Earning Status With The Big 3 US Airlines – Meeting Minimum Spend Requirements

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UPDATED: Now includes details of EQD earnings through American Airlines co-branded credit cards.

On Tuesday I took a look at the qualification criteria set by the Big 3 US legacy airlines for anyone looking to earn status in their respective rewards programs and yesterday I followed that up with a post on how the Big 3 US airline award miles towards elite qualification.

Today I’m going to take a look at the second major requirement that all three legacy carriers now have as part of their rewards programs – the minimum spend requirements – and specifically look at how flyers can meet the spend requirements on the 3 Big US legacy airlines.

Elite Qualification Spend Requirements

For anyone that missed the post on Monday here’s a recap of the minimum spend requirements each of the Big 3 US legacy carriers imposes:Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 18.39.21

*Top tier refers to the top status level for which there is a measurable goal. All three airlines have status levels that are invitation only and for which there are no published criteria – these are not included in this analysis.

Meeting Minimum Spend Requirements

On Flights Marketed By The Big 3 US Airlines

For flights booked through their own sales outlets (website, phone, etc…), regardless of the airline operating the route, each of the Big 3 US carriers uses the same formula to calculate what part of a ticket counts towards the minimum spend requirement.

The Base Fare and any Carrier Imposed Fees portion of a ticket count towards meeting the minimum spend criteria but any taxes within the ticket do not get counted.

So, for example, on this American Airlines Economy Class flight to Sydney the overall cost to the passenger is $1,392….

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 17.45.44

…but, on closer inspection of the fees, it becomes apparent that only $1,246 will count towards the minimum spend requirements for elite status as $146 of the ticket fare relates to taxes.


On Flights Marketed By Partner Airlines

This is where we finally see a difference between the three airlines and where I’ve taken a bit of licence.

  • United Airlines doesn’t allow any spend made through partner airlines to count towards the minimum spend requirements of the MileagePlus program.
  • Delta calculates a notional minimum spend figure (from flights booked through partner airlines) by basing it on  a percentage of the distance flown. The percentage varies by the fare booked and also varies from partner to partner.
  • American Airlines, in typical unprepared fashion, has announced that it will have a similar calculation to the one that Delta uses for flights booked through partner airlines but can’t tell us percentages will apply to which fare classes – apparently we’ll find out at some point in the future. Welcome to yet another half-baked announcement from American Airlines HQ.

To get a general idea of what percentages Delta applies to flights booked through its partners to calculate a figure for the minimum spend requirement I selected a few of Delta’s more prominent partners and used them to get a range of percentages for each fare class.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 18.19.21

I think it’s fairly safe to assume, based on the staggering lack of imagination already demonstrated by American’s hierarchy, that American Airlines will have very similar (if not exactly the same) percentages as Delta….so that gives us a starting point from which to try to draw some conclusions later on.

Exceptions and Ways Of Avoiding Minimum Spend Requirements


  • Minimum spend requirements are waived for flyers living outside of the US
  • Anyone who spends a minimum of $25,000 on Delta co-branded American Express credit cards in a calendar year is exempt from the minimum spend requirements. This applies to any of the Delta Amex cards and, if you have more than one, the combined spend from all your cards counts toward the $25,000 target.

United Airlines

  • Minimum spend requirements are waived for flyers living outside of the US
  • Anyone who spends a minimum of $25,000 on United Airlines co-branded credit cards from Chase, in a calendar year, is exempt from the minimum spend requirements for all but the top tier status (Premier 1K). There is no exemption for top tier status and, if you’re a US based flyer, you have to hit the minimum spend requirement of $12,000.

American Airlines

  • There is no minimum spend exemption for flyers based outside of the US
  • UPDATED: From 2017  travellers will earn 3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQD) after spending $25,000 on any of the following Barclays issued credit cards:
    •  AAdvantage Aviator Red credit card
    • AAdvantage Aviator Blue credit card
    • AAdvantage Aviator Business MasterCard.
  • Holders of the AAdvantage Aviator Silver card will earn 3,000 EQD after spending $25,000 and a further 3,000 EQDs after spending $50,000 (in total) on the card.
  • American Airlines AAdvantage cards do not offer any kid of option to earn credit towards EQD

Bottom Line

Easiest/Hardest airline on which to meet minimum spend from flying:

On Big 3 marketed flights:

3-way tie – all three of the US legacy airlines use the same criteria to decide what does and doesn’t count towards the minimum spend requirements for flights they market.

On Partner marketed flights:

Easiest – Probably American Airlines – with American having the same or lower minimum spend criteria than Delta that makes the AAdvantage program the easiest in which to meet minimum spend (providing the published percentages turn out to be along the same lines as Delta’s).

HardestUnited Airlines…because it’s impossible to earn anything towards minimum spend requirements on partner marketed flights.

Easiest/Hardest airline on which to meet minimum spend from all sources:

Easiest – Delta – Foreign-based flyers are exempt and domestic flyers can meet minimum spend by manufacturing spend on any of Delta’s co-branded credit cards. United Airlines only makes it into second place because credit card spend doesn’t waive the minimum spend for top tier status.

HardestAmerican Airlines – because there is no exemption for foreign based flyers, not all credit cards offer a way to earn EQD and those that do require an inordinate amount of spend for a comparatively low earn.

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