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Attaining Airline Elite Status Series: The Basics and Why People Mileage Run

Oct. 26, 2011
6 min read
Attaining Airline Elite Status Series: The Basics and Why People Mileage Run
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This is an installment in my Maximizing Elite Status series. Articles include; The Basics and Why People Mileage Run, Using ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights, How Much is Elite Status Worth?, Comparing Top Tier Status, Comparing Mid-Tier Status, Comparing Low Level Status, How to Get Elite Miles Without Flying, Understanding Elite Status Bump Thresholds, The Lowdown on Soft Landings, How to Cope with Losing Elite Status.

As the calendar year winds down, many frequent flyers' stress levels increase dramatically as they scramble to get the elite miles necessary to qualify for elite status, since most programs reset the elite qualifying counters to 0 on January 1. Since it's that special time of year, I'm going to be doing a series on my tips and tricks for achieving and maintaining elite status. Upcoming posts will details my tips for finding mileage run worthy fares, how to survive a mileage run, non-flying ways to get elite miles and assorted other tips and my stories from years of chasing elite status.

To start it all off for newbies, there are two main types of miles. 1- Redeemable miles that you can use to book awards. 2- Elite miles that can't be used to book awards, but elevate you to different levels with the airline. Each time you fly, you get a certain amount of each type of miles based on the fare class you purchase.

Why do people care about elite status? Popular elite status perks are free first class upgrades, free exit row/premium seats, mileage bonuses and priority boarding. You generally achieve status at the 25,000, 50,000, 75,000, 100,000, 125,000 levels. The higher your status, the better your perks get and you only have from January 1- December 31 of each year to get your elite status miles as high as possible before they reset. Thus, many people freak out and do crazy things like mileage runs to make sure they get their elite status. Just think - if you are only a couple thousand miles from hitting the next elite level - where you get more upgrades for the entire next year, it can totally be worth it to spend a couple hundred bucks and get a flight that pushes you over the edge. Most programs also let you qualify on segments instead of flown miles, which helps people who fly short flights frequently since it's very hard to rack up high mileage when you are only flying a couple hundred miles a week, yet those flights often cost more than longer flights).

For example, check out my current elite status. I have 88,095 year to date elite miles with Delta. This was all done by flying on paid tickets since award tickets don't award you elite miles - and unlike many Delta flyers I don't have a Delta branded American Express, though I could get one to expedite my elite status (for more info see this post on achieving elite status via credit cards). As the chart states, I need 36,915 miles in order to reach my coveted Diamond status, which will keep me requalified until February 2013. So from now until December 31, 2011 I need to fly the equivalent of 7 roundtrip NY-Los Angeles flights. No big deal! (I purchased a discounted Thanksgiving business class fare from LAX to Europe which will get me a majority of the miles I need - the rest I will figure out).

My current elite status status

Some airlines let you buy elite miles, but generally the cheapest way is to get them through flying cheap, long flights. A mileage run is when you take a flight solely for accruing the miles. Many mileage runners will fly to their destination and then get right back on a plane. It may seem insane, but it easily turns into a fun hobby if you like flying. I generally don't mileage run because I travel enough to reach my elite status on business/pleasure trips, but I did once fly JFK-LAX and then hop right back on LAX-JFK to re-up my status last year. I left after work on the 7pm JFK-LAX and then red-eyed back. This isn't even that serious of a mileage run (some people will fly to Sydney and then get right back on the plane!), but I was pretty exhausted/cracked out the next day since my upgrade didn't clear on the redeye return. I hate redeyes to begin with - especially in coach.

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Your best strategy is to qualify earlier in the year so you don't have to stress during the end of the year, but things don't always go as planned. Mileage running in November and December can get tricky for a number of reasons because the holidays tend to drive up airfare prices and bad weather can wreak havoc on even the most meticulously planned mileage run.

However, this time of year is an off-peak time of year for travel to Europe and there have historically been great fare deals.

So, if you think you want to go for elite status or a higher level this year, I recommend you do a couple things right now.

1) Understand how many elite qualifying miles you currently have (all major airline programs will notate elite qualifying miles separate from your redeemable miles)
2) Calculate how much travel you have booked. Most mileage programs give 1 elite mile per mile flown (with bonuses usually given for business/first/premium fares). If you need to calculate flight distances, I use the Great Circle Mapper distance tool. Tally up how much future travel you have until 12/31/11.
3) Add 1+2 together and see if it will get you to your desired elite level. If not, the gap will be what you need to achieve in excess in order to get your status.
4) Calculate how much it'll cost you to get to the next elite level. If you start planning now, you can probably achieve elite miles for about 4-5 cents a piece - maybe as low as 3 cents if there is a great mileage run deal.
5) Decide whether that elite level is worth the amount it will cost you to attain. It's difficult to calculate the value of elite status, so I'm going to save that for a separate blog post.

This is just the beginning of many posts, but feel free to ask questions. For your reference, I've linked the top frequent flyer programs and their elite status pages so you can explore whether elite status is something you'd like to attain.

Air Canada Top Tier
AirTran A+ Elite
Alaska MVP
American AAdvantage Elite
British Airways Tiers
Continental OnePass Elite
Delta SkyMiles Medallion
Southwest A-List
United MileagePlus Elite
US Airways Dividend Miles Preferred Status

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