The best credit cards to jump-start elite status

Chasing elite status with a hotel or airline can be addicting. Once you get a taste of the benefits (such as upgrades, lounge access, bonus points, and enhanced customer service), it’s hard to give them up. Depending on how frequently you travel, you could easily get hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars in value from elite status each year.

However, these lucrative perks come at a cost. With many airlines requiring customers to spend at least $3,000 in a year and the major hotel chains typically requiring at least 10 nights per year to earn the lowest level of elite status, even lower-tier members may need to spend a fair amount of cash to secure their status.

Luckily, numerous credit cards can help jump-start your progress toward elite status in the coming year. In fact, if you play your cards right (pun intended), you could have top-tier elite status in a major program by the time you finish reading this guide.

The best credit cards for elite status

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select, Aviator Red, JetBlue Plus, Allegiant, Free Spirit, Frontier Airlines, Hilton Aspire, Wyndham Rewards Earner Plus, and Wyndham Business cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuers.

Why you should use a credit card to earn elite status

The higher you get in the world of elite status, the more incremental value there is in moving up to the next rung. For example, going from a general member with Marriott Bonvoy up to a Silver Elite won’t provide the most noticeable differences. However, there is a significant difference in moving from mid-tier Gold Elite status up to Platinum Elite status — a difference of nearly $1,700 per year in value in TPG’s valuations.

Although some credit cards offer you the ability to enjoy status outright just by carrying them, many also offer the ability to earn elite-qualifying miles or elite night credits to help bump you up to the next rung — done through spending on the card. In fact, many people will benefit from using credit cards to augment their actual travel plans and bump themselves up to a higher tier.

If you don’t travel enough to earn some form of elite status on your own, you may have trouble justifying the cost associated with earning that status and may have difficulty fully utilizing the benefits that come with it.

However, several programs offer status to anyone with the right credit card. If you’re not currently loyal to a single airline or hotel chain, you can use these offers to guide your credit card strategy. For instance, this is why I recommend that anyone who travels occasionally but not frequently open the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express for automatic top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status. If you can use some of the card’s main perks and benefits, you’ll find that the annual fee is worth it.

Look into your favorite loyalty programs and their co-branded credit cards to see what types of status perks they may offer. Note that enrollment is required in advance for some credit card benefits.

Is it worth it?

Some credit cards on this list provide automatic status as a benefit to all cardholders, while some require you to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to earn status or boost yourself to a higher tier. A good example is the co-branded American Airlines cards, which essentially let you spend your way to status.

Not every person can spend the amount of money required responsibly, though, and you should never ever do anything to jeopardize your personal finances in pursuing elite status. Even if you can spend that amount, putting it all on one card sometimes comes with a huge opportunity cost.

It might mean you aren’t able to earn any sign-up bonuses on new cards, or it might mean you’ll miss out on valuable bonus categories from using other cards. You’ll have to analyze your own travel patterns to make sure you’d get enough value out of this new level of status to justify that opportunity cost.

Other ways to earn elite status

With all this focus on credit cards, it can be easy to forget that many people earn status simply by traveling the requisite amount. Except for a few secretive unpublished top-tier ranks, most loyalty programs spell out quite clearly what you need to do to qualify for status. With U.S. airlines, you’re looking at a mix of a spending requirement and some combination of flight miles or flight segments, while hotels will tally your yearly nights and/or stays.

Another great option is to consider a status match or challenge. The exact terms vary from program to program; generally, with a status match, you’ll send the airline or hotel proof of your current elite status with one of their competitors, and they’ll offer you an equivalent tier of elite status in their own program for a promotional period. You may be able to extend that status by completing certain flight or stay requirements. This typically requires paid activity, though — no points and miles redemptions to meet the required activities.

Meanwhile, a status challenge allows anyone to start from scratch and leapfrog up to a higher status tier by completing a designated amount of travel during a promotional period, often about three months.

Airline elite status

Although no credit card currently available to new applicants provides elite status automatically with any of the major U.S. airlines (some cards will give you status on foreign carriers), many allow cardholders to earn incremental credits toward status. They might just be the boost you need to jump into the elite ranks or reach a higher tier.

Depending on how much you spend on your card, you may be able to earn status without ever setting foot on a plane. Below, we look at airline credit cards that fall into this camp.

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

Annual fee: $595

Welcome offer: Earn 70,000 miles after you spend $7,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Elite status: For every mile you earn on a co-branded American Airlines credit card, such as this one, you’ll earn 1 elite-qualifying Loyalty Point. This means that you can essentially spend your way to status and to Elite Choice Rewards. Remember that sign-up bonuses and category multipliers are excluded from earning Loyalty Points.

Unfortunately, credit card sign-up bonuses and category multipliers are excluded from earning Loyalty Points. Cardholders earn a bonus of 10,000 Loyalty Points after reaching 50,000 Loyalty Points in a status qualification year. They will receive another bonus of 10,000 Loyalty Points after reaching 90,000 Loyalty Points in a status qualification year.

Other benefits: You’ll get a full Admirals Club membership (while your authorized users enjoy club access when flying American) with a same-day boarding pass for an eligible flight, your first checked bag free and priority privileges at check-in, airport screening, and boarding. Additional benefits include a 25% savings on eligible inflight purchases and an up-to-$100 reimbursement for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.

Analysis: Having this card is much like having elite status — without the first-class upgrades. You get free checked bags, priority access on the ground, and lounge access. Plus, any spending on the card will help you earn Loyalty Points toward earning actual elite status.

In conclusion, while elite status with airlines and hotels can be addicting and rewarding, it often comes at a cost. However, by strategically using credit cards, you can earn elite status faster and enjoy the benefits without spending excessive amounts of money. Whether you choose to pursue elite status through credit cards or traditional travel, it’s important to weigh the costs and benefits to determine if it’s worth it for your individual travel habits and preferences.

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