Editorial Policy

3 Shortcuts to Earning Elite Frequent Flier Status

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
December 16, 2011

QHi Eva,
I’ve been steadily building miles on my frequent flier card, thinking it would help me get to elite status. But now I’ve just been told that my miles don’t count. What’s the deal? — MarshallTh_flier-rewards-step-up

AHi Marshall,
Boy, I understand why you would be scratching your head. Miles are miles, right?

Unfortunately not. Today’s frequent flier rewards programs feature more attractive bonuses than ever, but the terms have also become increasingly complicated.

You’re certainly not the first one who has been caught by surprise, thinking you were all set to reap some lucrative perks only to find that, well, you’re not.

Most major frequent flier programs now have a two-tier structure, and herein lies the rub. Good old-fashioned frequent flier miles will still give you benefits, such as free trips and, increasingly, first checked baggage free. However, as you already know, to get access to the most attractive frequent flier perks, you need to gain elite status.

And to earn elite status, you need to accumulate elite qualifying miles (EQMs). These are actually flown miles with the airline or its partners, and they go by different names, according to the rewards program. Most airlines, such as United, Continental and American Airlines, refer to these as Elite Qualifying Miles; Delta Airlines refers to them as Medallion Qualification Miles. Ask Eva

Elite status will give you access to perks such as free upgrades to first class when space is available, higher rewards benefits (which will help you stay in the elite segment once you’ve reached it), free access to airport lounges, priority check-in, priority boarding and, in some airports, even priority security checks.

The perks that come with elite status are part of a common bid by the airlines to attract high-rolling consumers with a lot of money to spend. So, not surprisingly, the bar is set pretty high to gain the elite status. In most cases, you have to accumulate at least 25,000 EQMs a year to get to and keep the first tier elite status, and that usually means 25,000 flown miles a year.

So the question is: Are there any shortcuts to obtaining EQMs? Indeed, there are several ways to speed up EQM earnings, but at a price.

1. Upgrade your airline credit card.
If you’re willing to pay a higher annual fee, many airline credit cards come with bonus EQMs to help you on the way. With the American Express Delta Gold card, for example, you get 30,000 bonus miles when you sign up, but these are not EQMs. Upgrade to the Platinum (at a $150 a year annual fee instead of the $95 of the Gold card), and you get up to 30,000 bonus miles, 5,000 of which count as EQMs.

If money is not an issue, the American Express Delta Reserve card, for a $450 annual fee, will give you a bonus of 10,000 EQMs when you sign up and make your first purchase and 15,000 EQMs if you spend at least $30,000 in a year.

Of course, whether that is worth the annual fee depends on your wallet. But for most airline rewards programs, this is one of the easiest ways to reach elite status faster.

2. Concentrate your travel.
Once you’ve reached elite status, it’s usually easier to stay there, because both your spending and travel qualifies for higher rewards earnings. Programs run from calendar year to calendar year, so if you have several planned trips coming up within a given period, it would behoove you to concentrate them within one calendar year. Track your miles carefully, so you know where you are at.

3. Try mileage runs.
This may strike you as going overboard, but it’s a common strategy for frequent flier aficionados to accumulate extra miles by going on a mileage run: Add an extra leg to your trip(s) to earn more miles; some even go on trips dedicated to no other purpose than accruing more miles or points.

This can be a particularly useful strategy if you’re just a few thousand miles short of your goal. For tips on making the most out of a mileage run, check out discussions on mileage run deals on forums such as flyertalk.com or InsideFlyer.com.

Finally, don’t forget: reaching elite status may earn you unique perks to make traveling easier and more comfortable. However, don’t forget to weigh the value of the rewards against the extra hassle. Is earning elite status really worth the extra money and trouble?

Of course, the answer to that question depends on your wallet, how much time you have on your hands and how much you travel and are therefore able to enjoy the benefits.

For a lot of people, collecting frequent flier miles and reaching elite status becomes a hobby or even a passion. And, hey, as long as you’re not spending money you can’t afford to spend, why not go for it?