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The Joys and Pains of Elite Airline Status

Racking up miles to earn elite airline status can be a pain, but the perks are worth it.
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It's mid-November as I write this, and I'm about to go to the Frontier Airlines website and do something I haven't done since the Spice Girls were together: I'm going to book a mileage run.

Remember mileage runs? They were as late-'80s as stonewashed jeans. Toward year's end, you found yourself a bit short in the ongoing quest for elite status with your favorite airline. So you opened your Official Airline Guide and booked a trip. You might have chosen a roundabout routing to get somewhere you actually had to go, like Chicago to Cleveland through Dallas--or, in the extreme case of one journalist I knew, Boston to Baltimore via San Francisco. (Yes, that actually happened.)

More existentially, you could book a trip to nowhere, flying to a just-distant-enough destination and catching the next plane home without leaving the airport. Or, if you were your own boss and had planned properly, you pulled out one of those noncrucial trips you'd been delaying--a visit to a plant or a key customer--and got it over with before the end of the year.

You did it because miles were currency, and elite status awarded a sizable bonus for every trip you took. Awards were easy to book then; you could fly business class to Europe even during desirable months.

Then affinity credit cards came along. And dining for miles. And earning miles for buying flowers and refinancing your home and nearly everything else. Pretty soon, miles were as plentiful as deutsche marks during the Weimar Republic. With all those miles floating around, reward seats became capacity-controlled by necessity, especially on popular international routes. On many flights, airlines stopped allocating reward seats altogether.

It no longer made sense to contort oneself in order to get premier status. What good were a few thousand more miles if you couldn't use them? All the airlines were pretty much the same, anyway. For about a decade, I didn't even have a preferred one; I just shopped by price.

Like so much else about travel, that changed after 9/11. Airlines couldn't survive on ticket revenue, so they started charging for checked bags, entertainment, prime seating, snacks, even bottled water. Lines got longer. Flights were eliminated, and those that remained were jammed to capacity, leaving little room for carry-ons.

Having elite status now makes the process somewhat less onerous. Elite flyers have a separate check-in lane and a fast track through security. They check bags for free, board early and get stretch seating. On Frontier, Summit-level members can change their flights without paying a penalty. Shades of 1987!

I've done the calculating, and it looks like I'm about 2,000 miles short of what I need. Frontier doesn't have far-flung hubs, so there'll be no zigzagging. I'll just swallow hard and spring for a trip I really don't need to take. I'm thinking of it as a $250 investment in my future comfort.

By the time you read this, I'll have turned that trip into some new business and a few good meals. But the real benefits will be evident throughout 2013. If you see me bypassing the lines and dropping my suitcase on the scale without a grimace, you'll know why.

Can I get an upgrade?
When it comes to airline loyalty, choose wisely

Which airline you should target for elite status depends on where you live--and where you travel to. If you're based in Detroit, a Delta hub, it doesn't make sense to accumulate miles on United, unless you have frequent trips to one of that carrier's key markets, such as Chicago or Denver.
But it also depends on what aspect of flying you value most, says Gary Leff, co-founder of the frequent-flier community and author of the blog View From the Wing.

"American is the most generous with international upgrades for elites," says Leff, who often flies overseas. "United's 100,000-mile fliers get confirmed international upgrades, but not off the lowest fares. Delta makes its elites buy an M-fare or higher, which is often close to full fare. On American, there are no restrictions."

Leff, who flies on American more than 100,000 miles annually, is at the airline's highest level. "If I ever wind up sitting in coach," he says, "they'll comp my drinks and give me a complimentary snack. That's part of the benefit, too."

All the major U.S. airlines offer unlimited available domestic upgrades to their most frequent fliers. "And United has Economy Plus, with extra legroom," Leff says. "It's much more widespread than anyone else's extended-room seats, and it's available to midrange elites."

Of the smaller airlines, "Alaska's program is pretty good, if you live in Seattle or Portland [Ore.], or if you don't fly that frequently," he says, noting that you can pool qualifying miles from American and Delta for use toward elite status on Alaska. "When you're a partner elite, you're at the bottom of the pecking order as far as elites are concerned," he notes. "But as my grandfather used to say, it's better than a hole in the head."

Or the back of the plane.