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Take a flight just for the miles?

Elite status comes with perks worth the extra trip. But how do you get it without overpaying?

By Karen Datko Oct 8, 2010 10:57AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Seth Miller has neither family nor business in Spokane, Wash., but that didn't stop the New Yorker from making three cross-country trips to the Eastern Washington city this year. Miller went solely for the miles, to secure his 2011 status as a platinum-level elite flier on Continental Airlines. "I didn't know what I was going to do there," he says. "I booked the (sale) fare and figured it out after."

Late-fall "mileage runs" are common among frequent fliers who are just a few miles shy of the 25,000 they need for "elite" status, which includes perks like seat upgrades and waived baggage fees. For the more casual traveler, such unnecessary trips might seem like flights of fancy. But with fares and fees on the rise, elite status is starting to confer tangible benefits. "Getting elite status used to be all about seat upgrades," says Randy Petersen, the founder of InsideFlyer, which tracks frequent-flier programs. "Today it's about saving money."


For example, a traveler with the lowest (gold-level) elite status on American Airlines could save $109 per one-way flight for preferred seating, priority boarding and two checked bags. Add in occasional freebies like same-day standby (regularly $50) or processing an award ticket ($20), and the value goes up, even before considering intangibles such as express lines at ticketing and security. For a five-trip flier, the potential savings can add up to more than $1,100 over the course of a year.


Of course, when travelers aim for elite status, the airline wins. Covering your checked-bag fee and other small charges is a small price to pay for a customer who won't compare prices and may even book a few extra trips to stay in the upper echelons, says Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. Because programs operate on the calendar year, the airline is guaranteed all your business for at least two: the year you work to earn elite status and the following year, when you enjoy its perks.


That's why only fliers who already have at least 20,000 miles on one airline this year -- or will with flights already scheduled between now and Dec. 31 -- should consider making an effort to reach elite right now, Petersen says.


Travelers may be closer than they think. "Take a trip to Europe and three or four domestic trips, and you're right there," he says. Fly from the East Coast to Hawaii, and you're already halfway there. Check your account specifically for the number of elite-qualifying miles you've earned, as opposed to your regular miles, which can be used only to earn award travel. Some deeply discounted fare classes don't earn qualifying miles at all.


Fliers have only until Dec. 31 to qualify, so weigh next year's potential savings against the cost to push for elite status now. Still think it's worthwhile? Here's how to close the mileage gap:


Earn extra miles. With business travel slumping over the past two years, airlines offered plenty of deals for double miles on select flights. Things look better this year, so there are likely to be fewer, but they are still out there, Petersen says. Meanwhile, Delta members who book a stay of at least two nights at a Hilton before Dec. 10 can earn one mile per dollar spent, up to 10,000.

Select business- and first-class fares are also eligible for extra miles, but the extra cost rarely works out in your favor. A round-trip ticket from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on US Airways in early November would cost about $387 for an economy-class ticket, or you could pay $1,394 for a business-class fare, which would come with another 2,911 miles. In that case, it's cheaper to buy the miles outright: For $399, a US Airways traveler could buy up to 4,999 miles.


Get out of town. Miller's three round-trip tickets to Spokane cost just $500 -- total. (Worth it? In addition to securing his elite status for 2011, he earned enough miles to cover 60% of a business-class award ticket to Thailand next year.) Mileage runs pay off even more for current elites, who get mile bonuses of 25% to 100%.


So, for a mileage run, factor in the fare class to determine which flights are your best bet -- different fares carry different awards -- and how many runs you'll really need. American's $253 round-trip sale from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Denver in mid-October looks good, but it's a Q-class fare, which nets a half a mile for every mile flown. On the 3,488-mile trip, that's just 1,744 miles. (A ticket that will earn the full mileage award costs $824.)


Go for platinum. Airlines are flying fewer routes these days, which means more planes are closer to capacity. That also means there are fewer upgrades available, and with more travelers carrying elite status these days, the competition for better seats has gotten stiffer. But the higher your status, the more preference you get.


The other perks also get better. On United, for example, premier members get two free checked bags weighing up to 50 pounds each, while the higher premier executive members get three checked bags weighing up to 70 pounds each. (That's an extra $100 fee saved on the third bag, and $300 in overweight fees.) Premier executive members also earn a 100% mile bonus, versus 25% for premier members, and get access to seat upgrades 24 hours earlier.


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