For the first time in many years I will begin the new year without top-tier elite status in an airline loyalty program. I haven’t gone insane. I just realized I had most of the benefits I needed at a price I could afford, measured in both dollars and time. I still spent a huge amount of my year traveling. Unfortunately award tickets don’t really help toward earning status. 😛
Two weeks ago I spent a whole day studying my options and eventually decided that it wasn’t going to happen without serious, unreasonable last-ditch efforts.
Short story: I’m facing the same problem that I ran into last year, trying to get status with multiple carriers while at the same time balancing demands from work and family. I thought it would be a little easier because I switched to American Airlines from United, and the partnerships between American and Alaska make it easier to mix-and-match which flights I credit to which program.
I qualified for MVP Gold on Alaska Airlines easily but despite a very busy year-end schedule I still see myself with only ~65,000 miles on American Airlines. Instead of renewing my Executive Platinum status I’ll drop to Platinum. Those remaining 35,000 miles would cost about $3,000 and several of vacation days at this point in the year given family commitments and limited availability of the cheapest. It just didn’t make sense.
There are many people on FlyerTalk with the same issue, requesting help planning mileage runs to earn anywhere from 25,ooo to 40,000 miles by the end of the year. It reminds me of my own best advice that I clearly didn’t follow: If you’re at all skeptical of your ability to qualify for status, plan your strategy early and book even earlier when options are cheap and plentiful.
Do Your Mileage Running Early
If you are making a last-minute dash for elite status at the end of the year you will be severely restricted. Let’s assume you don’t have any family obligations around the holidays. Other people still do, and fares will be high. There is a two-week window between Thanksgiving and Christmas when you might find some good deals, but it’s unlikely you will have the flexibility to book multiple trips that are all at the lowest available fare.
A good rule of thumb all year ’round is that you can only do 5,000 worth of mileage runs a day. Taking the indirect path from Seattle to London to Tokyo and back will earn you 20,000 miles and take about four days. A cross-country flight from Tampa to San Francisco can be done in a single day but earns only 5,000 miles. At some point, the issue isn’t money but the fact you can’t fly anymore in the time you have left.
Book Premium Fares if You Can
If you can afford it, paying for first and business class fares when you really need to travel will help you reach your status goals without the inconvenience of mileage runs. Many programs offer a 50% bonus, which means you need to fly 33% less.
Keep in mind that each program has its own rules. Delta, Alaska, and United combine the elite qualifying miles earned on cheap and premium fares in the same tally, so you can pay more when you can afford it and see a little boost. American also awards a bonus, but tracks this number as something separate called “elite qualifying points” and penalizes you with a 50% reduction for cheap fares. Mix and match fares and they’ll balance out, so a year-long commitment to premium fares is required to earn status any faster. If you choose to go with elite qualifying miles, then all American fares earn 100%.
Pay Attention to Partners
Sometimes booking trips with partners is a great way to boost your earning rate. Premium economy fares on British Airways earn 50% more elite qualifying points when you credit them to American Airlines, but they’re nowhere near as expensive as business or first class.
Partners can also throw up unwelcome surprises. That same premium economy fare on British Airways earns only a 10% bonus if you credit to Alaska Airlines. Delta awards no elite credit for any flights on its SkyTeam partner, Korean Air. United says you have to buy tickets with them in order to get special “Premier Qualifying Dollars.” The Delta/Korean Air relationship is unusual for alliance members, but you’re more likely to run into with with non-alliance partnerships like those American has with Hawaiian Airlines and Etihad.
Look at the Marginal Cost/Benefit
I’m actually pretty satisfied with the mid-tier status I’ll have on American and Alaska next year. Both will earn 100% bonus award miles and some priority in queues. MVP Gold comes with pretty good upgrade benefits. I’ll lose unlimited upgrades on American, but I’m okay with that because American makes it possible to buy 500-mile upgrades at an affordable rate. (I need to buy these anyway if I want to upgrade my wife.) Rather than paying $3,000 on year-end mileage runs, I could instead buy as many 500-mile upgrades as I need.
View from the Wing had a useful post on Saturday about how to get upgraded even without top-tier status. I rely on these tricks already and will do so even more when my status drops. Back in the day I had a 50% upgrade success rate as a Silver member with United, so it is definitely possible to travel well without being a top dog.
Always Be Searching
You hear about so many great deals for winter and off-season travel around this time of year. But don’t stop your month-long searches on ITA when you reach December 31. Often the same fare is valid through February or March. In fact, there are probably blackout dates that apply to most of November and December due to the holidays I mentioned earlier.
The first thing I do when I see a great fare posted on FlyerTalk or The Flight Deal is explore just how flexible it is — How long does it run? Can I depart from Portland or San Francisco instead of Seattle? Is it valid to Maui and Kona in addition to Honolulu? No one ever posts the full story, so don’t forget to do you homework.
In my case, I found many great deals on flights in the beginning of 2015 after I return from the holidays and hope to get a very strong head start on qualifying for Executive Platinum during the next year.