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Elite Perks … Get ‘Em While You Can!

During the month of August, the five largest U.S. mainline carriers operated at 85.97 percent of capacity. In layman’s terms—and as it was experienced first hand by passengers—those planes were flying full. It’s been that way all summer. And with the airlines’ rapt focus on aligning supply with demand, there’s no relief in sight.

There is an alternative to flying shoehorned into an undersized coach seat, fuming about the nickel-and-dimeing that may have doubled your ticket price, gorging on over-salted pretzels and tap water. Behind the curtain, first-class passengers enjoy the comfort and relative serenity of overstuffed seats in a spacious cabin, hot meals with complimentary cocktails, and as stress-free a travel experience as the airlines are capable of providing.

Expensive? Sure, if you purchase a first-class ticket. But elite members of most airlines’ frequent flyer programs are rewarded for their loyalty with upgrades, which means flying in first for the price of coach.

Achieving elite status is normally a daunting task, requiring more flights in 12 months than the average traveler takes over several years.

But as is often the case, the travel industry’s woes have translated into something of a boon for consumers. While this recession will be remembered as the fee-for-all era, it’s also forced airlines and hotels to slash prices and up the ante in their loyal marketing efforts.

As a result, elite status—and those upgrades that we all covet—is more achievable than ever.

Free and Easy Elite

Let’s begin with the easiest way to earn elite status: not earn it at all. Yes, sometimes airlines and hotels just give it away.

US Airways, for instance, was offering Silver status for 90 days, free for the asking, through August 31. Thereafter, anyone flying 7,500 miles or 10 segments during the trial period would continue to receive elite benefits through February 2010.

Virgin Atlantic also recently offered instant elite status to new members of its Flying Club program.

And Hyatt offered complimentary Platinum status in the Gold Passport program for 120 days, plus a fast track to retain status through February 2011.

While such offers have increased markedly during the current travel downturn, they’re still few and far between, and they’re generally not well publicized. So would-be elites must be on the lookout and act quickly when the opportunity arises.

Elite Mile Promos

With the newly announced double elite-qualifying mileage promotions from American, United, and Continental running through December 15, members of those programs will have had a full six months during 2009 to earn double miles.

Under normal circumstances, it would take the equivalent of five round-trip cross-country flights to earn the 25,000 miles required for entry-level elite status in most programs. The double-mile offers effectively halve that requirement, putting elite perks within reach of even occasional flyers.

Separately, in an unusual twist on elite mile promotions, US Airways is offering 1,000 elite-qualifying miles for every 10,000 redeemable miles purchased on its website. The bonus is in effect through the end of September.

Rollover, Miles

Another way of making elite status more achievable is with rollover miles, an idea that traces its roots back to the rollover minutes offered by some cellphone companies.

In the travel world, rolling over miles or points in excess of those needed to qualify for elite status to the next year is as good for consumers as it is for the airline or hotel that offers them.

For a traveler who earns 35,000 elite miles during 2009—10,000 more than the 25,000-mile qualification threshold, but not enough to reach the next-higher tier at 50,000 miles—carrying over those 10,000 miles into 2010 gives him a welcome head start on qualifying next year.

And for the company offering the rollover, it makes their program “stickier”—by keeping customers engaged instead of encouraging them to switch their loyalty to a second program after reaching elite status in the first.

Delta recently made rollover miles a permanent feature of its SkyMiles program. Other airlines are almost certain to follow.

And earlier this year, Marriott did the same for its Marriott Rewards program, allowing members to use elite-qualifying nights logged in 2009 to requalify in 2010. While the rollover nights haven’t yet been adopted as an ongoing program feature, a Marriott representative assured me that “we’ll be looking at it to see if we should make it a permanent part of the program.”

Elite Status—Just Charge It

Elite-qualifying miles are generally awarded only for flying. That’s the point: to recognize the airlines’ best customers. But opportunities to earn miles for non-flight activities have been multiplying, especially in conjunction with credit card use.

As the most recent example, members of United’s Mileage Plus program now have their choice of four consumer credit cards linked to the program, three of which generate both redeemable and elite-qualifying miles.

The Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard is also focused on delivering elite benefits, offering cardholders 2,000 so-called Flex elite-qualifying miles for every $15,000 charged to the card. The Flex miles don’t expire and can be deployed toward elite qualification in any year the member chooses. Cardholders also earn 25 percent more elite-qualifying miles for Continental flights, and receive instant Platinum status in Hyatt’s Gold Passport program. Predictably, the price tag for such high-flying benefits is steep: $375 per year.

And looking further afield, members of Air New Zealand’s Airpoints program can earn elite-qualifying points by charging purchases to a GlobalPlus Platinum Visa card.

Elite Perks: Accessible, for Now

With so many ways to earn elite miles, so many elite bonuses, and the ability to rollover miles in some programs, qualifying for elite status and its associated perks has never been easier than it’s been this year. Some of the program changes will extend into next year and beyond. Same with the credit card offers. But it’s unlikely that the double-mile promotions will continue much longer.

So there’s a snooze-you-lose aspect to the current boom in elite availability.

Soon enough, elite status will regain its previous exclusivity, once again slipping beyond the reach of the average traveler. For now, though, upgrades have been downgraded to everyday status.

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