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This is the twenty-fifth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Airlines and hotels offer elite status that rewards frequent travelers who are loyal to a single brand of airline or hotel. These perks can be incredibly valuable, or they can be not worth the time and money taken to earn them.

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Airline status typically comes with better seats and fewer fees. Lower tier elites might get access to those extra-legroom seats in coach and a reduction in some fees. Top tier elites will get upgrades to first class on domestic flights, a few upgrades to business class on international flights, and waivers of change and cancellation fees.

Hotel status comes with freebies like late checkouts, free internet, free breakfast, suite upgrades, access to a club room, and more points per stay.

  • How do you earn hotel status?
  • How do you earn airline status?
  • Is status worth chasing?

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Starting March 1, 2015, you will earn award miles on United tickets according to the cost of the ticket instead of the distance flown.

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Delta announced a nearly identical move a few months ago, and at the time my headline included “The Sky is Not Falling.”

The sky is still not falling. For everyone except United elites, these changes will have very little impact. The far worse news from United for most of us is still the devaluation of its award chart that went into effect in February.

The outsized value I get from miles comes from redeeming them to visit interesting countries in business or first class with stopovers, open jaws, and free one ways built into my awards. That outsized value remains unaffected by today’s changes.

The outsized value that comes from earning miles on cheap, long United tickets disappears starting March 1, 2015.

  • What will the new earning structure be?
  • How can you still earn United miles based on distance flown?
  • How are miles earned from credit cards affected?
  • How are award redemptions affected?

This is the thirtieth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flier miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go. Previously Using ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights and Fuel Surcharge Info

Airlines and hotels offer elite status that rewards frequent travelers who are loyal to a single brand of airline or hotel. These perks can be incredibly valuable, or they can be not worth the time and money taken to earn them. I’ll tell you everything you need to know about status to decide whether chasing it makes sense for you.

Basics Everyone Should Know

1. To earn airline status, you need to fly a certain number of paid miles or segments. Airline elite status starts at 25,000 paid miles flown.

2. You can credit paid, flown miles to an airline or one of its partners. Airlines are always partners with every member of their alliance and some non-alliance partners.

3. Airline elites get perks like priority check in, security, and boarding; seat upgrades; extra miles; waived baggage fees; dedicated customer service lines; waived award fees; waived change fees; and more.

4. To earn hotel status, you need to stay a certain number of paid nights or make a certain number of paid stays at a hotel chain. Or increasingly, you can receive status from carrying a credit card.

5. Hotel elites get perks like upgrades, late checkout, free internet, access to club rooms, priority check in, and extra points.

Very Frequent Traveler: 100k paid miles flown and 25 hotel stays per year

The more you travel the more status benefits are worth to you and the easier they are to obtain. One of the truisms of status is that you are better off having one top tier status than two mid tier statuses.

That means that instead of flying 50,000 miles on American Airlines and 50,000 miles on United, fly 100,000 on one to earn top tier status. 50,000 mile levels may earn a few seat upgrades and waived fees, but the 100,000 mile level will mean nearly automatic upgrades domestically and upgrades to flat beds on a few international flights a year.

It means instead of earning Hyatt Platinum AND SPG Gold to earn Hyatt Platinum OR SPG Platinum.

As a very frequent traveler, you will naturally earn statuses. Your main concern needs to be to consolidate a few top tier statuses instead of a bunch of low- and mid-tier statuses.

Your main value question: is it worth the extra money to maintain complete loyalty to unlock the top tier of loyalty at one airline and one hotel?

Frequent Traveler: 25k to 100k paid miles flown and 5-25 hotel stays per year

This is a big range of travel. At this level, you will earn some status, but not top tier status naturally.

The basic strategy for people in this range is still going to be to focus on staying with one hotel chain and flying one airline and its partners.

The basic question will be: is it worth the extra money to mileage or mattress run to earn the next tier of status?

Mattress running is booking a cheap hotel room you don’t need to earn stays, points, and status.

Mileage running is booking cheap flights that you fly not to reach the destination but to earn miles and status.

If you are close to the next tier of status, it might be worth your time and money to mattress or mileage run.

If you’re not that extreme, you may still be able to make minor tweaks to get to the next status level. Maybe you can break a two night stay at one hotel into two one-night stays at nearby hotels in the same city to double your stay credits.

Or maybe you can route in a slightly longer way to earn more airline miles. For instance Los Angeles to Dulles to Atlanta roundtrip will earn 1,500 extra miles roundtrip compared to connecting in Houston.

Image from gcmap.com

One final tip for people at the bottom of this range: You can credit both miles flown on American Airlines and miles flown on Delta to Alaska Airlines. Earning bottom tier status on Alaska at 25,000 miles combined on those partners will earn benefits on American, Delta, and Alaska flights.

Infrequent Traveler: Less than 25,000 paid miles flown and fewer than five paid hotel stays per year

Don’t chase status! It’s that simple. You don’t travel enough on paid itineraries to make status all that valuable, and you can easily get some hotel statuses and mimic airline status.

When you do fly, you can mimic many of the benefits of bottom tier status by getting an airline credit card. For instance, the Delta Airlines credit card comes with a free checked bag and priority boarding.

And you can exceed the benefits of top tier status on international flights by redeeming your miles for business and first class itineraries. Flying beds, first class lounges, and chauffeur service are available to anyone with enough miles.

For hotels, there are a number of ways to get status from credit cards and free sign ups.

You can get instant Platinum status with Accor hotels by signing up here.

You can get automatic Hilton Gold status as well as two free weekend nights at almost any Hilton worldwide by signing up for the Citi Hilton Reserve.

You can get free SPG Gold status if you hold any American Express Platinum card.

For infrequent or frugal travelers, I am down on hotels and hotel status in general. More on better alternatives in the next few installments.

Continue to Cheapskate Lodging with Hotel Promos, Hostels, airbnb, and CouchSurfing.

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Greetings, MileValue readers! You may have noticed that I haven’t posted recently, as I’ve been helping out Scott and Tahsir with our increasingly popular Award Booking Service.

I did want to take a few minutes and explain my stance on airline elite status which was featured in today’s New York Times. [Scott: Everyone should click just to see Bill’s photo. The pose is hilarious.]

“I’ve definitely noticed an erosion in benefits since I became elite,” said Bill Wilkes, a Delta SkyMiles Gold member, the second-lowest rank in Delta’s four tiers of elites. “Pretty much anyone who gets approved for a SkyMiles credit card can get priority boarding and a free checked bag.”

Mr. Wilkes, who works for a Major League Baseball team, noticed on a recent Delta flight from Baltimore to Sarasota, Fla., that more than half the passengers lined up when priority boarding was announced.

He estimates that he gets a complimentary upgrade — arguably the most important benefit of elite status — on only 15 to 20 percent of his domestic flights, compared with 40 to 50 percent several years ago.

With the newly announced changes to earning elite status with Delta, I’m officially declaring myself an “airline free agent.” Delta is the first of the legacy carriers to adopt a revenue component to earning elite status, but I’m confident they won’t be the last.

For those new to the frequent flyer game, the legacy carriers like American, Delta, US Airways, and United have typically rewarded elite status based on the number of miles each passenger flies in a calendar year. A flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. (about 2,300 miles) gets you much closer to elite status qualification than a flight from Baltimore to Atlanta (about 574 miles).

Many, including myself, exploited this by purchasing extremely inexpensive transcontinental flights to rack up elite qualifying miles (EQM, or MQM in Delta’s book) very quickly. Several years back, Delta even offered double MQM out of several cities, including Pittsburgh. I purchased several cheap fares from Pittsburgh to Long Beach and was a Platinum Medallion in no time.

The benefits were incredible. I was upgraded to first class on nearly every flight. The first time I missed an upgrade as a Platinum elite was because former president Jimmy Carter (and his bodyguards) were occupying most of the first class cabin. If it takes a former President to bump you from the front of the plane, you should probably take it in stride!

Though I enjoyed the benefits immensely, the process of re-qualifying each year became more and more cumbersome. I was spending discretionary income and precious time on mileage runs, but I wasn’t flying enough to justify the time and money commitment.

Now, Delta is introducing a revenue component to elite status qualification. To reach Gold status, you will still need to earn 50,000 MQM in a calendar year while also spending $5,000 on Delta-operated flights. You can waive the revenue spending requirement by charging $25,000 to a Delta co-branded credit card every year, but my spending is dedicated to clearing credit card sign up bonuses.

Besides, SkyMiles can sometimes be immensely frustrating to redeem, excluding a few specific spots like Australia and French Polynesia.

It’s time to rethink the strategy. I’m an airline free agent now, with loyalty to no carrier in particular. Will I miss first class? Maybe, but I can suck it up in coach for domestic flights. What about checked bags? Airlines co-branded credit cards offer this benefit along with priority boarding. I also avoid checking bags at all costs. How about priority security lanes? I’m signing up for Global Entry and TSA Pre Check, so that won’t be an issue.

I’m looking for the least expensive fares, bottom line.

My travel habits have also shifted. I will be traveling more on international itineraries in the future. The new goal is to accumulate miles for longhaul premium cabin redemptions. Most airlines simply don’t permit complimentary elite upgrades on international itineraries. American Airlines generously gives eight complimentary oneway systemwide upgrades to their top tier Executive Platinum members. I just can’t fly enough to justify reaching that goal!

In the end, I don’t think I will miss elite status. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to mirror most of the perks that come with it, and I can certainly handle domestic economy seats. If not, I will pay for an Economy Comfort or E+ seat with a bit more legroom or maybe fly JetBlue.

Who’s with me? Who’s throwing in the towel on airline elite status?

According to this blog post and this thread on FlyerTalk, Hilton has just announced their “Any Weekend, Anywhere Sale” where you receive between 15-40% off the best available room rate for weekend stays booked between now and January 31, 2013. Hotels in the Asia-Pacific region have an extended booking deadline of February 14, 2013.

Stays must be completed by December 31, 2013. Eligible weekend stays will also earn double stay credit towards Hilton elite status. With this promotion, you will be able to earn Hilton Silver status with only two weekend stays (a total of four weekend nights). You can grab Hilton Gold status with eight weekend stays (sixteen total weekend nights). Hilton elite status details can be found here.

This promotion is actually a slight tweak over last year’s “Any Weekend, Anywhere Sale” where instead of earning double elite credit, you received 1,000 Hilton HHonors points per stay.

Details of the promotion can be found here and here. Terms and conditions, along with a helpful calendar that outlines eligible weekends throughout the various regions, can be found here.

How do I book this deal?

The best way is to visit  Hilton.com or HHonors.com. Plug in your destination city and the weekend that you want to book.  Then click on Special Rate Code and enter “PGAWB2.” You should then see all available hotels. Click on the specific hotel to see if they are participating in the weekend promotion.

Which hotels are participating?

A list of hotels participating can be found here and is searchable by continent and region. Note that North American hotels aren’t able to be readily displayed. Hilton’s website can be buggy. I hope this is resolved quickly.

Is this a good deal?

On the surface, this looks like a very intriguing promotion. Weekends are defined as Thursday-Sunday, so you have a bit of booking flexibility in what constitutes a weekend stay.

You can also reach elite status twice as fast with this deal. I have greatly enjoyed my Hilton Gold status that came when I signed up for the American Express HHonors Surpass card. During stays at Hilton properties, I have received free internet, complimentary continental breakfast, and the occasional room upgrade. The benefits are nothing earth shattering, but it’s nice to be treated as more than just a regular walk-up guest.

However, I have to advise staying away from this promotion unless you have specific and firm plans for a future weekend stay (e.g. a destination wedding). The terms and conditions state that “full non-refundable prepayment is required at the time of booking” to take part in this promotion.

The best part about booking a hotel room in advance is the flexibility to cancel if plans change or prices in the area fall. When you lock in to a non-refundable rate, you are at the mercy of the hotel and have little recourse if you need to cancel. At MileValue, we are definitely not fans of fully prepaid hotel rates. Receiving 15% off a room rate is not enough of an incentive for me to book a prepaid rate.

Another reason to stay away is that a seven-day advance purchase is necessary. That’s not a deal breaker, but it further inhibits flexibility in finding the absolute best hotel rate.

Would you advise taking part in this promotion to earn elite status twice as fast?

Absolutely not! It’s just too easy to attain Hilton status through other means besides hotel stays. You should only book hotel stays speculatively if you are very close (within 2-4 stays) to the next elite tier. As I mentioned above, the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card gives Hilton Gold status for the first year of card membership and comes with a $75 annual fee. The Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa comes with Hilton Gold status for the life of the card. It carries a $95 annual fee. Both cards award top-tier Diamond status for spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year.

Though not currently available, Hilton in the past has awarded Gold elite status for simply registering your Visa Signature card and staying three times at Hilton properties. The old promotion page can be found here. Examples of Visa Signature cards include the Chase British Airways Visa and the Citi Platinum AAdvantage Visa. Both cards are actually written up in our Best Credit Card Offers by Absolute Value page.

Is this promotion stackable with any other offers?

Yes. Hilton is also running another fourth quarter promotion where you earn up to 15,000 Virgin Atlantic miles through qualifying stays through December 31st. Registration is required and can be done here. Full terms and conditions are directly below the registration page.

Why are Virgin Atlantic miles so useful? They actually transfer to HHonors points at a ratio of 1:2. The minimum transfer is 10,000 Virgin Atlantic miles and they must be done in increments of 5K. For the complete breakdown on how to do this, check out Scott’s post, Transferring Virgin Atlantic Miles to HHonors Points.

If you have a lot of upcoming Hilton stays, you can boost your HHonors balance quickly with the Virgin Atlantic promotion.

Recap

At first glance, Hilton appears very generous in offering double stay credit during 2013 weekends. However, the discount rates associated with this promotion must be prepaid, a huge negative when dealing with hotel bookings.

If you have an upcoming weekend at a  Hilton property, it’s certainly in your best interest to check the promo pricing, but you should also research AAA rates and other rates that allow you to cancel and rebook if prices fall. Fully prepaid rates greatly inhibit your flexibility if travel plans change, so be careful!

Also, elite status is readily available through credit cards and the occasional Visa promotion. If your end goal is to become a Hilton Silver, Gold, or even Diamond member, there are far less expensive and time consuming ways to achieve it than speculatively booking rooms through this promotion.

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According to this thread on FlyerTalk, Aegean Airlines–a Star Alliance member–is offering a 2,000 mile signup bonus to new members of their loyalty program, Miles & Bonus. Although this 1,000 mile increase over their previous offer may seem like a paltry sum from a Greek airline you are unlikely to fly frequently, this 2,000 mile bonus actually puts you halfway to Star Alliance Silver status and 1/10th of the way to Star Alliance Gold Status!

Aegean Airlines has one of the lowest mileage requirements for elite Star Alliance status. Tier miles are airline miles that are earned from flying on Aegean or one of its star Alliance partners.

If you earn a total of 4,000 tier miles in the first 12 months of enrollment in Miles & Bonus, you are awarded Aegean Blue status, the equivalent of Star Alliance Silver status.

If you earn 16,000 more tier miles in the 12 months after you are awarded Aegean Blue status, you will be upgraded to Aegean Gold status, which gives you Star Alliance Gold status.

What does Star Alliance Silver get me?

Not much. According to this table from Star Alliance, Silver status give your priority airport standby and priority reservation waitlisting:

Not very exciting.

What does Star Alliance Gold get me?

Star Alliance Gold status entitles you to airport lounge access, priority check-in, priority boarding, and extra baggage allowance. These benefits hold true regardless of class of travel when flying any Star Alliance Carrier.

Unlike achieving Star Alliance Gold via elite status with US Airways or United, Star Alliance Gold via Aegean Airlines gives you airport lounge access when flying US domestic routes in coach:

How do I sign up for Aegean Airlines Miles & Bonus?

Navigate to the Aegean Airlines website and click on Become a Member Now:

After you click on Become a Member Now, you will enter your demographic and contact information, and choose a password. After submitting the form, the bonus miles are credited immediately and you see a copy of your membership card:

Log into your account with your membership number and password:

Notice that the 2,000 bonus miles are listed as Award Miles on that screen. Remember, tier miles are required for Aegean elite status. Never fear–click the Account Activities link and you will see this:

This confirms that the 2,000 bonus miles are also considered Tier miles and so will count towards elite status.

Great, I have 2,000 Aegean Airlines miles. Now what?

Start working towards Aegean Silver then Gold. If you are US-based, your best options are to credit miles flown on United or US Airways to Aegean. Since you start with 2,000 miles in your account, flying an additional 18,000 miles gets you to Star Alliance Gold.

Discounted economy fares on United only earn 50% mileage, but all fares earn a minimum of 500 miles:

Therefore cheap, short flights are best if you will flying United in discounted coach and crediting miles to Aegean. For example:

In contrast to United, all economy fares on US Airways earn 100% mileage:

So, longer flights are best for ramping up the miles on US Airways to credit to Aegean. For example:

The total mileage for that example is 4,950 miles. Four transcontinental flights like this one on US Airways will earn over 19,000 miles and get you to Star Alliance Gold.

Does getting Star Alliance Gold through Aegean make sense for everyone?

No. Both the Hack My Trip and Points to Point B blogs had some nuanced analysis of this question earlier this year in their discussions of Star Alliance Gold status via Aegean Airlines when the sign up bonus was 1,000 miles.

Crediting 18,000 miles flown to Aegean Airlines effectively takes away this number of elite-qualifying miles that could have been earned on you primary Star Alliance carrier. If you fly enough annually–at least 50,000 miles–to qualify for Star Alliance Gold status through United or US Airways, it is not worth siphoning off 18,000 miles to Aegean.

If you are an infrequent flyer who values domestic and international lounge access, priority check in and boarding, and free checked baggage, it may be worth pursuing Star Alliance Gold status via Aegean Airlines.

I’m going for Star Alliance Gold. What can I do with those 20,000 miles in the Aegean Airlines Miles & Bonus account?

(1) You can book a oneway international business class ticket on Aegean Airlines. See this list for Aegean’s domestic (Greek) and international destinations.

(2) You can rent a car from Hertz for free for 7 days in Greece, Cyprus, or Bulgaria.

(3) Credit 2,000 more miles to Aegean–with 22,000 miles, you can book a roundtrip international flight on Aegean Airlines.

(4) Credit 5,000 more miles to Aegean–with 25,000 miles, you can fly roundtrip in coach within each of Aegean’s defined regions like North America or the Far East.

Curiously, on the Aegean partner award redemption chart, the Caribbean islands and US are in the same region and Japan and Singapore are the same region. This can work to your advantage. For example, a roundtrip coach flight from Hong Kong to Japan on a Star Alliance carrier costs 25,000 Aegean miles, but 30,000 United MileagePlus and 40,000 US Airways Dividend Miles.

I’ve gotten to Star Alliance Gold. Now What?

Relax and enjoy your lounge access, priority check in, and priority boarding when you travel domestically or internationally. Try to remember to credit some miles flown to Aegean at least once every three years to maintain your status–status never expires as long as your account remains active. I expect this to change at some point in the future because this benefit is too generous.

Recap

Aegean Airlines is currently offering 2,000 bonus miles to new members who join its loyalty program Miles & Bonus. In contrast to other Star Alliance carriers, Aegean has a low threshold for achieving Star Alliance Gold status—20,000 miles.

After signing up, you have 12 months to earn 2,000 tier miles by crediting miles flown on any Star Alliance carrier to Aegean. Upon reaching 4,000 miles, you will be awarded Star Alliance Silver and will then have 12 months to earn 16,000 more miles to achieve Star Alliance Gold.

To maintain Star Alliance Gold status, you must credit the miles of at least 1 Star Alliance Flight to Aegean every 3 years.

This route to elite Star Alliance status does not make sense for everyone. Think carefully about your travel habits and what you value when you fly before gunning for Star Alliance Gold via Aegean.

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About six months ago, I earned United Silver Status, my first ever airline status. And two months ago, the status finally showed up in my account. (Why the delay? See: “A Quixotic Quest to United Silver Status“)

My first United flight since earning the status was Labor Day, September 3. I had booked a oneway economy award on United’s direct Pittsburgh to LAX flight for 12,500 miles.

I was happy to get the only direct flight for 12,500 miles when it was selling for $600. After a wedding and a week on the road, I didn’t want any connections.

The key benefits of United Silver as they pertained to this trip were a free upgrade, priority check-in, and priority security. I’ll go through each.

Free Upgrade

As a Premier Silver, I am eligible for free upgrades to First Class. But as a Premier Silver, I am at the bottom of the pecking order for that upgrade. Since the flight–the last one home on Labor Day–was completely full, and United’s A319s are configured with eight First Class seats, I knew my chance of an upgrade to First Class was nil.

8 Seats in First Class, 40 Seats in Economy Plus

But I was excited about a possible free upgrade to Economy Plus, the seats at the front of the plane with an extra four inches of leg room.

As a Premier Silver, I also have last crack at these seats, only available to me at check-in. All other premiers can choose Economy Plus seats at booking. Golds can put a companion on the same ticket in Economy Plus with them. Platinums and 1Ks can put eight companions in Economy Plus.

And of course, everyone purchasing a ticket from United is offered the chance to buy an Economy Plus seat.

The flight left at 7:25 PM on a Monday. At 7:25 PM on that Sunday, I was at a wedding reception. Before digging into the food, I pulled out my phone to check in. There were still three Economy Plus seats left. All were middle seats.

I had 22D, the first row aisle of regular economy, reserved. But I knew that any Economy Plus seat–even middle seats–would be better. And as luck would have it, one of the open middle seats was in the first row of Economy Plus, the bulkhead, which offers even more space than other Economy Plus seats.

I didn’t save the image of my PIT-LAX seat choices. Here’s the seatmap for my February flight from Tampa to Washington-Dulles. As you can see on this seat map, only two Economy Plus seats are gone. But most will disappear by the time I can check in.

My choices were 7E, 11E, and 20E. I can only imagine a bulkhead seat was still open because its previous owner had just been upgraded to First Class.

I jumped at the bulkhead seat, 7E. I’m 6’4″, and as you can see, my knees are nowhere near the bulkhead. It’s nice not to be digging into someone’s back in the back of the plane.

Plenty of Space–Even for Giants

The other cool thing was that my feet could go under the bulkhead because it didn’t extend to the floor. That made the seat even more spacious as I stretched out my legs fully.

Being in a middle seat didn’t bother me at all. Since our trays were in our armrests, those were slightly wider, giving plenty of elbow room. The seats were slightly narrower for the same reason, but I’m pretty skinny.

Priority Check In

I wouldn’t check in at the airport unless I had to. Pittsburgh allows scanning of boarding passes from your smartphone, so I checked in on my phone and never had to print anything.

Thus I didn’t get a benefit here, but I still had a seamless check-in experience.

Priority Security

My mobile boarding pass said I had Premier Access to security, so I skipped the huge queue at the TSA checkpoint. The priority line was empty.

I had split a taxi with two fellow wedding guests, and I had suggested they try to follow me into the priority lane even though they didn’t have priority access.

I went first and flashed my phone, which showed that I had priority access. They followed and received no guff. I’m not sure if this is replicable, but it was worth a try and saved them at least 15 minutes in line.

Other Benefits

If this were a paid flight, I would have earned a 25% bonus on mileage flown because of my status. Since this was an award, I earned zero miles. (But it’s still crucial to factor this into the “Miles Foregone” category of the Mile Value Calculator.)

I could have checked one bag for free. But I am a one-bag evangelist, so I didn’t need or want to check a bag. I cheated this time and had two bags. My normal carry on and a suit bag for the wedding. I had to look this good:

Four T-Rexes before the Wedding

Recap

I was very pleased with my first experience as a United Premier Silver. I didn’t get into First Class–a pipe dream considering the flight time and aircraft–but I did get a bulkhead Economy Plus seat with plenty of room for an NBAer (or JV basketball center.)

Priority access to security was a big hit with me and my companions.

I didn’t take advantage of the other benefits on this trip. But a free checked bag would be nice to Hawaii, and I can’t wait to earn a 25% redeemable-miles bonus on my first paid trip on United.

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I’m going to talk about a dilemma I rarely face–where to credit the miles earned by flying a paid ticket. I rarely face this dilemma because I rarely buy tickets; I almost always fly for free (plus tax) with miles.

If I’m flying a paid ticket, it’s probably a mistake fare–$238 roundtrip to Peru or $170 roundtrip to Central America–or just generally too cheap of a flight to make using miles a good deal–$36 oneway to Vegas is better than 4,500 Avios and $1,100 roundtrip to East Africa is better than 80,000 United miles.

Some people fly more paid fares, often because someone else is doing the paying. And on most paid fares, there is a decision to be made: where do I credit the miles earned from flying this itinerary?

Flying earns two types of miles, redeemable miles and status miles.

Redeemable miles are the fun kind that you use to book dream awards like a flying bed to Australia. You earn them by flying paid fares, signing up for credit cards, and a ton of other ways.

Status miles cannot be redeemed for anything. They are simply a counter that airlines use to determine whether you qualify for status. Different airlines call status miles different things. United calls them Premier Miles; others call them Elite Qualifying Miles or Medallion Qualifying Miles. Status miles are mainly earned by flying paid fares (although some credit cards offer some status miles.) Certain expensive fares earn bonuses; certain cheap fares only earn a fraction of the miles actually flown.

Every time you fly a member of one of the three alliances, you have the option to credit the miles earned to any of the alliance partners. And even when you fly an airline that isn’t part of an alliance, you sometimes have the option to credit your miles to one of several programs. How should you choose where to credit your miles?

The first step is knowing all your options. Each airline maintains a page on its website with all its airline partners listed on which you can earn miles. Generally the page can be found by clicking “earn miles” then “airline partners” or something similar inside the airline’s loyalty program section. United’s page looks like this:

Each airline logo is a link that takes you to the information on earning miles on that airline. Remember how I said certain fares earn a bonus and certain only earn a fraction of the miles flown? Clicking on an airline will give all those details. For instance, here is TACA’s page:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This chart shows how many United miles–both redeemable, labeled “base,” and status, labeled “premier qualifying”–you would earn from paid TACA fares in each possible fare class. Since I never buy paid business class, my eyes head straight to the bottom of the chart. As you can see, certain fare classes only earn 50% of the flown miles as redeemable miles and status miles. When you purchase a ticket, somewhere its fare class should be listed. If not, you can call the airline to ask.

The mistake fare I booked to Lima for later this year was fare class U, so for the 8,504 miles of flying, I could earn 4,252 redeemable miles and 4,252 status miles from United. Since TACA is now in the Star Alliance, I could also credit the miles to US Airways. How many miles would I get there?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would earn the  same 4,252 redeemable and status miles from US Airways. In most cases, the miles earned  are the same on US Airways and United, but not always, so it’s always worth it to check.

Once you’ve checked the airline’s accrual charts, you should make a decision based on where you will get the most value from status miles and redeemable miles. You have to pick one airline on which to accrue both the status miles and the redeemable miles for your trip, so pick the airline that offers the best combination of value.

Redeemable Miles- If status is far from your mind because you mainly fly short, one-carryon-bag-no-checked-bag domestic flights and international premium cabins, like I do, then you should mainly focus on where you want to earn redeemable miles. If you have specific future redemptions in mind, choose to earn miles in the program you will use for the redemption. If you don’t have a specific future redemption in mind, choose the airline whose miles you value the most in general.

Status Miles- Status miles get more valuable the more you earn on one airline generally. 25,000 status miles earned on United is better than 12,500 on United and 12,500 on American, for instance, because the latter earns no status while the former earns United Premier Silver.

50,000 on one airline is also better than 25,000 on two airlines because one mid-tier status is generally reckoned to be much more valuable than two low-tier statuses.

Pick at the beginning of the year which airline’s status you would most like, and try to funnel your travel to that airline and its partners. And when flying its partners, credit the miles to the account of the airline whose status you want.

An example I gave a few weeks ago was my earning United Silver status this year. I saw that I was flying 25,000 miles on Star Alliance members on two itineraries this year, so I decided to credit all the miles to United because I value United status more highly than US Air status.

A lot of times people contact me to book an award for them and when they list their mileage balances, they have a random few thousand in a Singapore or Lufthansa account. That should basically never happen. Credit your miles to an account where you might earn status, or at least to an account where you will get enough miles eventually to redeem them for an award.

Recap:

Carefully strategize where to accrue miles from paid flights. Consider where you want the redeemable miles, and where you want the status miles, then choose the program that gives you the best combination of value from those two types of miles earned from paid flights.

In general, you should try to credit all paid flying to one airline or, at most, one airline per alliance. If you do that, you’ll maximize status benefits, and you’ll ensure that your redeemable miles aren’t orphaned in worthless accounts.

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