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Elite status, the ultimate frequent flyer perk

by - May 3, 2002

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."

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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. They are an incentive for would-be elites to increase their loyalty to a single airline and are 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...

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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 which the frequent flyer has elite status in) 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 US Airways' Dividend Miles program, for example, Silver Preferred members earn a 50 percent elite bonus, and Gold Preferred and Chairman's Preferred members earn a 100 percent bonus.

The elite bonus is computed as a percentage of the base miles (the number of miles actually flown), or for shorter flights, the minimum number of miles awarded per flight (usually 500 miles). 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.

Upgrades

The more often you fly and the longer the flights, the more the prospect of wider seats, more legroom, and more space to stow your bags becomes alluring. 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 vary widely. Continental and Northwest reward elite members with unlimited free domestic upgrades. American and United make elite members earn their upgrades: four 500-mile upgrade certificates are awarded for every 10,000 base miles flown. And Delta gives their elites both complimentary upgrades and the chance to earn more by flying.

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 confirm within 24 hours of their flight.

Dedicated customer service

Most programs make a direct phone line to a customer-service group assigned to handle VIP calls exclusively available to their elite members, or at least to their highest-level elites. 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 allows 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, reserved for elites and full-fare ticket holders).

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 Crown Room Club memberships—normally $475 per year—to Silver Medallion members for $350, to Gold members for $275, and to Platinum members for free.

Card-related benefits

Less publicized but 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 60,000 miles per year for charges on the Citi AAdvantage MasterCard. AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum, and Gold members are exempt from these mileage limits.

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Getting the gold: How to reach elite status

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

How many miles?

While there have been attempts to measure loyalty in dollar terms (that is, the cost of tickets), tracking this way has been very challenging. The current standard measures of loyalty are miles and then 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 would award elite status based on the following criteria:

Elite Tier Qualification Criteria
Miles Flight Segments
Low 25,000 30
Medium 50,000 60
High 100,000 100

The above qualification scheme is a generalization only. Specifics differ among programs, but not much. Delta, for instance, recognizes trans-oceanic segments as a separate measure for elite qualification. American has a points system in addition to miles and segments.

What kind of miles?

There are two species of miles: Miles that qualify for elite status and those that don't. And the former are more valuable than the latter.

Elite-qualifying miles are normally the actual miles flown on the host airline (the airline which operates the frequent flyer program) and on the host airline's preferred partner airlines.

In the programs of the largest airlines, the preferred carriers are those that participate with the host in a global alliance. American's partners are the oneworld airlines; Delta's are the SkyTeam carriers; Northwest has its Wings alliance partners; and United and Air Canada are members of the Star Alliance. Smaller carriers that do not participate in global alliances tend to choose preferred partner airlines with which they have code-share agreements or other joint-marketing programs.

The qualification period

Elite status is conferred based on qualifying miles flown during a calendar year, January 1 through December 31. So you would earn elite status for 2003 (which might actually have an expiration date of March 31, 2004) for qualifying miles flown during 2002.

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Tips on going (or not) for the gold

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 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 and achievable, 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, your desire to reach elite levels will be hampered if you don't focus your mile-earning on one program. 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 Airways 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 round-trip 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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