Frequent flier elite status — Plan now for 2016

Frequent flier elite status, while it may not bring travelers as many coveted upgrades as it used to, can make a difference with things like better preassigned seats, free checked bags, priority boarding, higher waitlist status, and bonus miles on every trip.

In some cases, status can even mean free lounge access. Elite level fliers also usually get access to different airline phone numbers, with shorter hold times and more experienced reservations agents.

Though upgrades are increasingly more difficult, higher frequent flier elite status greatly increases a traveler’s money-saving. Carriers generally sort their upgrade confirmations more by elite level than time of request for an upgrade.

travel_rightsThese days, reaching frequent flier elite status isn’t as simple as counting miles. Most airlines, especially legacy carriers, have complicated systems involving miles and money.  Therefore, a traveler might qualify under one condition, but not the other. On top of this, not all flown miles are created equal. Some carriers don’t give full mileage credit for their lowest fares, or for partner airlines using certain fares, or for tickets not “validated” according to their rules.

(The validation issue is particularly tricky, and it applies when more than one carrier is on a ticket, or sometimes when a code-share flight is involved. One airline is the “validating carrier” and therefore gets the money for the ticket, which they then pass on, if need be, to the other carrier. Examples might be a ticket including Delta and Virgin Atlantic flights, or a ticket with, say, the outbound on United and the return on American.)

Moreover, the rules change, which is why this post is general in nature. What changes the most seems to be the amount of money required along with miles. While the legacy carriers added this requirement most recently, it’s one that they are very fond of and like to increase.

For a traveler who is thousands or even several hundred miles short of the goal, it may not be worth spending money. But, no one wants to end up just short of a frequent flier elite status level goal. Often, these passengers could pay much more in fees the following year than the airline-mandated airfares that stand in the way of achieving elite status.

As confusing as airlines make their programs, they do provide updates on progress towards status, either on their websites or by phone. Airline sites can even show estimated miles and dollars for future booked tickets. But, this advanced elite planning requires making the time to plan ahead. Late summer or early fall is a good time to check.

First, check frequent flier elite status progress early. If there’s a problem or an issue, it can be resolved, or at least any questions answered, before the last minute. I’ve had clients discover a trip, or some part of a trip, wasn’t credited by mistake. I’ve also known people who discovered they had a trip that either was ineligible for credit or got them fewer miles than expected.

If only miles are the issue, it will be a lot less expensive to squeeze in a weekend trip in the fall than over the end-of-year holidays, when flights are full and airfares are sky-high.

If money is the issue, and it’s not a significant amount, simply book a slightly higher fare on a future trip. (I’m not suggesting any corporate traveler cheat their company here. Of course it’s simpler to get the extra dollars on a personal trip. If it’s a business trip, then the right thing to do is reimburse the company for the difference.)

Another option for travelers who are short of a minimum spend for frequent flier elite status, depending on the airline, is to look into an airline-branded credit card that eliminates some of the dollar requirements. (United Airlines, for example, has at least one such card.)

The main point of this story is to think ahead. However close any traveler might be, and whatever they need to achieve their desired frequent flier elite status, in September they still have plenty of time. So, besides being able to reach their goal, a little effort now might mean taking frequent flier elite status off a holiday panic list.