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Are Elite Perks the Antidote to Travel Discomfort?

The summer of ’07 has been a perfect storm of packed planes, flight delays, long security lines, and air traffic control meltdowns. It’s destined to be remembered as one of the worst travel seasons ever.

Labor Day may be behind us, but summer has left a lasting impression on flyers. Frustrated and exasperated by the discomfort and inconvenience, many travelers have found themselves torn by conflicting impulses: Pay a huge premium to upgrade to the relative comfort of first class, or give up on air travel altogether and just stay home.

Neither solution is a practical one. Upgrading is too expensive. Swearing off air travel is unrealistic.

Flyers are left wondering what they can do to improve the quality of the travel experience without resorting to the high-cost options normally associated with the rich and famous. For some (but not for everyone) the answer is to make it a point to achieve elite status in one or more airline mileage programs.

As good as it gets

Why bother striving for special status? The principal benefit of achieving elite status in an airline program is upgrades to a cushier seat in the relative tranquility of the first-class cabin.

Some airlines restrict elite upgrades to those traveling on full coach fares (e.g. American for Gold and Platinum members, and United for all its Mileage Plus elites). Others (Continental, Delta, Northwest, and US Airways) dole out elite upgrades even when the member is traveling on a restricted coach ticket.

Of course, elite upgrades are always on a space-available basis, and higher-level elites are given precedence over lower-level elites. Still, of all the comfort enhancements more or less widely available to air travelers, an upgrade is the most meaningful.

Other elite benefits include the option of checking in using the shorter business- or first-class lines, and an invitation to be among the first to board the plane. Both were of marginal value in past years. But as the airport experience has degenerated into chaos and confusion, such niceties now provide some real and welcome relief.

Room at the top

While the perks of elite status will appeal to the many, they’re only available to the few. Every year there are a significant number of travelers who fall just short of reaching elite status for having failed to make it a priority.

How do you elevate your status and maximize your comfort? In a word: fly.

In most programs, entry-level elite status is awarded for flying 25,000 miles within a calendar year on the airline that hosts the program or on that airline’s closest marketing partners. To put that threshold into concrete terms, it amounts to approximately five cross-country round-trips per year. That’s a significant amount of air travel, but it’s well short of the volume of travel logged by true road warriors. In other words, you don’t have to be a business traveler to attain this level of status.

Looking beyond first-tier elite status—and here we are getting into road-warrior territory—mid-level elite status kicks in at 50,000 miles. The top tier is reached after 75,000 or 100,000 miles. As mentioned above, upper-tier elites have priority over lower-level elites in obtaining upgrades, and they receive more bonus miles as well.

Is elite status a realistic goal for you? The answer depends on two factors. First, you must fly often and far enough to meet the basic qualification criteria. Second, and no less important, you must travel on a single carrier, or on a small group of carriers all of which award elite-qualifying miles in the same program.

To avoid the frustration of chasing an unrealistic goal, an honest self-assessment is important here. If you have just missed reaching elite thresholds in past years, you may be able to make up for the shortfall by consolidating future flights on a single airline, or by squeezing one additional elite-qualifying flight into your annual travel plan.

You don’t want to embark on a complete life makeover simply to snag the occasional first-class upgrade. Elite status is worth pursuing if it’s realistically within reach. If it’s not, then it’s not worth fretting over.

There’s no reason to expect that next summer will be any better than this one. In fact, it’s likely to be worse. That prospect should provide plenty of motivation, and time, to lock in elite benefits before next Memorial Day. If you can, you should.

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