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It’s that time of year again

Are you a frequent flier, frequent car renter, or frequent hotel guest? Have you checked the calendar lately? Important deadlines are fast approaching. If you don’t plan ahead, you may lose your chance for hard-earned rewards.
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Two travelers walk in Terminal 2 at O'Hare International Airport November 8, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois.Tim Boyle / Getty Images file
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Are you a frequent flier, frequent car renter, or frequent hotel guest? Have you checked the calendar lately? Important deadlines are fast approaching. If you don’t plan ahead, you may lose your chance for hard-earned rewards.

Frequent-user programs typically close their books at the end of the year. That means you have until December 31 to accumulate all the frequent-flier miles (or frequent-guest nights) you need to qualify for your desired level of preferred status. Moreover, most frequent-user programs require you to use your earned rewards within a 1-3 year period. For many programs, the expiration date for rewards is February 28. To illustrate, membership rewards earned between January 1 and December 31, 2004, would typically expire on February 28, 2006.

For this reason, I advise travelers to give their frequent-user programs a checkup well before the December deadline. Flying the red-eye on December 31 trying to earn those last thousand miles is a really terrible way to spend New Year’s Eve.

Now is a good time to review how many qualifying miles (or nights or car rentals) you need to achieve elite status with your preferred airlines, car rentals companies, and hotels. You don’t want to miss out on the benefits of elite membership because of careless planning.

If you’re close to reaching a minimum level of preferred status, or if you are just a few steps from a higher level, now is the time to act. Otherwise you will run into the last-minute holiday rush. My advice is to achieve the highest level of preferred status possible by consolidating your travels with as few providers as possible. Here’s how.

First, take stock of your program and see where you stand. Can you make an elite status with one more flight, a short hotel stay, or that extra car rental? If yes, consider visiting Spokane this December rather than in January, or maybe treat yourself to a holiday getaway with a weekend hotel visit and a nice rental car. Business hotels often offer discounted rates during the weekend, and rental companies like Hertz sometimes offer discounts on their “Prestige Collection” cars on the weekend as well.

Remember, the objective is to obtain preferred status at the lowest possible price, so try to fly during the week when fares can be cheaper. If you don’t need hotel nights, take a day trip to top off your airline qualifying status. For example, I can leave southern California in the morning, fly to Atlanta or Cincinnati, and get back home for dinner-usually earning around 5,000 Elite Qualifying Miles on Delta for less than $450.

Once you’ve examined your direct qualifying opportunities, check with your program provider to see if there are other ways to make an elite grade. For example, holders of Delta’s Platinum Sky Miles Card can earn 10,000 qualifying miles by charging $25,000 on the card annually. Putting your Christmas gifts on the card may do it for you.

What if your travel pattern has changed? If you find that you have to frequently fly an airline other than your preferred carrier (perhaps because of your company’s travel or business policies, or because your business routes have changed), don’t be afraid to inquire about transferring your elite status to the other airline — or hotel group or car rental company.

This little-known strategy simply involves calling a competing travel provider’s membership office and requesting that they match the status you hold with your current travel provider. Many companies will be happy to do so in exchange for getting your business, which they can see will be lucrative. Be prepared to prove that you actually have the requested membership status with a competing travel provider. In most cases, you will be asked to fax a statement showing your level of membership.

In the past, I have advised building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with travel providers. However, in these days of cookie-cutter travel providers, you don’t need to become a million-miler to get the goods. You should now choose your preferred travel providers on a year-by-year basis.

My friend Vin, who recently moved to North Carolina, maintained his allegiance to Delta Air Lines this year even though it required that he fly through Atlanta on his frequent trips to the Northeast. He told me it was worth maintaining his “Platinum” status (which requires flying at least 75,000 qualifying miles with Delta a year) because he enjoyed the free Crown Room privileges. But circumstances have changed, and Delta recently announced that it was planning to discontinue complimentary admission to Crown Room lounges for Platinum fliers. So now Vin will take his Delta credentials to U.S. Air and fly directly to the Northeast as a “Chairman’s Preferred Member.” Sometimes you have to play hardball to win.

In sum, this is the time of year to organize your travel programs for another year of rewards and upgrades. Whatever your reasons for going the extra mile, be certain that your program is going the distance for you. If it isn’t, find yourself a program that will.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .