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Plan early for elite status

Many flyers who could attain elite status this year won’t. They may fly 25,000 miles or more, but they’ll spread their flights among several airlines, or they won’t recognize that they’re only a few thousand miles short of status until it’s too late.

With a little advance planning, these flyers could easily attain elite status and reap the benefits on their travels during the rest of this year and next. Don’t let laziness or complacency stop you from scoring free upgrades, better seats, and shorter airport waits. If you plan early in the year, you can manage your flights so you’ll have a smooth ride into the land of elite flying.

1. Choose an airline

The first step is to choose on which airline you want elite status. Then, as much as possible, you should focus all of your flying on that airline. You might have to pay more for a flight or take a connection rather than fly nonstop. Just think of it as paying for your elite perks up front. The extra time and money you put in now will come back to you in the currency of free upgrades, less time spent in lines at the airport, and easier access to award seats.

2. Utilize airline partners

Sometimes you can take advantage of the low fare on another airline and still earn miles toward elite status in your preferred program. That’s because many airlines allow you to earn elite-qualifying miles on their most important airline partners. “If you understand your airline’s partners,” says Randy Petersen, frequent flyer expert and editor of Inside Flyer Magazine, “you can bring those miles back to your program and make them count toward elite status.” Airlines list their partners (and whether miles count toward top-tier status) in the frequent flyer sections of their websites, so if you’re unsure, check there before you book.

3. Put your credit card to work

If you charge enough and have the right card, you may also be able to get some elite-qualifying miles for credit card purchases. For example, Delta frequent flyers who carry the Platinum Delta SkyMiles credit card can earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles when they charge $25,000 or more per year. If you usually spend over $2,000 each month, you can reduce the number of miles you need to fly from 25,000 to 15,000 to get the lowest-tier elite status.

United Platinum Class Visa Signature cardholders can earn 5,000 elite-qualifying miles after their first purchase, 5,000 miles when they spend over $35,000 per year, and up to 5,000 miles for ticket purchases at (at a rate of one mile per dollar spent). That’s a maximum of 15,000 elite-qualifying miles in the first year and 10,000 miles every year thereafter.

Of course, both of these cards have high annual fees ($135 for Delta, $140 for United), but that sum is a small price to pay for 10,000 to 15,000 elite-qualifying miles. If you charge most of your purchases, you should find out if your airline has a credit card that offers similar elite benefits. It will save you time and money.

4. Check your progress

“It’s real easy to lose track of your progress,” warns Petersen. “Most people don’t think about elite status until it’s too late. Then, they end up making bad decisions late in the year.” He advises flyers who are bent on earning elite status to check their progress every quarter. New online tools make it easy to see how far you have left to go. If you’re getting behind in your goals, you might want to watch out for airfare sales and add an extra flight to your travel schedule.

5. Take a shortcut

You don’t always have to fly the full amount of miles to attain elite status. Many airlines award elite status based on segments, so if you regularly fly short-haul flights, you’ll be elite before you hit the 25,000-mile mark. In addition, some airlines offer status based on the revenue you bring to the airline. For example, if you only fly 10,000 miles per year but are always paying the highest price for last-minute first-class flights, an airline might award you status based on the thousands of dollars you’re pouring into its coffers.

Airlines also have unpublicized challenge programs. Challenges are when an airline will give you elite status if you fly a certain amount in a short period of time, usually a few months. Occasionally an airline will approach you (as in the case of Frontier’s Ascent Challenge), but most of the time you’ll need to call your preferred carrier, stress that you plan on flying a lot, and ask about a challenge. These programs are best for flyers who have already planned a few back-to-back long-haul trips.

6. Take a mileage run

What happens when November or December rolls around and you find you’re still a few thousand miles short of your status goals? One option is to take a mileage run. Mileage runs are low-priced long-haul flights that you take solely to get miles. Most flyers look for flights that don’t require an overnight stay and return home on the same day they departed. You may find it silly to take a flight to nowhere, but if one flight means the difference between extending all your elite benefits or losing them, you may find the expense justified in the end.

7. Look for last-minute offers

A second option is to look for last-minute offers. Some airlines try to woo flyers who are on the verge of status by allowing them to buy elite status or elite-qualifying miles. For instance, at the end of 2005 United offered double elite-qualifying miles on all flights through December 15 to members who paid $200 for the privilege. If in order to attain your elite goal you would’ve had to pay $200 or more and taken another flight, United’s promotion could have saved you time and possibly money in your quest for status.

8. Don’t forget hotels

Frequent travelers shouldn’t discount hotel loyalty programs. It’s often easier to attain elite status with hotel chains and easier to benefit from perks such as room upgrades, late checkout, and hotel freebies. Marriott, for example, offers Silver Elite status to travelers who stay 10 nights per year or who carry a Marriott Rewards Visa Signature Card.

Once you’ve earned elite status in both your airline and hotel programs of choice, you’ll realize travel can be a lot more comfortable and a lot less harrying than you previously thought. And all it takes is a little advance planning.

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