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Learn the secrets to becoming an elite flyer

For those of us who travel infrequently, or mostly for pleasure, elite status seems like a distant goal we could never hope to achieve. We watch with jealousy while other travelers get priority boarding and flaunt their free upgrades as they sip their martinis in first class.

But there are ways of gaining elite status without becoming a road warrior, some that are official policy and others that are hush-hush. If you’ve ever wanted to take your place among the elite of air travel, read on as we reveal the secrets to gaining elite status.

The official way

Many airlines reward their most frequent and loyal travelers with special perks to thank them for their business and to encourage them to continue to fly on that carrier. Most of these amenities, such as free upgrades, mileage bonuses, and priority check-in and boarding privileges, are awarded through the airlines’ elite programs; these are usually divided into platinum, gold, and silver levels.

Platinum members receive more special benefits than silver members; in return, you’re required to fly more miles or segments to attain the top elite status than the lowest level.

Eight major U.S. airlines offer elite status. The table below summarizes the requirements you need to earn each elite level: either a minimum number of elite qualifying miles or a minimum number of flight segments. As you can see below, Alaska’s elite level is the easiest to attain with miles, while Northwest offers preferred status with the fewest number of flight segments.

Airline Elite level Miles Segments
Alaska MVP 15,000 30
MVP Gold 35,000 60
America West Silver 25,000 30
Gold 50,000 60
Platinum 75,000 90
American Gold 25,000 30
Platinum 50,000 60
Executive Platinum 100,000 N/A
Continental Silver 25,000 30
Gold 50,000 60
Platinum 75,000 90
Delta Silver 25,000 N/A
Gold 50,000 N/A
Platinum 100,000 N/A
Northwest Silver 25,000 20
Gold 50,000 40
Platinum 75,000 60
United Premier 25,000 30
Premier Executive 50,000 60
Premier Executive 1K 100,000 100
US Airways Silver Preferred 25,000 30
Gold Preferred 50,000 60
Chairman’s Preferred 100,000 100

The high numbers in this table may look daunting to you, especially with airlines like American and Delta for which only half of the miles flown on discount economy tickets count toward elite qualification. But you do have some opportunities to rack up qualifying miles more quickly.

Each of the airlines, with the exception of Alaska, offers class-of-service bonuses if you fly in first or business class, and sometimes in full-fare economy class. What that means is that up to one and a half times your actual flown miles will count toward elite status; fly 1,000 miles and you’ll be 1,500 miles closer to elite.

You can also use partner activity to bring you closer to elite status. You can earn elite qualification miles on select partner airlines for each of these eight airlines; however, if you use partner miles to earn elite status on Alaska, your qualification requirements bump up to 25,000 miles for MVP and 50,000 for MVP Gold.

These airlines also offer other ways to earn elite status without flying:

  • Select Continental codeshare train journeys earn miles toward elite status.
  • US Airways frequent flyers who spend $25,000 or more with their Dividend Miles Platinum Card can have 10,000 of those miles count toward elite status, while subscribers to Dividend Miles News and Offers e-mails can learn about special bonus offers that can count toward Preferred status

Elite challenges: The secret to getting status

For travelers who won’t meet the high mileage requirements of elite status, and can’t afford a first-class ticket that will help them qualify faster, there’s still hope. Several airlines offer promotions, sometimes published and sometimes only available through word-of-mouth or to select groups of flyers, with which you can attain elite status by flying fewer miles than normal in a two- to three-month period.

America West has the only officially-announced promotion of this sort. It’s called Freddie Fast Track to Silver Elite, and it allows travelers to earn the lowest-tier status when they fly just six round-trips by September 30. You must register for the promotion before you fly; you’ll receive elite status four weeks after qualifying, and will retain it through February 2004.

Tip: If you enroll in a challenge, make sure you understand the rules: Not every fare will qualify on every airline, and partner flights often don’t count toward the miles you need to become an elite.

American’s elite challenge is not officially announced, but is the most structured of all of the secret challenges. You can earn gold status (the lowest level of elite) if you can accrue 5,000 points in three months, and platinum status with 10,000 points. Miles flown in discount coach earn half a point, miles for regular coach earn one point, business class is worth one and a quarter points, and first class earns one and a half points. Challenges start on the first and 16th of each month, and you must register through the airline’s customer service department prior to your first flight.

Other airlines offer challenges, but there doesn’t seem to be an official policy about them:

  • By calling Northwest, for example, I learned that I could gain silver elite status through February 2004 with two round-trips within 90 days on Northwest or KLM in first, business, and select economy classes (Y and B).
  • US Airways currently has an unannounced promotion where you can earn Silver Preferred status if you fly 10 segments or 6,000 miles between August 1 and October 31.
  • Continental doesn’t have promotional challenges, but when I called to inquire, they immediately offered me silver elite status through September 15, and told me I could keep it until 2004 if I flew three round-trips before my comped status ran out.

If you have plans to fly repeatedly in a short period of time, it can’t hurt to call your frequent flyer program’s customer service department and inquire about challenges or elite promotions. All it takes is a little time and you could end up with elite status for a while, or a chance to earn it for half a year to a year. But free status isn’t something you can repeat on any one airline: If you complete the challenge and want to retain your elite status for the following year, you’ll have to requalify, usually only by flying the usual minimum number of miles or segments.

Complimentary status: When you can’t bear to requalify

Airlines reward frequent travelers because they want to keep the business of high-volume flyers in their company; they don’t want to see excellent customers flying on their competitors. By the same logic, they are also very willing to woo frequent flyers from other airlines to become frequent travelers on their airline. And one of their typical tactics is to offer complimentary, matching elite status.

Alaska, America West, and Delta said officially that they will offer matching elite status on a case-by-case basis. Calls to customer service representatives also revealed that Northwest, Continental, United, and US Airways will consider giving complimentary status, while American will only match status for United’s frequent flyers.

To request elite status, all you have to do is send copies of your last frequent flyer account statements, of both the program in which you have elite and the program that you’d like to join, to the loyalty program’s customer service center, along with a letter explaining why you want to be elite. The airline will review your case and decide if it will grant you status or not.

Complimentary status is never guaranteed, and if you’re accepted, you’ll either receive a matching status or a lower preferred status, depending on the airline’s requirements. One rule of thumb when requesting matching elite status is that airlines will comp status for elite members of their competitors, but not their partners. Also, complimentary status is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so only request it when you know you’re going to fly a lot and make use of the perks.

You’re more likely to be approved if you’re a true frequent flyer who’s planning on switching your allegiance to a new airline. Customers who have gained elite status through challenges can try to retain their elite level by asking to be comped, but unless they’ve flown a lot in the past year, the new airline may not see the rationale in giving elite status to an infrequent flyer.

On a more official level, airlines often have “refer an elite friend” promotions, in which their elite members can recommend their elite friends on other airlines. If the friend flies a round-trip or two, he’ll receive elite status, and the original member and the friend will often earn extra bonus miles as well. Alaska is currently the only airline offering such a promotion on its website; often elite members will receive targeted promotions in the mail about such offers.

Strategy summary

Despite how it appears on the surface, there are many ways to gain elite membership. And no matter whether you reach elite levels by flying 25,000 miles over the course of the year, or flying 5,000 miles during the summer, remember that you have to keep flying to enjoy the benefits of your new preferred status.

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