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Frequent Flyer Credit Cards that Actually Help Elite Status

by on May 23, 2011

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While almost all airlines credit cards earn frequent flyer miles on their own airline and affiliates, few cards earn miles that count toward elite status. Most airlines differentiate between qualifying miles, which go towards earning elite benefits, and non-qualifying miles, which can be used towards free flights and such but won’t help you reach that platinum level. Here, we’ll tell you which cards will help you get that complimentary glass of champagne.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention two caveats, though. The first is that branded airline cards often don’t give the same rewards rate as non-branded travel cards. For example, you earn 1 United mile per $1 spent on the United MileagePlus Explorer and 2 miles when you spend on the airline itself. The Capital One Venture, by contrast, gives 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, significantly increasing the rewards you earn. The largest benefits of a branded credit card are the auxiliary perks, like priority boarding or free checked bags.

The second is that all of the cards have a foreign transaction fee. This charge is applied on all international purchases, so if you fly Europe and put $2,000 on the card, you’re out an additional $20-$54. If you’re looking to travel internationally, check out our list of credit cards with no foreign transaction fees.

Virgin Atlantic – Virgin AmEx

Earning miles: Virgin bases its system on the number of segments flown, not the distance. A one-way ticket earns 2 tier points on economy, 3 on premium economy and 5 on upper (British for first, we assume). Flying on Virgin affiliates earns tier points too, though at a lower rate.

Ease of qualifying: According to our calculations, you’ll need to fly from SFO to Boston Logan and back:

  • 4 times on economy, 3 on premium economy and 2 on upper to reach Silver status
  • 11 times on economy, 7 on premium economy and 4 on upper to reach Gold status

Benefits: Although Virgin’s elite status is the easiest to qualify for at every level, the benefits are less than stellar. It doesn’t have an unlimited upgrade program, unlike domestic airlines, and offers no seating/upgrade perks other than priority waitlist. It does offer the standard baggage, security and lounge perks. So it hardly seems worth getting a Virgin Atlantic card, solely to help with elite status on the airline.

How the card helps: Each month, you can earn up to 2 tier points by spending $5,000.

Delta Airlines – Delta Reserve and Platinum

Earning miles: Delta lets you earn with either miles or segments, requiring 25,000 miles / 30 segments for Silver status all the way up to 125,000 / 140 for Diamond status.

Ease of qualifying: Almost too easy, say some: Anyone with a Delta card gets priority boarding, so those subtractable perks have declined in value. Still, it never hurts to have a leg up. You’d need to fly from SFO to Logan and back:

  • 5 times on economy, 4 times on premium economy or 3 times on business/first to reach Silver status
  • 10 times on economy, 7 times on premium economy or 5 times on business/first to reach Gold status
  • 19 times on economy, 13 times on premium economy or 10 times on business/first to reach Platinum status
  • 24 times on economy, 16 times on premium economy or 12 times on business/first to reach Diamond status

Benefits: Silver level confers priority boarding and two free checked bags; Gold confers frequent traveler security lines; Platinum brings airport lounges, systemwide upgrades (when available – word on the street is they’re harder to get than you’d think) and Diamond offers complimentary Skyclub membership. There are more benefits we haven’t discussed, of course; read about them all here.

How the card helps: The Platinum card has a signup bonus of 5,000 MQMs after your first purchase, 10,000 MQMs every year you spend $25,000 and an extra 10,000 MQMs every year you spend $50,000. The Reserve card’s signup bonus offers 10,000 MQMs, 15,000 miles every year you spend $30,000, and an additional 15,000 MQMs every year you spend $60,000.

Want to save money on travel?
Check out our list of no foreign transaction fee credit cards, and stop paying unnecessary fees!
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  • AKDrummer

    I don’t think the comment “Since Alaska doesn’t differentiate between miles flown and miles earned through the Alaska Airlines credit card, the rewards you earn bring you toward a higher elite status.” is correct. After assessing my situation, I decided to go with the Alaska Airlines signature visa card. I don’t see anything in the agreement regarding miles earned as EQMs. I did contact the mileage plan as well to ask that very question.

    • http://twitter.com/alaskanjackal jackal

      You’re correct. Alaska *does* differentiate between elite and regular miles, contrary to this blog post’s claims. Credit card miles do not count for elite status.

    • http://www.nerdwallet.com/ Tim

      Thanks for the heads up!  We were misled by the original CSR that we talked to, and have corrected the post based on your input.

  • Jdidu

    Very wrong on United’s elite member benefits. In fact, the benefits are the opposite of that stated above. You do get companion upgrades, priority baggage handling, AND a mileage bonus (a 100% mileage bonus at my level of Premier Executive).

  • Wardgera

    The greatest value for the United card is priority boarding and free bag fees (plus 2 club passes). Weird thing is, all the seat miles you get still have to go toward Silver status … even though you are already Silver!?! .. so I choose the cheapest airline ticket when I can and go with United when they are the low cost provider since I am already Silver just by having the card. One trip pays for the card in baggage fees alone.

  • andrea80796

    Which in turn means that achieving Silver Status by ways of actually flying United is no longer attractive, since one gets all the benefits just by being a cardholder….