Backdoor shortcuts to airline and hotel elite status

Eric Rosen
Bloomberg News
In this July 18, 2018, file photo, United Airlines commercial jets sit at a gate at Terminal C of Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J.

First-class and suite upgrades. Club-lounge entry. Access to priority services. The perks of elite status are harder and harder to come by as airlines and hotels continue to evolve their loyalty programs.

Many airlines have instituted both flight and spending requirements that can top 125,000 miles and $15,000 in airfare purchases each year. Likewise, several of the major hotel loyalty programs have implemented more stringent stay requirements to reach their highest strata of status, thinning the ranks of elites even further.

However, just because it seems more difficult, does not mean it actually is. In fact, it might be even easier than ever to achieve a lofty level of status thanks to unique partnerships among airlines, hotels and credit cards, and the right strategies to use them to your advantage. Here’s how.

Airline-hotel alliances

Frequent travelers can leverage elite status they already earn with a hotel or airline into elite status with its partner, all with little or no extra effort.

One of the newest of these affiliations is between American Airlines and Hyatt. Now, travelers who have elite status with either the airline or the hotel can earn both frequent-flier miles and hotel points on both flights and stays.

Hyatt elites at the mid- and top-range Explorist and Globalist levels are also being offered 90-day grace periods of American Airlines AAdvantage elite status, plus the chance to extend this status through January 2021 by completing “challenges.” These deals involve flying a certain number of miles or segments and spending a predetermined amount of money on airfare within 90 days, rather than having to complete the normal requirements over the course of a calendar year.

AAdvantage’s invitation-only ConciergeKey elites are being offered outright Globalist Hyatt status, which comes with benefits such as free breakfast during stays, club-lounge access, points bonuses, and dedicated customer service. AAdvantage elites at other levels have been extended trial periods of Hyatt status and offers to earn ongoing status based on stay activity within a 90-day period.

RewardsPlus is a similar link-up between Marriott Bonvoy and United MileagePlus. The hotel program’s Titanium and Ambassador elites receive automatic United Premier Silver status, the airline’s lowest level, which is usually achieved by flying 25,000 miles or 30 segments and spending $3,000 on airfare in a year; perks include free checked bags, priority service at the airport, and access to Economy Plus seating at check-in. United elites with Premier Gold status or higher, meanwhile, enjoy complimentary Marriott Gold elite status. That usually requires staying 25 nights in a year, and includes benefits like a decent shot at room upgrades, and check-in points bonuses.

Automatic status

Most hotel credit cards these days grant at least a basic level of elite status by simply carrying a specific product in your wallet.

For example, instead of having to stay 10 nights or more each year, folks with the World of Hyatt credit card($95 annual fee) receive entry-level Discoverist status in that program. The IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card($89 annual fee) confers mid-tier Platinum status without having to stay 40 nights in IHG properties each year.

The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card from Chase ($95 annual fee) and the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant from American Express ($450 annual fee) both include automatic Gold status. Those with the Brilliant version can also boost their way up to Platinum status (normally achieved by hitting 50-plus nights each year) by spending $75,000 or more on the card in a calendar year.

With the launch of a new range of credit cards in 2018, Hilton even began offering its top-tier Diamond status as a benefit of the $450-per-year the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. It is the only hotel credit card at the moment to offer top-tier status automatically. However, folks with the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend, whose annual fee is a mere $95, can spend their way up from automatic Gold status to Diamond by making $40,000 or more in purchases in a calendar year. Diamond status usually requires 30 stays or 60 nights a year, and confers perks such as a 100% earning bonus on Hilton purchases (for 20 points per dollar versus the normal 10), complimentary breakfast at all hotels, executive lounge access, and the chance to gift elite status to another Hilton Honors member.

Spending bonuses

When it comes to airlines, the credit-card elite-status formula is more dependent on spending.

For example, Delta fields two cards that allow consumers to earn Medallion-Qualification Miles (MQMs), which count toward elite status, through both sign-up bonuses and everyday spending. The Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card ($195 annual fee) has offered as many as 10,000 MQMs along with SkyMiles (miles you can use for award tickets) as part of its sign-up bonus. Cardholders can rack up an additional 20,000 MQMs by spending $50,000 on the card in a calendar year. The more premium Delta Reserve card($450 annual fee), which gets cardholders into Delta Sky Clubs when flying the airline, has offered sign-up bonuses including up to 10,000 MQMs along with bonus SkyMiles. Cardholders can earn up to an additional 30,000 MQMs by spending up to $60,000 in a calendar year.

The Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard ($450 annual fee) includes perks like Admirals Club membership for lounge access at the airport. However, its most valuable benefit for some might be the opportunity to earn 10,000 elite-qualifying miles after spending $40,000 in purchases each year – just the bump certain fliers need to hit the next level of status.

JetBlue Plus ($99 annual fee) cardholders, meanwhile, can attain the airline’s Mosaic status for a year after spending $50,000 or more on purchases annually. Mosaic status typically requires earning 15,000 flight points (equivalent to spending $5,000 on airfare), or flying 30 segments and earning 12,000 flight points within a calendar year. Mosaic benefits include waived change and cancellation fees, extra bonus points for airfare purchases, priority treatment at the airport and the opportunity to redeem points for Even More Space seats at a discount.