Readers’ Blog

The Short Path To First Class

Viewed 4102 times 2013-1-6 17:46 |System category:News

The top ranking in frequent-flier programs has long been considered the privilege of elite road warriors -- people who buy expensive tickets, spend their working lives traveling and always get upgraded and pampered.

But with a relatively modest investment of $4,000 to $7,000 a year and some creativity and adventurousness, an occasional traveler can buy top-tier status and turn it into tens of thousands of dollars worth of business-class upgrades on international trips, plus bonus miles, airport-lounge access, domestic first-class upgrades and even perks like Tiffany & Co. gift cards.

Status pays -- and buying status can quickly pay for itself. Besides cushy perks and priority, travelers in the highest tier of frequent-flier programs get several free international upgrades a year. With each one, a $1,200 round-trip economy ticket to Europe or Asia can be turned into a $7,000 business-class bed.

'I believe elite status is a huge value. It just makes your life easier,' said Joe Nevin, a former Silicon Valley executive who takes five or six far-flung trips a year to get 'Premier 1K' status on United Airlines. For his investment of $5,000 to $6,000, plus hours of flying to various destinations, he and his wife travel on free tickets and free upgrades all year long. 'It boggles my mind that some people just don't make it a priority,' he said.

US Airways Group sells 'Chairman Preferred' status in its Dividend Miles program for $3,999 with no flying. Lower levels of status are cheaper, and the 'Buy up to Preferred' program can be used to top off accounts to hit annual status qualification targets.

'It's been a very successful program,' said Fern Fernandez, managing director of customer loyalty and marketing programs. Some customers use it after job changes to keep the same status they are accustomed to, even though they may not be flying as much on US Airways.

Other airlines don't sell status outright, except for occasional offers to let people requalify for their status level by paying $500 to $1,000 or so when they come up short in mileage at the end of a year. But serious travel junkies have mastered the concept of the 'mileage run' or 'status run' -- taking long, cheap trips simply to accumulate miles and achieve status. With 1K status, Mr. Nevin gets upgraded virtually every time, he said. He gets a 100% bonus in miles that can be used on free trips. He searches airline website calendars to find the cheapest days to travel, plus sophisticated Web tools such as ExpertFlyer and the free ITA Software that track specific airline inventory. He'll price out flights to Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dubai and other destinations. He keeps a chart by his computer with round-trip mileage for those and other destinations.

Mr. Nevin, who now runs a mogul- and powder-skiing school in Aspen, Colo., says he gets 17,000 to 21,000 'elite-qualifying miles,' or EQMs, on each of his status runs. EQMs are different from everyday frequent-flier miles. They are actual flying miles: Most miles earned through credit cards, restaurants, hotels and other merchants, plus bonus miles, typically don't count toward elite qualification. (Some high-end credit cards from the likes of Chase, American Express and Citibank do offer a limited number of EQMs a year.) To get to 100,000 EQMs (which are known as PQMs at United, for Premier Qualifying Miles), he spends $5,000 to $6,000 a year.

'I can knock off 100,000 miles in five trips,' he said. 'Being a married guy, I try to balance my wife's tolerance for this stuff.'

Early in 2013, he'll be off to Hong Kong. He paid $1,030 for the ticket from Aspen and will collect about 18,500 miles. He has another trip booked to Tokyo on United's Boeing 787 Dreamliner that he bought on a $989 promotional fare when United first announced the service. The trip will deliver 11,560 elite-qualifying miles.

'The whole thing is being opportunistic,' Mr. Nevin said. 'You've got to beat the system.'

New York lawyer Randall Stempler likes to ring in the New Year as far away from home as possible -- preferably in a warm place. Buenos Aires is a favorite. Last year he was in Sydney. This year he'll be in Singapore, flying home Jan. 1 through Tokyo and Houston for extra miles. The trip will give him 11,371 elite-qualifying miles to jump-start his 2013 1K requalification. Along with the EQMs, he'll pocket 44,000 total frequent-flier miles -- almost enough for a domestic first-class ticket on United.

'My holiday card every year is me in some city around the world,' said Mr. Stempler. When he got married last year, he jokingly asked his wife if she was marrying him for his 1K status.

Early next year he'll fly from New York to Honolulu for a three-day weekend -- for sun and miles with a full day in Hawaii. Since he wants to go to places at certain times, he pays more and spends about $8,000 to $10,000 a year maintaining 1K status.

Airlines typically give standard perks, such as early boarding, priority lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints and extra coach-seat legroom, to all elite-level frequent fliers. But as you move up the tiers, the benefits increase dramatically.

Members at the highest published level typically get domestic first-class upgrades confirmed four to seven days before departure. Members at the lowest elite level typically get upgrades no more than 24 hours before departure -- if there are any seats left.

On most airlines, the highest level of elite members get 100% mileage bonuses or more for their trips, making it easier to claim free trips, and guaranteed access to any flight. If it's sold out, top-tier fliers can still buy a seat and the airline likely will bump another customer.

A few airlines give their top-tier customers better availability of mileage-award seats. Some offer special bonuses. Delta offers a choice of gifts to Diamond members, including a $200 Tiffany gift card.

United reimburses its 1K customers for the $100 enrollment fee for the federal Global Entry program, which lets travelers bypass immigration lines when re-entering the country, and gets you enrolled in the Transportation Security Administration's 'Pre-Check' expedited screening program.

By selling status with its 'Buy up to Preferred' program, US Airways collects the money mileage runners are willing to pay, and gets to sell the seats they would have occupied to other customers.

This is the busy season for selling status, Mr. Fernandez said. Mileage runners typically squeeze in trips before Dec. 31 to requalify, and come January, travelers who didn't hit status targets by flying are ready to buy the status they want.

Airlines say they monitor programs closely to see whether people gaming the system -- some of whom refer to themselves as 'travel hackers' -- are taking too many seats from road warriors who spend a lot more on tickets.

Still, 'we haven't seen an increase in activity that would be a concern,' Mr. Fernandez said.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




Shake hands

Like 0 Share


Comment (0 comments)

facelist doodle Doodle board

You need to login to comment Login | register


Recent comments

    Star blogger










    Most Viewed

    Most commented

    Contact us:Tel: (86)010-84883548, Email:
    Blog announcement:| We reserve the right, and you authorize us, to use content, including words, photos and videos, which you provide to our blog
    platform, for non-profit purposes on China Daily media, comprising newspaper, website, iPad and other social media accounts.