with an airline, ask if you are eligible for anything.

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