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If you’re an infrequent traveler or a hardcore bargain hunter, you may have never considered becoming an elite member of an airline loyalty program — but you’re missing out on perks that could make your travel more comfortable and affordable. Elite status comes with benefits such as free upgrades, bonus miles, early boarding, flight discounts and free passes to airport lounges.
So what does having elite status mean, exactly? How do you get elite status on airlines? Which airline elite status is best? Here’s NerdWallet’s guide explaining airline elite status and its benefits.
What is airline elite status?
Every airline has a loyalty program, commonly called a frequent flyer program, that you can join for free. American Airlines has its AAdvantage program. United has MileagePlus. Southwest calls its loyalty program Rapid Rewards. There are several more.
Members can earn miles or points every time you fly, assuming you book directly through the airline. Your miles or points are redeemable for future flights and other rewards.
» Learn more: How to get started with frequent flyer programs
In some frequent flyer programs, flights will not only earn you points, but also credit toward elite status. These can get a little confusing, especially since airlines usually have two different benchmarks you must hit to qualify as elite.
For example, to earn elite status on American Airlines, you have to:
Accumulate a certain number of Elite Qualifying Dollars, which are based on how much money you spend with the airline.
Hit a minimum number of either Elite Qualifying Miles, which are based on the physical distance flown, or Elite Qualifying Segments, which are flight segments flown.
Most airlines tally these credits over the course of a calendar year. If you hit the minimum threshold, you automatically become an elite member for the remainder of the year in which you qualified plus all the following year, enjoying the perks that whole time.
Typical benefits of airline elite status
Every airline rewards its elites a little differently. Most U.S. airlines give elite members bonus miles when they fly. For example, American AAdvantage elite members earn anywhere from 40% to 120% more AAdvantage miles when they fly than do non-elite AAdvantage members. Southwest Airlines gives its A-List members a 25% bonus on the Rapid Rewards points they earn when they fly.
Airlines typically divide their elite members into tiers like silver, gold and platinum, with increasingly difficult requirements to earn the status (but better benefits).
Here are some of the most common perks for elite members of some of the biggest U.S. airlines: American, United and Delta.
Bonus miles or points when you fly.
Free checked bags.
Wider selection of flights or seats that can be booked as "award flights" with miles instead of cash.
Enhanced customer service support.
Southwest has an elite status program called A-List, but it offers fewer benefits than some of the other carriers. That’s because Southwest already offers free checked bags, and the airline doesn't have a first class cabin (or even assigned seating).
» Keep reading: The beginners guide to points and miles
Requirements to earn airline elite status
Status tiers and benchmarks differ across airlines. These are some of the typical qualifications, but note that many airlines lowered the requirements for 2021.
American Airlines elite status requirements
Here’s how many Elite Qualifying Dollars and either Elite Qualifying Miles or Elite Qualifying Segments you need to reach each tier in the AAdvantage program.
Elite qualifying miles
Elite qualifying segments
Elite qualifying dollars
United Airlines elite status requirements
United Airlines uses two metrics to determine elite status in its MileagePlus program: Premier Qualifying Flights, which are essentially flight segments flown, and Premier Qualifying Points, which are awarded based on how much money you spend with the airline.
To reach elite, you must earn either a certain number of PQFs and PQPs combined or a higher number of PQPs alone. United has no distance requirement to reach elite, making it a potentially good choice for travelers who take a lot of short flights.
United's PQF and PQP requirements for 2021
2021 Premier status
PQF and PQP
6 PQF and 2,000 PQP.
12 PQF and 4,000 PQP.
18 PQF and 6,000 PQP.
26 PQF and 9,000 PQP.
Or higher PQP goal
Delta Air Lines elite status requirements
The Delta SkyMiles program calls its elites Medallion members, and they get there by earning Medallion Qualification Dollars plus either Medallion Qualification Miles or Medallion Qualification Segments.
To earn this status, you must have MQDs of at least:
AND EITHER this many MQMs:
OR this many MQSs:
Southwest Airlines elite status requirements
Southwest has two elite tiers in its Rapid Rewards program, both of which come with priority boarding — a big perk since Southwest has no reserved seating, and getting on the plane sooner means more seats to choose from.
A-List: 25 one-way flights or 35,000 tier qualifying points.
A-List Preferred: 50,000 one-way flights or 70,000 tier qualifying points.
Earning airline elite status in 2021
How could anyone possibly be expected to fly this much during the pandemic? You’re not. Major airlines have eased their rules for qualifying for elite status, at least temporarily. Waivers, points that roll over from year to year and lowered mile and point thresholds are some of the ways airlines are trying to keep their elite members happy and onboard.
The requirements vary by airline, so read your preferred airline’s website to see if the eased rules can help you qualify.
» Learn more: Is airline elite status worth considering in 2021?
Other ways to qualify for airline elite status
Beyond flying, travelers have a few other avenues to become elite status members depending on the airline.
Use the right airline credit card
Some airline credit cards help you qualify for elite status faster. A few examples:
Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card comes with a chance to earn Medallion Qualification Miles through the welcome bonus: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021. Terms Apply.
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® comes with a chance to quickly earn Elite Qualifying Miles via its welcome bonus: Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
United℠ Explorer Card has a built-in way to earn up to 1,000 Premier Qualifying Points in a calendar year by earning 500 PQP each time you spend $12,000 on the card.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards
Tap your elite status from a partner airline
Already have elite status with an airline? Many times, you can automatically enjoy the equivalent perks on a partner. For example, if you have Gold status in American’s AAdvantage program, you can automatically enjoy the perks of Oneworld Ruby status when you fly partner airlines in the Oneworld alliance.
Fly a partner airline
Most major airlines partner with other airlines that let members earn credits toward elite status when they fly. Get to know which airlines partner with your preferred airline so you can earn credit toward elite status on your favorite domestic airline even when you fly a different airline internationally.
For example, if you fly Air France, you have the opportunity to earn credits toward Medallion status on Delta Air Lines.
» Learn more: The basics of airline partnerships and alliances
Purchase an upgrade
When you pay cash to upgrade your seat or your cabin on a Delta flight, the money you spend counts toward your Medallion Qualification Dollars. Other airlines have similar policies that can help you become an elite flyer faster.
Which airline elite status is best?
Achieving status can cost a lot in terms of both dollars and time spent, so it's wise to pick a program that offers the most value.
Hawaiian Airlines' Hawaiian Miles program ranked second overall, and American, United and Delta's programs tied for third.
» Learn more: How to shop for flights
How to pick the right airline elite status program for you
Know your preferred airline
To decide which airline elite status is best for you, one question overrules all the others: Which airline will you fly the most? If you live in a Delta hub like Atlanta and usually fly that airline, consider pursuing elite status on Delta.
If you live and fly places well served by multiple airlines, consider the qualifications to earn the level of elite status you want.
Figure out your priority perks
Also ask yourself which perks you’d most enjoy from elite status. Lots of bonus miles? Flight upgrades? Easy same-day standby? A chance to board the plane before all the overhead baggage space is snapped up? Remember, most elite status benefits can also be purchased or might come as a credit card benefit (like cards with complimentary checked bags or lounge access).
Do some simple math
If upgrades to extra-legroom Economy Plus seats on United sound irresistible to you, price out how much you’d pay in cash to earn status. That way you’ll have a rough dollar value of the benefits you’d get as an elite and a better sense of how much the status is worth to you.
If the cost to earn status outweighs paying out of pocket for the upgrade each time you fly, you might be better off purchasing your preferred conveniences a la carte.
If you’re wondering whether airline elite status is for you
Don’t assume airline elite status is out of reach. Skim your favorite airline’s benefits and requirements to see if you could reasonably spend to reach your desired level of status. Research which airline elite status is worth it. Log in to your frequent flyer account to see how many miles, points, segments or dollars you’ve racked up so far without even trying. You might already be on your way.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card