Cheat your way to elite status
The Good Life: You don't need to log a million miles to get benefits like express check-in and free upgrades.
By Barney Gimbel, FORTUNE writer-reporter

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -- Any serious business traveler covets "elite" frequent flyer status. With it often comes faster check-in, special reservation hotlines, and, most importantly, free upgrades.

But here's a secret: You don't always have to fly a million miles to become an elite. In fact there are all kinds of cheats that can make a sneaky traveler into an important sneaky traveler.

Start by remembering this maxim: "I want to be pampered but I don't want to pay for it." Elite frequent flyer status is good way of starting down that road.

Many carriers are quite good at regularly upgrading their best customers to first or business class for free. (Of course, since planes are especially full these days, the perk is not as good as it used to be.)

Though it's not well publicized, American Airlines offers a free shortcut. Normally it takes 25,000 miles or 30 segments during a calendar year to qualify for Gold status. For Platinum, you need twice that.

But American also offers the Gold or Platinum Challenge and it's barely mentioned on American's Web site. (You have to physically pick up the phone to enroll.)

It works like this: If you know you will be making a bunch of trips in the next three months, sign up before you begin. Free enrollment starts on the 1st or 16th of the month and lasts 90 days.

During that time you need to earn 5,000 points or 16 segments for Gold status, and twice that for Platinum. (Super discounted tickets earn half a point per mile flown, regular coach tickets earn one point and full-fare coach, business and first class earn 1.5 points per mile.)

Think about that. It can almost be pulled off in one transatlantic flight or two or three New York to Los Angeles flights.

First of all avoid fares that are deeply discounted. (Typically the fare code starts with G, Q, N or S but ask American to be sure.) Another trick is to fiddle with the routing of a trip. Say you're going from New York to Paris. That's only 3,620 miles. But if you change planes in say, Chicago or Miami, you can get 4,877 or 5,870 miles respectively. (Changing the routing does cost more time, but it rarely will cost any more money.)

If you complete the challenge, then you can often parlay that into elite status at many of the other airlines. Just call up their frequent flyer desks and ask for a "status match" with American. (Often they'll require proof like an old statement.)

United also has a similar "fast track" program that grants instant elite status provided you pre-pay for your travel over the next year. Buying a $5,000 card gets you Premier status, a $10,000 card gets your Premier Executive status and $20,000 gets you 1K status.

It's not a bad deal but the cash does expire in one year so you need to be darn sure you're going to be flying that much.

Of course, there's a catch to all these programs: Your newfound cachet lasts just one year unless you start meeting the normal requirements.


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