In 2008 I earned Executive Platinum status with American Airlines the hard way– through lots of flight hours logged all over the world. In 2009 I also earned the same, highest-level status with Northwest, Delta, and Continental, but I flew less than 10,000 miles with each of them.
On a recent Atlanta-Miami flight operated by Delta, my upgrade cleared three days ahead of the flight. I watched as more loyal Delta passengers waited at the gate thirty minutes before departure in hopes of getting a seat up front. Is it fair? Depends on how you look at it, I suppose– but travel hacking is all about gaining some kind of advantage over the system.
Once you obtain elite status with one airline, you can leverage it to receive complimentary status with several others. There are a couple of caveats, but it really does work. Here’s how.
One Status to Rule Them All
Elite status is typically broken down into three tiers, usually called some variation of Silver, Gold, and Platinum. The benefits of status vary by airline, but you can usually count on receiving at least the following services:
- Dedicated check-in desk
- Priority seat requests
- Priority boarding
- Improved availability for awards seats
The more important benefits, at least for me, are complimentary upgrades and lounge access. Upgrades vary by airline, but most airlines offer some form of complimentary domestic upgrades. Upgrade requests are placed in a queue based largely on elite status, although a few other factors are also considered. On more than half of my domestic flights, I’m now upgraded to the front of the plane for free.
Alas, it doesn’t always work– on a recent flight from Chicago to Seattle, I enjoyed seeing “GUILLEBEAU C” listed as #1 of 13 on the upgrade board at the gate, meaning that I was ahead of all other passengers for an upgrade… but then every seat in First Class checked in full, leaving me in the back with everyone else.
Since I work from wherever I am, lounge access is also important to me. Most airline lounges in the U.S. suck, but overseas, they can be quite nice. As mentioned long ago in my review of the Ultimate Airline Lounge, the best lounges don’t allow passengers to buy access– they have to either have elite status or be traveling on a premium ticket.
Last but not least, the ability to get a helpful person on the phone also comes with elite status. Perhaps this should not be a benefit strictly for the airline’s most loyal customers, but that’s often how it works. While I typically bang my head against the phone when phoning other airlines, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the helpfulness of American Airline’s Executive Platinum desk.
How to Request the Status Match
This FlyerTalk thread serves as the master list of status match info, with details and addresses for most major North American and European airlines. Status matches are harder to come by from Asian airlines, although every once in a while a specific offer comes up.
Let’s look at the example of Continental Airlines. I’ve never been a big Continental traveler, but since they recently switched from SkyTeam to Star Alliance, I’m planning on flying them more often next year.
Using the info in the FlyerTalk thread, I wrote a letter to Continental asking for the match based on my AA status and planned 2010 travel. I included a copy of my AA Executive Platinum card, a recent AA statement, and my Continental OnePass number (available for free on Continental.com).
They sent me back this letter within a week:
Dear Mr. Guillebeau;
Thank you for contacting the OnePass Service Center.
Congratulations on becoming a Continental Airlines Platinum Elite member through our Other Airline Match Program!
Your Elite benefits and privileges are effective immediately. Please allow up to three weeks for your new Elite status to be recognized by our SkyTeam partners.
We realize you have a choice of airline carriers and are pleased you decided to select Continental Airlines.
OnePass Customer Service Manager
By the Way
It’s important to note that I’m not really taking unfair advantage of Continental in this exchange. After nearly two years with OneWorld, next year I’ll be taking a Round-the-World trip on Star Alliance again, so I’ll likely pick up some Continental flights as part of that trip. Also, having the status motivates me to fly more often with them so I can retain it for the following year. In other words, it’s a win-win for both the airline and the traveler.
If I needed any more incentive, I recently earned 45,000 Continental miles by opening two checking accounts, so I’ll be looking for a way to redeem them. It looks like Continental has some good redemption opportunities in Micronesia, a part of the world I’ve yet to visit, so my plan is to work on setting up a trip there early next year.
What If You Don’t Have Status in the First Place?
An elite status match is primarily a benefit for passengers who already have one status. If you never travel or travel only infrequently, you probably don’t need this anyway. However, if you’re just starting to travel or otherwise just want the status, you have a few options:
Complete a “challenge” with an airline that you’ll be flying a lot in a short period of time. American Airlines will award either Gold or Platinum status to passengers who sign up for the challenge in advance. A few other airlines sometimes offer this on a case-by-case basis.
Get free introductory status during a promotion. Every once in a while an airline will get desperate and offer to give away free status. Last month, U.S. Airways offered free Silver status for 90 days to anyone who signed up on their web site. (I referred a number of people to it on Twitter. When I see more opportunities, I’ll post about them there.)
Leverage the spending of your company to request the status. If you work for the man and the man has a travel department that sends a lot of people on airplanes, you may be able to use that to request the status.
Just ask nicely. This probably won’t work, but you never know. It you plan to travel on a number of flights for one particular airline, send them the record locators and a polite request.
Other Tips and Notes
- International readers, take heart. My advice is to avoid flying U.S. airlines whenever possible, but their Frequent Flyer programs are better than most, and open to everyone regardless of where you live. (It could be a new slogan– “Come to the USA: Bad airlines, good Frequent Flyer programs.”)
- Because there are so many elite status members these days, you should work on getting the highest (Platinum) status if possible. Silver or Gold status is better than nothing, but you’ll be competing with a longer list of fellow passengers for upgrades.
- You can usually only request one status match per airline per life. That’s right, life– so you should only request matches that you think will actually benefit you over the next year. Otherwise, if you need it later, you won’t be able to get it without earning it the hard way.
- Most airlines won’t completely drop your status one year; you’ll usually get a “soft landing” where you go down to the next-lowest tier. If you start from the highest one, you can usually retain some kind of status for three years without flying at all.
For a brief few months, I have Platinum (or equivalent) status on all three major airline alliances. I suspect the SkyTeam one will drop back to Gold after February 2010, but I’ll continue with OneWorld and Star Alliance status until at least early 2011.
This makes travel easier, gives me lounge access when traveling internationally, and helps me earn double miles on most of my flights. It’s one of the most useful travel hacks I know.
If you have any tips or experiences of your own that might help other readers, feel free to share them in the comments section.
Red Carpet Club Image by Drink for Design