Airline credit cards from Delta, Southwest, and more can help you earn elite status - in some cases, you can qualify without setting foot on a plane

united gate agent

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Elite status with United can get you priority boarding, upgrades, and other benefits.

  • Most airline credit cards earn miles on everyday purchases and include day-of-travel perks like free checked bags.
  • Some airline credit cards like the United Explorer Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card go even further and help members earn credit toward elite status.
  • Elite boosts usually involve hitting (rather high) spending thresholds during the calendar year. In other cases, like with certain JetBlue credit cards, you can earn elite status outright through credit card spending, without any flying required.
  • Using airline credit cards to secure elite status makes the most sense when you fall just short of qualifying for your desired status level based on your flight activity.
  • See Business Insider's list of the best airline credit cards »

Airline credit cards usually come with a standard set of perks and benefits. Most proffer sign-up bonuses worth tens of thousands of miles and allow cardholders to earn award miles not just on airfare, but on other everyday purchases as well.

Airline credit cards typically confer day-of-travel benefits, too, like free checked bags, priority boarding, and in-flight discounts on food and Wi-Fi.

However, there is also a cadre of premium airline credit cards that enable their members to rack up elite-qualifying miles or activity based on annual spending. While the spending thresholds for such elite boosts are rather high, if you do put a lot of purchases on your airline credit card, this could be just the way to reach that next echelon of elite status without having to take more flights or spend more time away from home.

Keep in mind that we're focusing on the rewards and perks that make these credit cards great options, not things like interest rates and late fees, which will far outweigh the value of any points or miles. It's important to practice financial discipline when using credit cards by paying your balances in full each month, making payments on time, and only spending what you can afford to pay back.

Not all airlines field credit cards that offer such a benefit. However, the good news is that many do have at least one product that does so. With that in mind, here are the best rewards credit cards that can help you earn elite status with each airline, as well as more details about why you might want to carry one.

American Airlines

American Airlines actually has two credit cards that offer the opportunity to spend your way to a higher status.

The first is the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®. Cardholders who spend $40,000 or more on eligible purchases in a calendar year receive 10,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs), which would get you almost halfway to the AAdvantage program's first level of status, Gold.

The Citi / AAdvantage Executive card does have an annual fee of $450, but that's because cardholders receive membership to the airline's Admirals Clubs airport lounges and can bring two guests (or immediate family) in for free. They are also eligible for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee refund once every five years. The card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $5,000 in the first three months.

Click here to learn more about the Citi / AAdvantage Executive card »

The other American Airlines card to consider is the AAdvantage Aviator Silver World Elite Mastercard. Though it's not open to new applicants, if you already have the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard you can upgrade to the Silver version.

Starting this year (2020), cardholders who spend $50,000 or more on purchases with their card in a calendar year will earn $3,000 elite-qualifying dollars (EQDs), which is the spending requirement for Gold status. Among this card's other benefits are the fact that it earns 3 miles per dollar on American Airlines purchases and 2 miles per dollar on hotels and rental cars.

It also comes with up to $25 back per day as statement credits on in-flight food and beverage purchases and up to $50 back on in-flight Wi-Fi purchases on American Airlines flights every account year. The annual fee is $195.

For flyers who need to rack up more elite-qualifying miles, the Citi card is the better option, but if you've been falling short on elite-qualifying spending, the Aviator Silver should be your choice.

Delta

Delta fields four different credit cards that offer some sort of boost toward elite status. But for now, let's just concentrate on Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express. Starting January 30, 2020, this card will offer a variety of new and expanded benefits.

Among them will be the ability to rack up 15,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) for hitting $30,000, $60,000, $90,000, and $120,000 in purchases in a calendar year up to a total potential of 60,000 MQMs. That's more than enough for mid-tier Gold Medallion status with the Delta SkyMiles program. Gold benefits include earning 8x miles per dollar on airfare, free checked bags, a decent shot at upgrades, access to preferred and premium seats, and waived same-day confirmed and standby fees among other perks.

In addition to Delta Sky Club access, the card will get members into Amex Centurion Lounges and include a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee refund starting January 30. It will up its earning to 3x miles per dollar on Delta purchases and will continue to offer an annual companion certificate good for one round-trip ticket on domestic Delta flights. The card's annual fee will also rise to $550 in 2020.

Click here to learn more about the Delta Reserve credit card from American Express »

Also starting January 30, the Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card from American Express will offer a similar spending-based elite benefit. And both the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express will earn 10,000 MQMs after you spend $25,000 in a calendar year, and an additional 10,000 MQMs for hitting $50,000 in a calendar year. Their annual fees will go from $195 up to $250 in 2020.

Frontier

Although this airline and its mileage program are much smaller than some of the legacies on this list, its co-branded credit card is unique in that the miles you earn with it are both award and elite-qualifying miles. The Frontier Airlines World Mastercard racks up 5x miles on Frontier website purchases (including tickets), 3x at restaurants, and 1x on everything else.

You only need 20,000 miles to hit the first status tier, which includes perks like free carry-on bags, seat assignments, family mileage pooling, and priority boarding. The card is currently offering 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $500 on purchases in the first 90 days. Cardmembers who spend $2,500 or more on purchases during an account year and pay the $79 annual fee also receive a $100 flight voucher as an anniversary gift.

JetBlue

Both the JetBlue Plus Card and the JetBlue Business Card reward cardholders who spend $50,000 or more on purchases in a calendar year with the airline's Mosaic elite status.

Mosaic benefits include waived ticket change and cancellation fees, free checked bags, reduced point redemption rates for Even More Space seats, and complimentary alcoholic beverages on board, among other benefits. Earning Mosaic normally requires TrueBlue program members to earn 15,000 base flight points, which is equivalent to spending $5,000 on airfare, or flying 30 segments and earning 12,000 base points per calendar year.

Among the JetBlue Plus Card's other selling points are a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days and a 5,000-point anniversary bonus each year after paying the $99 annual fee. It earns 6 points per dollar on JetBlue purchases and 2x at restaurants and grocery stores. Cardholders also get a 50% discount on in-flight cocktail and food purchases.

The JetBlue Business Card is currently offering a welcome bonus of up to 60,000 points - 50,000 after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days and an additional 10,000 when a purchase is made with an employee card within the first 90 days. It earns 6x points on JetBlue purchases and 2x at restaurants and office supply stores.

Southwest Airlines

Several of Southwest's credit cards present the opportunity to earn Tier-Qualifying Points (TQPs) toward Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List and A-List Preferred status. Members who do so enjoy benefits like free in-flight Wi-Fi, priority security and check-in, and early boarding.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card, and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card all earn 1,500 TQPs per every $10,000 you spend on them each calendar year, on up to $100,000, or 15,000 TQPs. That's about halfway to A-List status.

Because this benefit is identical across these cards, you might want to consider their other perks as the deciding factor for which one you should carry.

The Southwest Priority card is a good choice on the personal side. It earns 2x points on Southwest and partner purchases, and cardholders receive 7,500 bonus points each account anniversary they pay the $149 annual fee, as well as a $75 yearly Southwest travel credit. They can also count on four upgraded boardings per year and a 20% discount on in-flight purchases. Like the two other Southwest personal credit cards, it's currently offering a sign-up bonus of up to 75,000 points: 40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, and another 35,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first six months.

Our favorite Southwest card for consumers: Click here to learn more about the Southwest Priority card »

The Southwest Performance Business card, meanwhile, is currently offering a welcome bonus of 70,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. It earns 3x points on Southwest and partner purchases, and 2x on social media and paid search advertising, internet, cable, and phone services. It includes four upgraded boardings per year, up to $8 back on in-flight Wi-Fi daily, up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application reimbursement every four years, and 9,000 bonus anniversary points. The annual fee is $199.

Our favorite Southwest business credit card: Click here to learn more about the Southwest Performance Business card »

United

United announced sweeping changes to the MileagePlus Premier elite program that kick in this year, which also affect how credit cards fit into the overall picture. Until now, spending $25,000 on a co-branded credit card could help you waive the spending requirements for most Premier tiers. The equation has changed for 2020 and beyond, though.

MileagePlus members now earn Premier-Qualifying Points (PQPs) and Premier-Qualifying Flights (PQFs) based on how much they spend on airfare with United and its airline partners. Those with a United co-branded card like the United Explorer Card, United Explorer Business Card, the United Club Card, or United Club Business Card who spend $12,000 in a calendar year will earn 500 Premier-Qualifying Points. Spend another $12,000 and you'll receive another 500 PQPs for a total of $24,000 in spending and 1,000 PQPs.

That's about a fifth of the way toward the lowest level of status, Premier Silver, which requires earning 5,000 PQPs (essentially spending $5,000 on airfare), or 4,000 PQPs and taking 12 qualifying flights. It's not a great formula, but if you're within striking distance of Silver or one of the higher tiers of status and need that little extra help, the 1,000 PQPs might be just the ticket.

The United Explorer card has an annual fee of $95 that's waived the first year. It earns 2x miles on United purchases and at restaurants and hotels. Cardholders get a free checked bag when they pay with the card, along with priority boarding, and a 25% discount on in-flight food, beverage, and Wi-Fi purchases. They're are also eligible for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application reimbursement once every four years.

Click here to learn more about the United Explorer card »

When is it worth it?

Even earning modest amounts of elite-qualifying credit can require spending tens of thousands of dollars. This is likely not worth it to the vast majority of flyers who have no shot of hitting the highest tiers and unlocking the most valuable elite benefits. For them, it's worth focusing on an airline credit card's elite-like benefits instead, such as free checked bags and priority boarding.

However, if you are within spitting distance of a mileage program's top status tier and there are benefits like systemwide upgrades, tens of thousands of bonus miles, or the chance to gift elite status to someone else at stake, it might be worth trying to hit a credit card spending threshold to unlock that value.

This is also a good time to plot your plan for the year since we are at the beginning of another calendar year and you can put your 2020 spending toward status if that is part of your travel strategy.

See Business Insider's list of the best travel rewards credit cards »

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

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Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they're subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.

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