Reader Question: Are Physical Frequent Flyer Elite Status Cards Still Needed Or Does A Digital Version Suffice?


Today’s Reader Question handles an issue that once in a while becomes relevant when elite benefits are in question: Do I really need a physical Elite Tier Card these days to receive my benefits?

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Back in the day when the airlines and hotels computer systems were even more unreliable than they are now it was pretty much a must to always carry your Elite card in order to get access to lounges and to receive other status associated benefits.

Nowadays most airlines and definitely all hotels have changed to the simple fix of attributing all Elite benefits to a passenger as long as the reservation reflects the status and it’s printed on the boarding pass. There are however a couple situations that could prevent a status from reflecting properly or where physical proof might still be required.

Here is what the reader wrote:

… I just achieved Premier Gold with United Airlines about a week ago and my journey to Korea is coming up. United’s email that I just received today notes that the membership package will take 4-6 weeks, however it offers me to download a digital version of my membership card. Will that be enough? I also have partner flights on Asiana and ANA during this coming period.


With partners that’s a bit of a delicate situation and also depends how fast the United Status is visible in the Star Alliance system. I remember when I did a United Platinum Status challenge in April and had a Singapore Airlines flight in the first week of May (3.5 weeks since my status showed as updated on United MP) I still was listed as Silver, even after refreshing the number in the reservation.

Sylvia sent a picture of the email United sends to their newly minted Elite members.

For flights on United this would be certainly not an issue at all as their internal Mileage Plus data ‘should’ provide real time information to the carriers reservation system.

On Star Alliance partners this would come with the caveat that the data has synched with the alliance wide systems yet. Of course you can always show the email and live app with the digital card and hope it will be accepted but in my case at Kuala Lumpur the staff wasn’t willing to provide any benefit including lounge even with the digital card.

Let’s assume that a few week are sufficient time and all data displays on the boarding pass correctly, on Star Alliance and especially oneWorld I can’t remember the last time when I was actually asked to show my physical membership card. The exception here being the American Express Centurion lounges where showing your credit card is required but who doesn’t carry one of his main credit cards around?

Should you try to credit your flight to another program than the one where you hold your status then yes, you need the card to show it when there is a non- or lower status data in the reservation for obvious reasons. The only other occasion where a physical card could come handy is when there is a total IT outage but I think at that point not much is moving anyway so this would be your smallest problem.


There is very little one can do except wait for an airline elite package. Very rarely is there an option to speed up the delivery of such a package, even though I remember back in 2008 United was actually nice enough to FedEx me a 1K card.

All these plastic cards are really a nuisance and one thing I never carry are cards for hotel elite tiers. Not once in the last 15 years had I had the issue of a hotel not reflecting my status properly. Airline cards I get the point because sometimes these lounge attendants and airline staff like to make up rules on the go, better to have a card with you if possible to make your life easier.