Discover the multiple paths that lead to elite status

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Delta's BusinessElite cabin (Photo: Delta Air Lines photography)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 15, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: elite status, Erica Silverstein, frequent flyer.

These days, air travel can be quite frustrating. You stand in long lines to check in, clear security, and board the airplane, and then you sit for hours in cramped seats with only a bag of peanuts and perhaps a bad movie for solace. You'd love to be one of the elite few who waltz through shorter premium check-in and boarding lines and stretch out in first class with a free drink, but you can't afford that kind of lifestyle. Or can you?

Elite status is your ticket to shorter lines, better service, and free upgrades. But many leisure travelers never attain this level of air travel clout either because they don't fly enough or they don't know the tricks to getting status faster. Even if you don't plan on flying upwards of 25,000 miles this year, you still have several ways to attain elite status. Keep reading to figure out which method is right for you.

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The straight and narrow

The usual way of attaining elite status is by flying...a lot. Each airline has its own elite qualification rules, but in general you must fly 25,000 elite-qualifying miles in one year to earn the lowest level of elite status, 50,000 miles to earn mid-tier status, and 75,000 to 100,000 miles to earn the highest level of elite status. Among the U.S. airlines, Frontier has one of the lowest qualification requirements; fly 15,000 miles per year to reach Ascent Level status or, for even more perks, fly 25,000 miles to reach Summit Level.

However, elite-qualifying miles are not always the same as flight miles. You will get a bonus from several airlines for flying in first, business, or full-fare economy and earn 1.5 or two elite-qualifying miles per mile flown. On the opposite end of the spectrum, discount economy Continental tickets not purchased on the airline's website will only earn 50 percent of miles flown toward elite status. If you pay more for your flights, you'll earn status faster, but if you go for the cheapest fare, you might find your quest for elite status taking longer than you thought.

In addition, many major airlines let you earn elite status based on qualifying points or segments. For example, if you fly 30 segments on American at 500 miles each, you'd be able to attain Gold elite status, even though you will have only earned 15,000 miles, which is 10,000 short of the requisite miles to gain status. For exact miles, points, or segments needed to become elite, check the website of your preferred airline or call its frequent flyer program customer service center.

The challenge

If you've read the requirements and know that there's no way for you to fly enough miles in a year to reach the lowest level of elite status, take heart. A few airlines offer shortcuts to elite status, usually in the form of an elite challenge. You won't find these offers on the airline's websites; those in the know need to call their airline's frequent flyer customer service center and inquire about details.

So what is a challenge? Usually, an airline will require you to fly a certain number of miles or take a certain number of flights in a limited period of time. If you meet all the requirements, you will receive automatic elite status.

American's program is ongoing and the best-defined elite challenge in the industry. Within a three-month period, you need to earn 5,000 points to attain Gold status or 10,000 points to earn Platinum status. You will receive a half point for each mile flown on a deeply discounted economy fare, one point for regular economy, and 1.5 points for full-fare economy, business, or first class. Challenges like this are excellent for travelers planning back-to-back cross-country or international trips because you can get status with only a few flights.

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