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UPDATE: The Presidential Plus Continental card is no longer available.
This fall, Continental introduced their Onepass/Elite Maximizer program, which allows flyers to purchase extra Onepass miles and Elite Qualifying Miles with paid itineraries. If you purchase the extra Onepass miles (for roughly 3.5 cents each), you can then also purchase Elite Qualifying Miles, which are priced on a sliding scale.
The 3.5 cent Onepass miles are not a bargain, considering you can purchase them regularly for the same price. However, purchasing them with a flight gives you the opportunity to buy the Elite Qualifying Miles.
In September, when the program launched, Continental was selling the EQMs for around 6 cents each. I didn’t think that was such a bad deal- its like buying a $300 JFK-LAX ticket and getting all the elite miles, without having to step on a plane. Experienced mileage runners can usually get elite qualifying miles for under 4 cents each, but that requires flying frivolous flights and dealing with all the added stress, time and hassle associated with air travel.
However, the smarty-pants MBAs running this program at Continental have added a sick (but clever) twist: as the elite qualifying year comes to an end, the price of the EQMs rises exponentially. Continental has gotten into the minds of elite status obsessed flyers and raised the price in accordance with the panic that happens this time of year when people stress thinking about losing their status.
So now the EQMs are as high as 30 cents each and who knows how high they will keep rising as the qualifying year winds down (Dec 31 is the last day to earn miles, before your EQM balance resets to 0 on January 1). So if you need 5,000 miles to reach coveted Platinum status, you may have to cough up roughly $1,675 ($175 for the Onepass miles, and $1,500 for the EQMs at 30 cents a piece). The prices vary, so it may be more or less for you- it will only show after you actually buy your itinerary.
Is this a good deal? It depends.
Doing mileage runs around the holidays can be very expensive, so paying a premium to secure elite status without dealing with an airport can make sense for some people. However, if you have the time and you actually like flying, then a traditional mileage run may make more sense for you.
If you don’t have the time to mileage run, assess what elite status will do for you in 2011. If domestic upgrades are valuable to you (as they are to me), then coughing up $1,675 may actually make sense. However, paying the same for silver status for a leisure traveler- not so much.
Another interesting aspect of this program is that you get the miles/EQMs as soon as you purchase them, whether at booking or anytime up until departure. So if you need EQMs right now, you can book a fake itinerary that is as close to the amount of EQMs that you need, then buy the Onepass miles and EQMs. Once the miles are purchased and hit your account, then cancel the itinerary for no fee within 24 hours.
Continental elite miles do not rollover like they do at Delta, so you should try to hit the tier you need on the dot. To get started, go to Great Circle Mapper distance tool and start playing around to find a round-trip itinerary that would be as close to the amount of miles you need as possible. For example, if you need 5,200 miles, EWR-LAX-EWR would only yield you 4,908 miles. If you chose EWR-IAH-LAX-EWR, you’d get 5,233 miles- just enough to push you over the next level. Note: Continental has its own method of calculating mileage, so it may not match up exactly with the GC tool.
If you decide that the EQM maximizer is the best route, I’d recommend buying it as soon as possible because I think the prices will continue to rise as the elite qualifying year comes to an end. And if you want to do a good ol’ mileage run, make sure to check out the FareCompare tool and the Flyertalk Mileage Run forums for good ideas.
If you are looking for another way to bolster your Continental EQMs, the $395 yearly (though many people have recently reported getting the fee waived for the first year) Presidential Plus Chase card offers 1,000 EQMs for every $5,000 you spend. You have until March 31 to apply the EQMs to your 2011 status, so as long as you spend in 2010, you will be able to use the EQMs to get you over the next elite status level.