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Elite Status: The Ultimate Frequent Flyer Perk

Pssst … wanna know a real “road warrior” secret? Here it is:

When it comes to frequent flyer programs, it’s not about the miles; it’s about attaining elite status.

Those shiny silver, gold, and platinum-colored cards—and the special rewards and recognition that come with them—are carrots for those in the know, an incentive for would-be elites to increase their loyalty to a single airline, and a compelling reason for existing elites to maintain their past loyalty.

(If you’re shaking your head, wondering “What’s this elite thing,” think of it as VIP status for the most active members of an airline’s frequent flyer program. Most programs have three elite tiers—often designated as Silver, Gold and Platinum, or the like—requiring progressively higher numbers of miles to qualify, and conferring progressively more and better benefits as the higher levels are achieved.)

Here’s what you need to know about elite status, and what you have to do to achieve it.

What It Means to Be Gold

Before discussing the specifics of earning elite status, here’s an overview of the benefits that elite members enjoy.

Bonus Miles
Elite members earn mileage bonuses for flights on the host airline (the airline in whose frequent flyer program the member has elite status) and selected partner airlines (typically airlines participating in the same global alliance).

The bonus amount depends on the elite tier, with higher tiers receiving a larger bonus. In American’s AAdvantage program, for example, Gold members earn a 25 percent elite bonus, and Platinum and Executive Platinum members receive a 100 percent bonus.

The elite bonus is computed as a percentage of the base miles, which are the miles actually flown or, for shorter flights, the minimum miles awarded per flight, usually 500. The elite bonus calculation does not include class-of-service bonuses or promotional bonuses.

And while the bonus is referred to as an “elite bonus,” the extra miles do not count toward elite status.

The more often you fly, and the longer the flights, the more alluring becomes the prospect of a wider seat, with more legroom, and more space to stow your bags. Yes, the elite bonus miles are a plus. But the overriding attraction of elite status for many is the upgrades.

There are two important variables when considering elite upgrades: whether the upgrade is complimentary or earned; and how far in advance the upgrade can be confirmed.

Regarding the former, the programs’ offerings break down into two camps. Continental, United, Delta, and US Airways reward elite members with unlimited free domestic upgrades. American, on the other hand, bestows unlimited complimentary upgrades only on its top-tier elites. Lower-level elites only get them when flying on pricey unrestricted coach tickets.

There’s more consistency among the various airline programs in the area of upgrade priority. Generally, top-level elites can confirm an upgrade as much as 100 hours before the flight departs, mid-level elites can confirm 48 hours in advance, and entry-level elites must wait to confirm within 24 hours of their flight.

Dedicated Customer Service
Most programs make available to their elite members—or at least to their highest-level elites—a direct phone line to a customer-service group assigned to handle VIP calls exclusively. Elites can thus expect to get through to an agent faster, and receive a higher level of service.

Preferred Check-In
Elite members are normally entitled to check in at the airlines’ first- or business-class counters, even when traveling on a coach ticket. The time savings can be significant.

Preferred Boarding and Seating
You’ve undoubtedly heard the ubiquitous airport gate agent’s boarding announcement: “Silver, Gold and Platinum members may board at their leisure.” When traveling in the coach section on a full flight, priority boarding can be a welcome benefit, allowing elites to be among the first on board, while there’s still space available in the overhead bins for carry-on bags.

Some airlines also set aside better seats on the aircraft for elite members (e.g. United’s roomier Economy Plus rows).

No Award Travel Blackout Dates
On the award side, many programs eliminate blackout dates and/or increase award-seat availability for elite members.

Club Benefits
Elite members enjoy discounted rates on annual airport lounge memberships. Delta, for instance, sells Sky Club memberships—normally $450 per year—to Silver Medallion members for $400, to Gold members for $350, and $300 for Platinum members. Diamond members receive complimentary lounge access.

Card-Related Benefits
Less publicized but potentially of significant value, the maximum number of miles earned for credit-card purchases is typically raised, or eliminated altogether, for elites. Example: Non-elites can earn a maximum of 100,000 miles per year for charges on the Citi AAdvantage Visa. AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum, and Gold members are exempt from these mileage limits.

Elite Forever
While elite perks are typically earned on a year-by-year basis, the largest programs also confer lifetime elite status on program members who qualify.

United, for example, awards lifetime Premier Executive status to members who log 1 million flight miles on United, and lifetime 1K status after 3 million miles.

Getting the Gold: How to Reach Elite

To reach elite status, frequent flyer program members are required to earn a given number of miles or segments, of a certain type, over a defined period of time.

How Many Miles?
While there have been attempts to measure loyalty in dollar terms (viz. the cost of tickets), the tracking proved onerous. The current standard measures of loyalty are, first, miles, and second, flight segments. It’s an imperfect reflection of a customer’s actual spending, but it serves the purpose.

A typical program with three elite levels might award elite status based on the following criteria:

  • Entry-level elite: 25,000 miles or 30 flight segments
  • Mid-level elite: 50,000 miles or 60 flight segments
  • Top-level elite: 100,000 miles or 100 flight segments

The above qualification scheme is, of course, a generalization. Specifics differ among programs, but not much. Delta and US Airways, for instance, have four elite tiers instead of three. And American has a points system for elite qualification, in addition to miles and segments.

What Kind of Miles?
To the mileage cognoscenti, there are two species of miles: those that qualify for elite status, and those that don’t. And the former are more valuable than the latter.

Elite-qualifying miles (or EQMs as they’re sometimes referred to) are normally the miles actually flown on the host airline (the airline which operates the frequent flyer program in question) and on the host airline’s preferred partner airlines.

In the programs of the largest airlines, the preferred carriers are those that participate together with the host in a global alliance. American’s partners are the Oneworld airlines; Delta partners with fellow members of the SkyTeam alliance; and United, Continental, and US Airways are members of the Star Alliance. Smaller carriers, which do not participate in global alliances, tend to designate as preferred partners airlines with which they have code-share agreements or other joint-marketing programs.

In some cases, a limited number of miles earned for charges to the program’s affiliated credit card can also count toward earning elite status.

The Qualification Period
Elite status is generally conferred based on qualifying miles flown during a calendar year, January 1 – December 31. So you would earn elite status for 2011 (which might actually have an expiration date of February 28, 2012) for qualifying miles flown during 2010.

Tips on Going (or Not) for the Gold

To begin with, be realistic about both your need to reach elite, and your chances of doing so. If you only take two short flights per year, there’s just no way you’re going to rack up 25,000 elite-qualifying miles. And for the little travel you do, there’s no pressing need to carry a Gold card anyway. In other words, don’t make yourself crazy pursuing the unattainable and unnecessary.

If you’re convinced that elite status is both worth pursuing (we certainly think it is) and achievable (your call), there are some real consequences for how you manage your travel.

First and foremost, you will want to consolidate your mileage-earning in a single program. Just as it’s difficult to earn free travel if you spread your earnings among many programs, so will multi-program participation dilute your efforts to reach elite. In fact, because there’s a 12-month window to reach elite, the pressure to consolidate is even greater.

Next, begin the year by reviewing a list of program partners that award elite-qualifying miles. Then, whenever possible, confine your travel to those partners. If you’re aiming for elite status in American’s AAdvantage program and there’s a trip to Frankfurt on the calendar, fly on American and British Airways via London rather than nonstop on Lufthansa. The American/British Air combination will earn elite-qualifying miles in AAdvantage; the Lufthansa flight won’t.

Finally, if the year is coming to an end and you’re within striking distance of reaching elite, go for it. Reschedule that trip planned for early next year for this year instead. Or do something truly radical: make a “mileage run.” Mileage runs are trips made for the sole purpose of earning miles. And, it goes without saying, the goal is to earn the miles for the lowest possible per-mile price. An off-season, advance-purchase roundtrip ticket to Europe or Asia, for example, can be an extremely cost-effective way of reaching elite status, or moving from a lower to a higher elite tier.

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