Start by picking an airline, then sign up for one of that airline’s credit cards
Business Travel Writer
Business consultant, author and writer of the “Business Travel Strategies” column for CreditCards.com
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Flying a bunch doesn’t guarantee upgrades. You have to work at raking in your miles and making those count to earn elite status with airlines.
Here is my simple three-step strategy to scoring free business and first-class upgrades:
1. Focus on one airline
I’ve met quite a few frequent flyers who have logged tens of thousands of miles across dozens of airlines and have no status to show for it.
Pick one airline with which to concentrate your miles-building efforts.
Factors to consider: Which airline do you fly the most? How many flights does that airline have out of your nearest hub airport? Which airline’s elite amenities do you prefer?
My airline of choice when I started flying a lot for business was American Airlines. It usually takes years to earn Executive Platinum status, but I did it in a half a year with strategic credit card spending and completing a status challenge with a bunch of flights.
Once I had elite status with American, I turned my focus to Alaska Airlines because we were living on the West Coast, where Alaska has a lot of flights. I was able to do a status match with my American Executive Platinum tier, giving me the top status of Alaska MVP 75K Gold and getting many benefits in the process.
Tip: At the beginning of every year, revisit your airline choice and your points-building strategy. Things change.
We now live in Toledo, Ohio, so elite status with Alaska Airlines isn’t a priority now.
Now I’m racking up miles again with American, because it offers the best options at my new nearest airport.
See related: Best airline credit cards
2. Get a co-branded airline credit card
Once you commit to an airline, get one of that airline’s co-branded credit cards to fast-track reaching elite status and increasing your upgrade opportunities.
All those purchases made with the credit card ring up frequent flyer miles that can be used to get business and occasionally first-class upgrades on the cheap.
For example, American charges 5,000 frequent flyer miles to upgrade from a full-fare/premium economy seat (the cushy seats in the front of the cabin) to a business seat while flying to and from the contiguous 48, Alaska and Canada.
Cards like the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard give two American miles for every dollar spent on American airfares, as well as purchases of office supplies, telecom services and rental cars.
With more airlines having a status spending requirement, credit cards can help you clear that hurdle.
For example, the American Express Delta SkyMiles credit cards currently waive the minimum airline mileage requirements for elite status if you spend $25,000 annually on your credit card.
Note, though, that to reach Delta’s top tier, Diamond Medallion status, you’ll have to charge a hefty $250,000 in a year.
Airline credit cards also come with their own status, with perks such as at least one free checked bag, airport lounge access, early boarding and free in-flight Wi-Fi.
Some airline cards, including the aforementioned higher-tier Delta cards, give you elite qualifying miles at certain spending minimums, too, meaning you’re getting flying credit toward your elite status without actually getting on the plane!
See related: 5 ways to earn airline miles without an airline rewards card
3. Sign up for business points
The last of my three-step strategy to earn elite status is the simplest: Sign up for business point programs
Business points are in addition to your personal frequent flyer miles, so this speeds up your point earning.
Your points, of course, then can be redeemed for upgrades, but the great part about business points is the programs give you opportunities to upgrade without spending additional funds or having elite status.
Getting and keeping your elite status
Elite status isn’t that hard to reach – if you focus your points-earning and your credit card spending on one airline.
It’s not that hard to keep your status, too, if you stick to the same three-point strategy.
See you in the front-row seats!
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