“The Points Guy” Shares Secrets Of Earning Elite Status
With airline fees rising, awards tickets and upgrades harder to come by, and the skies a lot less friendly, it’s become that much more important to get to elite status on airlines—if only to be treated with a little respect and avoid unnecessary hassles.
That’s why we spoke with rewards program guru Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, about things the average traveler can do to achieve elite status in their loyalty program of choice without having to fly around the globe several times a month. Not only did he give us some great ideas, but he also broke down the status programs of several major carriers to tell us exactly what it is that makes them special. So read on and find out how to become an airline VIP in no time.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Before you jump in, The Points Guy tells us, analyze your yearly flying. Elite program qualification is always calculated from January through December, then resets to zero, so it’s easier to qualify the earlier in the year you start trying.
Take a personal inventory of all flying you’ll do in the next year and put it down on paper. Not all airlines fly into all airports, so if convenience is a big factor for you, choose the airline(s) that use your home base and your destination as hubs.
Then, to achieve the most basic level of elite status, the requirements are pretty much the same across most airlines: either 25,000 miles, or 30 flight segments, within a year.
The Gift Bag
Here are all the goodies you get for achieving elite status:
- No baggage fees: Say goodbye to those new and ever-increasing surcharges.
- Preferred seating: Get extra leg room in exit rows for free, and early access to select or premium coach seats.
- Complimentary or discount upgrades: Depending on availability, you might get bumped up without denting your wallet.
- Priority check-in, boarding and security: No more stressing out that you won’t get through check-in and security in time to board.
- Mileage bonuses on redeemable miles: You earn 25% bonus miles on all flights, so if you take a 2,000-mile flight, you will earn 2,500 miles.
- Priority standby: Did your flight get cancelled? With elite status, you’ll be among the first to be re-booked on other routes.
- Discounted club membership: Usually around $50 off annual membership to the airline’s airport lounges.
Make Your Quota
As The Points Guy figures, there are four distinct ways to earn elite status:
1. Flying: This is pretty obvious, but to earn miles, you’ve got to get in the air. This is the best method for frequent business fliers on long-haul trips.
2. Spending: We know it’s hard to stomach in this economy, but another way to earn a lot of miles is either by using a credit card tied into your loyalty program of choice, or to use it to buy miles directly from airline programs. This is a good way for non-frequent travelers to earn status.
3. Challenge: Most people don’t realize this, but airlines are willing to issue newcomers a challenge: fly a certain amount of miles in a limited amount of time, and you can earn elite status. They’re even willing to give you the elite status up front for a fee, but don’t abuse the terms, because if you don’t make elite status you won’t ever get the offer again, and you might even be blacklisted from elite status in the future. This is a good program for those who know they’ll be traveling a lot in the near future.
4. The Buddy System: We’re not sure this has ever been written about officially (we couldn’t find anything on it), but The Points Guy tells us that several airlines have offers where if you know of someone who is a top flyer with the highest status levels, they can gift you elite status. This is true for United, and Delta Diamond passengers can gift gold status. Some corporate travel agents can also gift you status—on British Airways for instance. Whatever you do, though, do not buy elite status through eBay or Craigslist, because these offers are forgeries, and if you get caught, you lose all your miles.
RM vs. EQM
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, miles are actually further broken down into two categories: Redeemable and Elite Qualifying Miles.
Redeemable miles are the miles you earn through flying and purchases, which can be used to book awards travel. Elite Qualifying Miles are much more elusive.
Yes, you can get them through flying and through the number of flight segments you fly, but they are not redeemable for rewards other than qualifying for status upgrades, and they are not always given out on a per-mile basis with the flight distance. So before you sign up for 10 credit cards and book a few short-hop flights, be sure to check the EQMs you’ll receive because it’s less than you think. These are the miles for passengers who are actually spending time on the airline.
Not All Programs Are Created Equal
We asked The Points Guy to break down the special features of the major U.S. carriers for us so we’d know just what we were getting if we went for elite status on any of these airlines.
American Airlines: The Points Guy calls this “the flyer’s airline” because you can’t really get elite status by using a credit card. Gold Status is the basic level, but the perks don’t really start until you’re Platinum and flying in the range of 100,000 miles a year. But when they start, they’re worth it because you can get all kinds of priority service and free upgrades.
Continental: Even their lowest “Silver” members receive complimentary upgrades, so if you score one or two a year, that’s a great value, especially if you’re a leisure traveler flying on less busy dates and routes (which you can always plan ahead). Plus, the airline has some of the best economy-class awards availability. Continental also just launched a credit card where customers earn 2,000 EQMs for every $15,000 spent.
Delta: The world’s largest airline has just rolled out a game-changing innovation: Rollover miles. Whereas most airlines reset their qualifying miles to zero on January 1, on Delta, if you hit 25,000 qualifying miles, you get to rollover anything above that to the next year, so you get a head start on qualifying for elite status the following year.
The Points Guy explains that it’s just good business: “It’s a great way to reward people to keep flying on their airline rather than topping up their accounts on any other airlines, or switching programs altogether.” Delta offers a Platinum credit card where if you spend $25,000, you get 10,000 EQMs, which could be a good bargain for small business owners who charge everything. There is also a Reserve Card whose $450 annual fee provides free Delta Lounge access, pretty much paying for itself, and you get EQMs at a rate of about one for every $2.00 of spending when you hit certain large dollar amounts.
Southwest: You might be surprised to learn that the airline with no first class or hub-to-hub system has an elite program called the A List, which includes priority boarding and fly-by security. To qualify, you must fly 32 segments, or 16 roundtrips in a year. Even they must have realized their frequent flyers need to be treated a little differently than the average passenger, and they hope to attract business customers who don’t care about first class, but just want to get somewhere on time without all the hassle.
United: The ace in United’s service is free Economy Plus seating at the time of booking for you and your guest if it’s available. That means an extra five inches of leg room on all routes. Tall people rejoice! United also now has a credit card where you can earn 5,000 EQMs for signing up, and one per every dollar you spend on United.com.
US Air: This airline’s claim to fame is that they actually let you straight-up buy status, even if you’ve never flown with them. Their basic Silver level costs $1,299, and could be worth if for some flyers who don’t have enough money to buy upgrades, but plan on doing some traveling over the next year and hope to be rewarded availability upgrades.
Do It Yourself
We thought The Points Guy was just going to give us a few tips on how to become elite flyers, but it turns out that there are a lot more ways to do so than we thought, and a lot more choices about whose programs we want to join.
You can have a consultation with The Points Guy yourself by visiting his web site, and he’ll even book your awards travel as well for a $50 fee, or, true to his mission, 5,000 American Express Rewards Points.
So start planning now, because there are only seven months left this year to earn your elite status, and there are miles out there to be flown!
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