Among the largest programs—which tend to set the standard for the industry—American, Delta, and United all waive the fees for at least the first checked bag, saving elite fliers around $25 per flight. Over the course of a year of business travel, the savings can really add up.
Those carriers also waive the extra fees for higher-level elites who redeposit their miles, book award travel by phone, and change their tickets on the day of travel.
Entry-level elite status in most programs is awarded after a member earns 25,000 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs) during the calendar year. Mid-tier status is generally earned after 50,000 EQMs, and top-tier status after 75,000 or 100,000 EQMs.
While any status trumps so-called general membership, higher elite tiers afford more generous benefits than lower tiers, in particular better access to upgrades. With fewer first-class seats to go around, reaching a higher tier takes on extra urgency.
That provides an answer to a classic frequent flier dilemma—whether to target elite status in a second program after achieving it in a first program; or remain focused on achieving higher status in the first program. Although the former approach may have been appropriate in a different era, in today's environment of scarce upgrade seats the latter strategy is likely to pay bigger dividends.
So, with time running out to reach an elite threshold before the end of this year, what's the quickest way to upgrade your status?
During 2009, the airlines ratcheted up the intensity of elite-focused promotions to unprecedented levels, offering double EQMs during fully six months out of the year.
So far this year, the airlines have been more circumspect in dangling EQMs as incentives.
There were several route-specific promotions that featured EQMs during the summer months. American and Delta are slugging it out with double EQMs on Nashville, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, and St. Louis flights, through Dec. 31. And, through Dec. 10, members of Delta's SkyMiles program can earn EQMs for one stay of at least two nights at a Hilton hotel.
Barring a flurry of outsized year-end elite promotions, the surest way to qualify for elite status is still the old-fashioned way, one mile at a time, one flight at a time. If ever there were a year when circumstances justified a mileage run—a long, cheap flight taken solely to earn EQMs—this is it.
Of course to earn the comfort and savings associated with elite status, you'll have to endure the crowded planes and pay the niggling fees. Which may bring to mind the maxim scrawled on many a grimy gym wall: No pain, no gain.
Tim Winship is editor at large for SmarterTravel , as well as the editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, and a frequently quoted expert on frequent flier programs. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.