Many frequent fliers don’t care about free flights, rooms, or rentals—they’re interested only in getting special treatment from airlines because of their elite status. Perks for VIPs, like complimentary upgrades and waived fees, are doled out on a tiered basis: the more you fly, the more you receive. Status can be especially valuable if you’re delayed or your flight is canceled; elites are the first to be rebooked.
In the past, fliers reached elite status based on how many miles they flew, so you’d just pick the most convenient airline. Over the past year, however, Delta and United overhauled their programs to include a spending component in their calculation for elite status. On Delta, for example, you don’t just need to fly 25,000 miles to achieve the lowest-tier status, you also need to spend $3,000. That might not bother high-spending business travelers, but for frugal fliers (or those with frugal bosses), the new provisions can dramatically affect a year’s elite status. To ascend to VIP:
Juggle your connections.
At press time, American Airlines still bestowed the elite crown based only on miles flown, but what if your home airport isn’t a hub for the carrier? Be creative with your planning. Flying out of Denver, a United stronghold, for instance, you’ll have few American Airlines options. But if the boss is paying and you’ve got the time, connect and earn with the competition. Say you have a meeting in Boston; American offers no direct flights there from Denver, but you can hop a plane to Dallas and then fly American to Boston to earn 2,200 miles, or connect in Miami to add 2,970 miles to your tab.
Look for back doors into the club.
Airline alliances offer sneaky alternatives for claiming those VIP perks. Take, for instance, ConnectMiles, the recently launched rewards program for Panamanian carrier Copa, part of the Star Alliance airline network. To reach gold status on United, you need to fly 50,000 miles in a calendar year and spend at least $6,000. Or, you can sign up for ConnectMiles, then credit your points for future United flights to the Copa program, and hit gold after just 45,000 miles. You automatically get the same standing in Star Alliance, which means priority boarding, priority check-in, and, perhaps best of all, free access to 1,000 lounges around the world, no matter which member carrier you fly. Avianca, the national carrier of Colombia and another Star Alliance partner, offers similar benefits.
Shoot for a status match.
If you have elite status on one carrier and want to switch allegiance to another, you can try calling customer service and asking them to match your credentials (they may challenge you to fly with them for a few thousand miles to prove your loyalty). The website StatusMatcher can help guide you through the process.
Consider credit-card extras.
Most of the points you earn by spending on a co-branded card aren’t “elite-qualifying miles” or EQMs. But a number of cards offer sign-up and spending bonuses that count toward status requirements. Delta’s Platinum SkyMiles card, for example, awards 10,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles after you spend $25,000 in a calendar year.