How to Travel Like a VIP, No Elite Status Required

Tim Winship, April 13, 2016
Fares from Washington DC:

    With minimum-spend requirements now putting elite status out of reach for most travelers, elite perks like flight upgrades and airport lounge access are most accessible through travel rewards cards. Some are even available with affordable annual fees. Here's how to pick the right card and travel like a VIP without earning elite status.

    Elite Perks: Pay to Play

    While never easy, reaching elite status with an airline loyalty program used to be eminently doable. Even infrequent flyers could rack up scores of miles by booking long-haul flights at bargain-basement rates (a.k.a. mileage runs). Mileage-running is no longer a sensible option, however.

    To reach entry-level elite status in Delta's SkyMiles program, for example, travelers must fly 25,000 elite-qualifying miles during a calendar year, plus spend at least $3,000 on Delta tickets. To qualify for Gold, Platinum, and Diamond status, the requirements are 50,000, 75,000, and 125,000 flight miles, respectively, plus $6,000, $9,000, and $15,000 in spend.

    United's elite-qualifying thresholds are the same, except for the highest elite tier, 1K, which requires 100,000 miles and $12,000 in spend.

    Cheap flights will still qualify travelers for elite status, but it will take a lot of them to reach the newly imposed spend thresholds.

    There is, however, a workaround for travelers who don't fly often enough to reach elite status but still place a high value on the upgrades that elite flyers covet: the top-of-the-line travel-rewards credit cards linked to the loyalty programs of the full-service airlines.

    With annual fees approaching $500, they aren't cheap. And they stop slightly short of providing a full complement of traditional elite perks. But for cost-conscious travelers who want to fly like Grand Pooh-Bahs, they may be just the ticket.

    Here are the cards worth considering.

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    American

    American offers two lines of credit cards, one line issued by Citibank and the other by Barclays. All the cards offer discounts on award travel to select destinations; depending on the card, the discounts range from 10 percent to 30 percent.

    Beyond the discounts, the most feature-rich of the AAdvantage cards is the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, with its $450 annual fee. For that, cardholders receive airport lounge access, a fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership, 10,000 elite-qualifying miles after spending $40,000 annually, no fee for the first checked bag, priority check-in and boarding, expedited security screening, and a 25 percent discount on onboard purchases.

    The card currently comes with a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus, after charging $5,000 within three months.

    Delta

    For those looking for a full complement of travel perks, the Delta Reserve credit card ($450 annual fee) from American Express offers plenty, including bonus miles that count toward earning elite status: 10,000 elite miles after the first purchase and 15,000 more after charging $60,000 in a year. In addition, the spending requirement for elite qualification will be waived after $25,000 in annual charges to the card. Other card benefits: a 20 percent discount on inflight purchases, no fee for the first checked bag, priority boarding, airport lounge access, higher upgrade priority for elite members, and a free domestic companion certificate when renewing the card.

    Delta has several other cards with more affordable annual fees but more modest benefits, as well.

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    United

    U.S.-based United customers have a choice of two cards, the United MileagePlus Explorer card ($95 annual fee, waived the first year) and the United MileagePlus Club card ($450 annual fee), both from Chase.

    The lower-priced Explorer card features waived fees for the first checked bag, priority boarding, and two single-visit airport lounge passes.

    The Club card justifies its pricey annual fee with a raft of benefits, including airport lounge membership (normally as much as $550 per year), Premier Access (priority check-in, boarding, and baggage-handling, plus expedited security screening), free first and second checked bags, elite status in Hyatt's Gold Passport and Hertz's President's Circle programs, and special privileges at 750 Luxury Collection hotels.

    American Express

    Airline-linked cards aren't the only game in town when it comes to elite perks. The Platinum card from American Express ($450 annual fee) features some of the same travel benefits, including a credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck and complimentary elite status in the programs of Hilton, Starwood, and several rental-car companies. Platinum cardholders are also entitled to access to Delta's airport lounges, the Priority Pass network of lounges, and American Express's own Centurion lounges. Cardholders receive up to $200 in statement credits for checked-bag fees and other airline incidentals as well.

    As with some other American Express cards, the Platinum card is linked to the Membership Rewards program, which awards points convertible to miles or points in the programs of 16 airlines and four hotels. That flexibility may be especially meaningful for travelers who distribute their mileage-earning among multiple travel suppliers.

    All of the cards mentioned are free from foreign transaction fees, as befits pricey travel-rewards cards. What even the most expensive of these cards do not provide, however, is the signature perk of elite status: upgrades. However, some of the cards can be helpful in qualifying for elite status by awarding users with elite-qualifying miles.

    RELATED: 7 Shameless Ways to Get an Upgrade

    Pricey, But (Maybe) Worth It

    A credit card with a $450 annual fee isn't for everyone. And it may be unnecessary as well; for those who only travel once or twice a year, some of the cards' benefits are available for sale on a one-time basis, for much less than the card fees. United's new Travel Options packages, for example, allow flyers to purchase various combinations of extra upgrades, including Economy Plus seating, bag-fee waivers, priority check-in and boarding, and airport-lounge day passes.

    However, for those who fly often enough to make elite-like perks meaningful, but not often enough to earn elite status under the programs' new rules, the annual card fee can be well worth paying.

    Picking the Right Card

    In most cases, the best bet is simply to apply for the card linked to the airline you fly on the most. No matter how benefits-rich it might be, a Delta card won't be of much value to someone who lives in Dallas and normally flies American.

    With the right card, average travelers can significantly up the quality of their flight experience. It won't be cheap; but now more than ever, you get what you pay for.

    More from SmarterTravel:

    Read the original story: How to Travel Like a VIP, No Elite Status Required by Tim Winship, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

    (Photo: Holidayextras via flickr/CC Attribution)

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