What do you do to become an elite traveler?
Most airline programs have three elite tiers, with progressively higher qualification levels and increasingly generous benefits. For example, consider United's Mileage Plus. In that program, the three elite levels, from lowest to highest, are Premier, Premier Executive, and 1K.
To reach Premier status, a Mileage Plus member must fly 25,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) or 30 elite-qualifying segments (EQSs) during a calendar year. Qualifying miles or segments are those flown on United, United Express, or Ted; EQMs may also be earned when flying on other airlines participating in the Star Alliance (Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, bmi, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian, Singapore, South African, Spanair, SWISS, TAP Portugal, THAI, and US Airways).
The criteria for reaching Premier Executive and 1K status are 50,000 EQMs or 60 EQSs and 100,000 EQMs or 100 EQSs, respectively.
The main benefits of earning elite status are twofold. First—and of most importance to the majority of flyers who can realistically expect to attain elevated status—elite benefits include free upgrades. Some airlines offer elite members unlimited complimentary upgrades on domestic flights. Of course, the upgrades are on a space-available basis, so they're unlimited more in theory than in practice.
United's policy is somewhat less generous. Rather than unlimited upgrades, Mileage Plus elites receive four 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 miles flown, plus automatic upgrades when flying on full coach fares. Higher-tier elites can confirm their upgrades before lower-tier members: 1Ks can confirm up to 100 hours prior to departure; Premier Executive members up to 72 hours in advance; and Premier members up to 48 hours.
The second benefit of elite status is bonus flight miles. United Premier members earn 25 percent more miles when flying United, United Express, Ted, and US Airways, as well as on Lufthansa flights between the U.S. and Europe. That bonus increases to 100 percent for Premier Executive and 1K members. The downside? Those bonus miles don't count toward requalifying for elite status.