Manufacturing American Airlines elite status through credit card spend

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A question came up on our Youtube channel over the weekend (in a comment on this past weekend’s podcast) that we haven’t really addressed on the blog: Does it make sense to spend for status on an American Airlines credit card? After all, Greg has long spent his way to Delta elite status with Delta credit cards. Should someone on the Frequent Miler team drop the Loyalty Points pursuit game and just meet the spending requirements with an American Airlines credit card, perhaps through manufactured spending techniques? It sounded like a terrible idea at first blush, but I could see the appeal for some folks. I still wouldn’t recommend earning elite status primarily through credit card spend, but it might be a reasonable option or supplement — particularly considering the ease of use versus the games we’re playing.

Spending your way to American Airlines elite status

We’ve written quite a bit about the ability to work the American Airlines AAdvantage shopping portal and SimplyMiles to earn high-level airline elite status and we are maintaining a cheat sheet for stacking methods. In fact, we’ve turned it into a game with Greg, Tim and I competing over American Airlines elite status (you can click here to find all of our posts on AAdvantage Loyalty points, including posts about our progress toward in pursuit of cheap status). Is the goal of our game to see who earns elite status the fastest? The cheapest? With the least headache? Your guess is as good as mine, but this is our idea of fun. With easy opportunities for pajama points, it’s hard not to find the fun in earning status without leaving the couch.

That said, as a benchmark, it is worth considering the ability to earn elite status through spend alone. Keep in mind that the American Airlines credit cards available in the United States earn 1 Loyalty Point per dollar spent (regardless of category — while you can earn more than one redeemable mile per dollar in some categories on some cards, you’ll only earn 1 Loyalty Point per dollar spent).

Given the number of Loyalty Points necessary for each status level, here’s how much you would need to spend on an American Airlines credit card to earn elite status through spend alone and without the help of any American Airlines AAdvantage Shopping Portal or SimplyMiles offers:

  • Gold: $30K
  • Platinum: $75K
  • Platinum Pro: $125K
  • Executive Platinum: $200K

Those numbers might initially sound a bit nutty, but keep in mind that Delta requires spending $25K across Delta cards just to get an MQD waiver for up to Platinum status (you still also need the required Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) on top of that spend!) and a whopping $250K spend for an MQD waiver for Diamond status (again, you also need to earn the necessary MQMs).

Because of the MQM bonuses on Delta credit cards, it is actually possible to earn Delta Diamond status almost entirely through credit card spend. Greg has written about it before. Still, even $250K spend across Delta cards will leave you a few MQMs short unless you catch a couple of welcome offers that include additional MQMs.

By comparison, American Airlines status is far easier to attain through credit card spend alone since there is no flying / “elite miles” requirement. Just spend enough to earn the required Loyalty Points and you’re done (sort of). If you want choice benefits at the top tiers, you will still need to fly, but more on that later.

Here are the various American Airlines credit cards you can use:

Consumer

Card Offer and Details
American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card
10K miles + $50
Earn 10K AA miles + $50 statement credit after $500 spend in 3 months

No Annual Fee

FM Mini Review: Not bad for grocery spend if you highly value AA miles


Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Grocery
Brand

Earning rate: 2X grocery ⚬ 2X AA ⚬ 1X everywhere else

Noteworthy perks: Save 25% on inflight food and beverage purchases

Card Offer and Details
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite MasterCard

FM Mini Review: Excellent choice for a great signup bonus. Plus it offers the usual collection of perks for flying AA (free checked bag, priority boarding, etc.)


Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Dine
Gas
Brand

Earning rate: 2X restaurants ⚬ 2X gas ⚬ 2X AA

Big spend bonus: $125 AA Flight Discount with $20K membership year spend

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ First checked bag free ⚬ Priority Boarding ⚬ Save 25% on inflight food and beverage purchases

Card Offer and Details
Citi AAdvantage® Executive World Elite MasterCard®
60K miles
60K miles after $6K spend in first 3 months

$450 Annual Fee

FM Mini Review: Excellent choice for those who need Admirals Club access (included for both the primary member and authorized users). Plus, it offers the usual collection of perks for flying AA (free checked bag, priority boarding, etc.).


Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Brand

Earning rate: 2X AA

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ First Checked Bag Free ⚬ Admirals Club® access for both primary and authorized users ⚬ 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines and US Airways flights ⚬ Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit

Card Offer and Details
AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard

Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Brand

Earning rate: ⚬ 2X AA ⚬ 1X everywhere else

Big spend bonus: Earn $99 + tax domestic companion certificate with $20K membership year spend.

Noteworthy perks: First checked bag free ⚬ Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to 4 companions traveling on the same reservation ⚬ 25% off in-flight purchases ⚬ $25 wifi credit per membership year ⚬ Flight cents: round up purchases to earn more miles

Card Offer and Details
AAdvantage® AviatorTM Silver World Elite MasterCard®

FM Mini Review: $25 per day of in-flight food & beverage credits is pretty interesting. If you fly AA enough to make good use of this, this card is well worthwhile.


Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base
Travel
Brand

Earning rate: ⚬ 3X AA ⚬ 2X hotel and car rentals ⚬ 1X everywhere else

Noteworthy perks: $25 per day in-flight food & beverage credit ⚬ First checked bag free ⚬ Priority Boarding ⚬ $100 Global Entry application fee credit ⚬ 25% off in-flight purchases ⚬ $50 wifi credit per membership year ⚬ Round up purchases to earn more miles

Business

Card Offer and Details
CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard
65K miles
65K after $4K spend in first 4 months

No Annual Fee First Year, Then $99

Recent better offer: 75K after $5K in the first 5 months (Expired 1/16/20)

FM Mini Review: This card usually has a great signup bonus, but if you're looking for a card to keep long term, you'll find better options.


Card Type: Mastercard World

Base
Travel
Gas
Phone
Brand

Earning rate: ⚬ 2X AA ⚬ 2X certain telecommunications merchants ⚬ 2X car rental merchants ⚬ 2X gas

Big spend bonus: Earn $99 plus taxes domestic companion certificate after $30K spend

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ First checked bag free ⚬ Priority Boarding ⚬ Save 25% on inflight purchases

Card Offer and Details
AAdvantage® AviatorTM Business MasterCard®
70K Miles
70K miles after $2K spend in 90 days

$95 Annual Fee


Card Type: Mastercard

Base
Travel
Phone
Office

Earning rate: ⚬ 2X AA, office supply, telecommunications services, and at car rental agencies ⚬ 1X everywhere else

Big spend bonus: $99 companion certificate with $30K account year spend

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ First checked bag free ⚬ Preferred boarding ⚬ 5% bonus on miles earned the previous year after AF is paid ⚬ 25% statement credit on in-flight purchases

Note that you can earn transferable points with the Bilt Rewards card that can be transferred 1:1 to American Airlines, but those points will not count as Loyalty Points.

Opportunity cost to spend for American Airlines elite status

When someone asked if they could get American Airlines Gold status with just $30K spend on an American Airlines credit card, I knew that the answer was yes but my first thought was that the opportunity cost wouldn’t be worthwhile.

That’s because with most American Airlines credit cards, you’ll be earning just 1 redeemable mile per dollar spent. Our Reasonable Redemption Value for American Airlines miles is 1.3c per mile. It is certainly possible to get far more value when redeeming for international premium cabin flights on partner airlines, but it is also possible to get less value. If we accept the 1.3c valuation, that’s like a 1.3% return on spend. That’s really poor compared to many options available on the market.

At a baseline level, cards that earn 2% cash back are plentiful. The Nearside debit card is offering 2.2% cash back this year. Those with enough money on deposit or invested with Bank of America / Merrill Lynch or Merrill Edge can earn 2.625% back everywhere on the Unlimited Cash Rewards card or Premium Rewards card. The Discover IT Miles card earns an effective 3% back in the first year (after the first year double up). The point is that there are plenty of options to earn far better than 1.3% back.

Using 2% cash back as a baseline alternative, the opportunity cost to manufacture spend on an American Airlines card at an effective 1.3% back versus a 2% cash back card would be:

  • Gold: $210
  • Platinum: $525
  • Platinum Pro: $875
  • Executive Platinum: $1400

Bumping up to the Nearside debit card as a comparison point at 2.2% cash back instead of an effective 1.3% via an American Airlines credit card, the opportunity cost increases to:

  • Gold: $270
  • Platinum: $675
  • Platinum Pro: $1,125
  • Executive Platinum: $1,800

The costs increase from there if you have access to the stronger return on Bank of America cards, a Discover IT Miles card in the first year, or one of a few other cards offering 3% back for a limited time.

My initial thought was that these amounts were far too expensive to be worthwhile. First of all, those levels of spend could be put to use toward earning multiple new credit card bonuses worth far more than my 2% or 2.2% benchmarks above.

Furthermore, at the bottom level, the benefits at Gold status are pretty thin. Since you already get things like a free checked bag and priority boarding with an American Airlines credit card, you’re basically adding the possibility of upgrades on paid flights, complimentary preferred seating (generally regular economy seats that are closer to the front of the plane) and complimentary Main Cabin Extra 24hrs prior to departure. That package didn’t seem to be worth a whole lot.

On the flip side, at $210-$270 in opportunity cost for Gold status, it may not be a lot more than some have spent through the AAdvantage portal and SimplyMiles game. While Greg, Tim, and I have tried to keep net costs low, frustrations and clawbacks have added some cost both in terms of mental effort in tracking things and actual cost in terms of deals that didn’t work out as planned.

At the upper end, the costs feel steep, but if you’ll be flying American Airlines often they may not be crazy.

American Airlines Platinum status offers oneworld Sapphire status, which gives you access to partner business class lounges. Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum yield oneworld Emerald, which includes first class lounge access.

More interestingly, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members can get Loyalty Choice rewards. There are a number of options, but I think the most valuable choices are systemwide upgrades. Platinum Pro members can choose 1 systemwide upgrade. Executive Platinum members could choose up to 4 systemwide upgrades.

However, Loyalty Choice Rewards require both earning the necessary number of Loyalty Points and flying at least 30 qualifying segments. If you’ll be flying enough segments to qualify for Loyalty Choice Rewards (and you’ll presumably be earning some Loyalty Points from flying and therefore will need less spend and therefore incur even less opportunity cost than shown above), it may not be crazy to spend one’s way to high-level status on a credit card. In particular, I could see spending toward Executive Platinum being potentially appealing in order to earn 4 systemwide upgrades at an opportunity cost of even less than shown above after whatever Loyalty Points you earn on the 30 segments you need to fly.

Could it be worth manufacturing high-level American Airlines elite status?

Costs to MS American Airlines elite status

While spending $30K, $75K, $125K, or $200K on credit cards may be possible for some folks who will put every single purchase or business expense on an American Airlines card, that will likely come at an even higher opportunity cost given that at least some of your spend is likely to be in categories where other cards earn significantly better bonuses.

What about those who would use manufactured spending techniques to reach the required spending levels?

I am not suggesting that one should pursue status through Manufactured Spending or that this or that this is risk-free. Manufactured spending techniques can be risky both in terms of financial risk (what if you lose a card, wash a money order in your pants pocket (done this), get robbed while carrying gift cards or money orders, your preferred liquidation technique suddenly stops working, etc) and account risk (manufactured spending techniques can send up red flags with the bank and lead to account closures). A sudden increase in spend is inadvisable.

However, I find it interesting to consider the costs and possibility of doing this even if I wouldn’t do it myself or recommend it to others. If you pursue this, go in with eyes open regarding risks.

Manufacturing via Simon

Perhaps the simplest method for manufacturing the levels of spend required would be via Simon Malls. That’s because Simon Malls sell Visa Gift Cards that are loadable with up to $1,000 on each card with an activation fee of $3.95. If you purchase online, you’ll pay an additional processing fee and shipping fee, though they run frequent promo codes that reduce the fees when ordering online.

Whether ordering online or buying at the mall, the limit is $10K per day. That means that one could theoretically spend the $30K required for American Airlines Gold status in three trips.

Assuming that you’re buying at the mall, you would pay the following in activation fees to meet the spending requirements for each level:

  • Gold = $118.50
  • Platinum = $296.25
  • Platinum Pro = $493.75
  • Executive Platinum = $790

Liquidation options vary wildly by region. In some regions, it is nearly or completely impossible to liquidate gift cards and in other areas it can be fairly easy and inexpensive. You’d want to know what works in your area before getting into this (and have a backup or two or three or five for when your preferred option stops working). Let’s figure liquidation cost of $2 per $1K (this is intentionally conservative; there certainly may be cheaper options available to you). Total costs:

  • Gold = $118.50 activation fees + $60 liquidation costs = $178.50
  • Platinum = $295.25 activation fees + $150 liquidation costs = $445.95
  • Platinum Pro = $493.75 activation fees + $300 liquidation costs = $793.75
  • Executive Platinum = $790 activation fees + $400 liquidation costs = $1190

The numbers above come in addition to the opportunity cost of spending on an American Airlines card over your next best option.

“Cheaper” MS options

There are quite a few options for manufactured spending that would be cheaper than the Simon Mall path, at least on the surface. For instance, the American Airlines MileUp card earns 2x redeemable miles at grocery stores. You’ll still only earn 1 Loyalty Point per dollar spent, but at an effective 2.6% return on spend and no grocery store spending cap and the chance to stack with various grocery store loyalty program promotions, costs could become much more reasonable.

Unfortunately, Speedway has seemingly stopped awarding Speedy Rewards on Visa Gift Cards over the past few days (we got no points on a gift card purchase yesterday in my household) as that was a way to significantly reduce MS costs since the rewards earned could outpace the activation fees, though it would have come at an increased opportunity cost given cards that earn better returns on gas station spend.

Office Supply Stores frequently offer opportunities to get Visa or Mastercard gift cards with reduced / zero activation fees. Since we have cards in my household that earn 5x at office supply stores, I would have a hard time swallowing the opportunity cost of spending on an American Airlines card over my other options, but for those who highly value American Airlines status this can be a way to get there more cheaply.

Another option would be using GiftCards.com. Tim wrote yesterday about an opportunity to earn an increased payout on Visa Gift Cards at GiftCards.com. While that could effectively reduce net costs quite nicely, you are limited to earning portal rewards on $2K in purchases per month, which reduces the effectiveness of this technique for those reaching for elite status through spend alone.

So is it worth it?

Spending toward status with an American Airlines credit card, (whether with regular purchases / tax payments / manufactured spending techniques) isn’t appealing to me personally since I enjoy the gamified aspect of hunting for shopping portal deals and stacks with SimplyMiles and other card-linked programs, but I could see this being attractive to some members. As I see it, there are pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Spending toward elite status is simple. There’s nothing to track / monitor apart from how much you’ve spent.
  • it’s not unreasonably expensive for those who highly value status benefits.
  • Time investment could be significantly lower. Gold status could be had with three visits to the mall (though depending on liquidation options available, time investment could quickly increase).
  • Costs could be cheaper than shown here given promotions

Cons:

  • Significant opportunity cost if spending toward AA status limits your ability to earn intro bonuses on cards you would otherwise open
  • Suboptimal return on spend (opportunity costs figured in this post)
  • Benefits lower levels are weak and the most valuable benefits at the top levels still require flying 30 segments

Bottom line

I certainly won’t be spending my way to American Airlines elite status, but I could see  the appeal of simplicity for folks who can easily meet the spending thresholds. Those with significant tax payments or business expenses and/or who regularly redeem American Airlines miles at optimal value may find the opportunity costs negligible and the low time investment in figuring out what works/worked preferable over using a spreadsheet to track shopping offers. Any way you slice it, American Airlines status is a lot easier to earn for those of us willing to play some games. While I am much more interested in shopping portals and card-linked offers, I could see the appeal for those looking for a simple way to earn American Airlines elite status without flying.

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Laurie Burdick

I was approached by an American Airline woman while in the Dallas International airport who gave me an opportunity to go through the gate by signing up for a service. She proceeded to charge my Discover card $179 and told me I could cancel within a month . I can’t find the charge on my discover card. What service did I sign up for?

J L

Sounds like you signed up for Clear, which is a service for proving identity instead of showing your ID to TSA. you are probably currently in the 1 month trial, so cancel before it ends to avoid the charge, unless you want to keep the service.

Michael

As the meme says, “Y tho?”

I mean at the end of the day you have status on the worst of the big 3. To gain any benefit you have to fly American. Eww.

I have Delta Platinum, Southwest A-List Preferred, and Air Canada 75K, all mostly thru card spend. Each serves their own purpose. Delta is my main, SWA when I have to get there direct badly enough to get in a cattle car, and Air Canada because I travel there once or twice a year an it also gets me Star Alliance Gold.

If I concentrate spend and seat time on American I’d easily hit Executive Platinum, possibly an invite to Concierge Key. But as I said earlier , I’d be on American.

Eli

Aren’t you special. Yawn.

Michael

Yes. Cry about it. I spend between two and three hundred thousand organically on business inventory and expenses. So MS isn’t even on the table. But why would anyone go to that kind of trouble to fly the most crap major.

Be jealous more for me. It’s entertaining.

Last edited 6 months ago by Michael
Reno Joe

Different people have different experiences. While you have your feelings about AA — which I respect — others might have the opposite feeling about AA . . . and have bad feelings about DL, SW, or UA.

As for those wanting AA tier status and them using “manufacturing” to obtain it, prior comments to this article (as well as other articles) mention the use of AA’s eShopping portal and the use of stores with high point multiples. Individuals with less spending capacity that you’ve indicated have a credible shot at obtaining tier status.

Irrespective of how anyone might feel about AA, the FM team should be thanked for inciting the community to be a little bit more thoughtful about their travel.

The only thing I would add is references to a few recent articles — one by Benjy in particular — that ask the question: what does one actually receive from tier status (other than a higher points earning rate)?

Creditian

VGCs with MileUP at grocery is the best option for manufacturing status.

Reno Joe

There are Base Miles and there are Bonus Miles. As with every other U.S.-issued AA credit card, the MileUp card only earns one Base Mile per dollar spend . . . not two. Only Base Miles translate into Loyalty Points but Bonus Miles do not.

As for buy VGCs, liquidating them is a hit-or-miss proposition. In some locations, it is virtually impossible to liquidate them . . . other than for making actual purchases.

Creditian

You get fees covered by 2x

Reno Joe

How are you liquidating them given the environment over the past 18 months?

Buddy M.

I would like an update on how to MS because my go to way no longer works. WM doesn’t appear to be taking any gift cards, debit or otherwise to buy MO’s. Is there another way with gift cards that I don’t know about? I tried through the Contact Us to ask about this twice and haven’t gotten a response yet.

Reno Joe

Buddy, WalMart cracked down in Fall 2020. A memo was circulated to Money Services at the various stores. Some have “friends” at Money Services who look the other way but the official policy is “no.” Some have had success doing $99 money orders — but, how much throughput can you get and how much time do you want to spend?

If you check out the MS thread on Flyer Talk, MS via the traditional means has effectively dried up. Yes, some people in some areas have ways to still MS . . . but, they’re tight-lipped as they don’t want their means shut down. There had been some talk about customer service at Simon malls starting a money order service but that hasn’t come to pass as of yet. I continue to see articles that refer to the traditional means and wonder what’s up — particularly with the Simon mall route.

Buddy M.

I would do the $99 dollar money orders I just don’t know how or where. I’m having a hard time finding info about it. I would have a hard time meeting $5000 spend in 3 months as things are. I’m just looking to be able to meet the spend threshold to get credit card bonuses and then the rest of my points would come from natural spend within bonus categories. By the way, in my area in AZ, Walmart’s terminals stopped accepting debit gift cards in late January of this year. I didn’t think it would last as long as it did.

LarryInNYC

I don’t do any manufactured spend at all so have no personal knowledge but the impression I get is that people go to regional grocery chains to find individual stores that don’t look too closely at the card you swipe to purchase money orders.

Which chains? Which stores? No one’s saying.

Reno Joe

I think most who used this technique are scratching their heads.

Another option is to buy large denomination Simon VGCs within that welcome window and then USE THE VGCs for actual purchases over time. Then, you have your means of “liquidation”. Although, do NOT do this with Amex cards.

Best of luck.

Mary Jane

Nick, What I love about you guys is that you present the info with frankness and candor. No hard sell. BTW, what cc do you use for Simon?

Reno Joe

Mary Jane, if you do not have a ready means to liquidate gift cards, think twice. If you do have a ready means to liquidate gift cards, the highest and best use is to meet the minimum spend requirement needed to obtain a credit card welcome bonus.

Brutus

In terms of opportunity cost, you probably should have considered that anyone trying to earn status though credit card spending is likely to earn either a $125 credit or a companion certificate along the way.

Vince

There are 2 cards that are noted to have bonus EQDs with certain amount of spend. Is that annual spend bonus going away altogether, or being replaced with a Loyalty Point bonus? Thanks!

ramcm7

The Business Aviator appears to have not had its EQD benefit roll into an LP benefit under the new program. The Aviator Silver converted its 5,000 EQM each at $20,000 and $40,000 calendar year spend marks and 3,000 EQD at the $50,000 spend mark into 5,000 LPs each at $20,000, $40,000, and $50,000. I believe the Executive now earns 10,000 LP at $40,000 spend. Time to update those card summaries.

Brant

Hey Nick, I believe the daily limit of VGC’s at Simon Mall is $25K. I haven’t been since WM stopped accepting them for MO’s but I think it still is $25K.

Reno Joe

Nick, as VGC liquidation has effectively dried up, why are the blogs still talking about them? Yes, a very small minority still has their secret means. And, yes, if one actually uses them for purchases. But, everything I’ve read in hard core MS circles says no. Any thoughts? Thanks in advance.

Lord Dima

The blogs gotta say something when noobs show up and wonder how they can meet min spend on all these cards to fly for freeeee

Reno Joe

Good article — gets people thinking. Hand in hand with not chase tier status is “spending you’re already intended to do.”

For most people, the 1X earn rate on a credit card alone is a non-starter. But, as you said, earning tier status on AA is far easier than on DL. And, if one doesn’t care about the milestone awards, one doesn’t worry about segments.

For most people, stacking is an absolute necessity. Use CashBackMonitor.com to see if / when your favorite stores have a points pop. Keeping track requires a little discipline. Then, time your purchases for those times. In January, one of our favorite stores was 12X on the AA eShopping site. With the card, it was 13X. Ya gotta love it.

Reno Joe

intending

Sam

Which store was that? Thanks!

Reno Joe

Over the course of the year but especially near holiday season, there is Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks, etc.

Bloomingdales has 12x on Alaska.

If someone is a Wyndham fan, one can clean up with certain stores. I’ve seen 20x and close to 30x at times.

Before anyone says they don’t shop at these stores, fine. Monitor YOUR stores. Do the work. But, it’s there for the taking.

Thanks again FM team.

Sam

I appreciate that. I use Wyndham often for shopping but now with the Wyndham card and Utilities category for my businesses I have tons and tons of Wyndham points. Not sure what to do with that many. Now focusing on AA loyalty points without the hasale of Verizon Clawbacks etc etc and more focused like what you are saying on these types of store deals. Thank you again!

Reno Joe

Absolutely. Just keep exploring.

Now, imagine earn AA points when flying on Delta. And, you still earn Delta points. Hmmm.

This is the kind of stuff we should be talking about rather than idiotic arguments about masks.

Ed Bastian

Agreed, the masks need to go away ASAP. I won’t fly on airplane until they are gone and I have over 400k Amex MRs just sitting there waiting to be redeemed.