T+L’s personal finance columnist, Jean Chatzky, answers your questions. This month: Frequent-flier elite?
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| Credit: Chesley McLaren

Q: Can you give me the scoop on elite frequent-flier status?I hear that it’s hard to attain and that rewards can be elusive. If it’s worth pursuing, can you tell me how?—Jill Allen, Chicago, Ill.

A: As seasoned travelers know, earning elite status in frequent-flier programs confers special privileges, including priority check-in and expedited security clearance. But upgrades, according to Tim Winship, editor of Frequentflier.com, are a shrinking currency. Planes are fuller than ever, and many airlines recently downsized to smaller planes, resulting in fewer first- and business-class seats. Still, the higher your status, the more likely you are to snag an open spot up front. Elite fliers can also avoid paying the supplements now charged for some preferred coach seats (aisle, exit row, etc.) on Northwest, among others. Elite status is definitely worth striving for, and these steps will get you there.

Focus your energies

You’ll never hit the benchmark if you’re flying on just any airline. Be loyal to a particular carrier, even if it means arriving an hour later, changing planes, or paying $30 more for your ticket. When loyalty to an airline is impossible, stick with your airline’s alliance, such as Oneworld, SkyTeam, or Star Alliance.

Use your credit cards

Miles that you earn spending money—rather than actually flying—don’t generally count toward elite status. But there are exceptions, such as the Delta Platinum SkyMiles Card from American Express (the parent company of Travel + Leisure), which offers 10,000 elite-qualifying miles to members who spend $25,000, and 20,000 elite miles to those spending $50,000.

Look for shortcuts

Many carriers offer an accelerated path to elite status. American, for example, has the Gold and Platinum Challenge: fly a certain number of miles within a 90-day period and you’ll instantly earn elite status. Similarly, United offers a prepaid travel card in denominations of $5,000, $10,000, and $20,000 (the $20,000 immediately gets you 1K status). If you don’t use the full amount within a year, half the difference will be refunded.

Play the matching game

Elite status on one airline can often be parlayed into elite status on another, Matthew Bennett, editor of Firstclassflyer.com, says. Once you achieve status on, say, American, you might call United and tell the customer-service representative that if you could keep your elite status, you would prefer to fly United. They’ll usually require you to supply a copy of your last mileage statement and a letter asking that your elite status be matched. One cautionary note: each airline will match you only once. Save your request for a year when you’ll be traveling enough to enjoy the perks.

Consider a mileage run

If you’re so close to elite status that you can taste it, but you’re not going to qualify before time runs out, you may want to consider a quick, low-fare trip, just to grab enough miles to secure elite status for the next year.

Additional reporting by Arielle McGowen

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Send your queries about money and travel to AskJean@aexp.com. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.