Very Important Flyers

Very Important Flyers

You’ve spent what seems like years on a plane and have worked hard to build up those miles and points. You’ve earned your “elite” badge and have come to expect the perks that are a component of being elite–and you don’t want to see those perks go to the wayside when you hang up your frequent flyer wings. After all, when you’re older, you’ll appreciate even more the comfort that upgrades and the other trappings of elite will give you. What can a frequent flyer do? Make sure that you belong to the few, the proud, the “lifetime elite” crowd. And even if you’re not currently a high-flyer, and think that lifetime elite is just a pipe dream, read on, the “holy grail” of elite programs might be closer than you think.

Not all programs offer “lifetime” elite status and those that have lifetime programs don’t always “publish” information about these types of programs. Their reasons for not publishing the information are equally vague. When we asked American AAdvantage why their lifetime elite program is not documented, the response we received from their PR Agency representative was, “AAdvantage evaluates this from time to time and for now, this is the position it has chosen.”

However, frequent flyers will do well to know the programs that offer elite for life programs so they can plan their travel accordingly. Especially when you’re starting to really rack up miles over the years, it pays to take a look at what’s available.

If your current program does not have a lifetime elite program, it might be time to look around for one that does–and we know that you’re interested in lifetime elite. We recently polled frequent flyers to ask if they would consider changing their allegiance to a program where you can earn lifetime elite status from one that does not and 50 percent chose, “Yes, would certainly consider it.” Eleven percent chose, “Yes, definitely, and I already have,” while 26 percent chose, “No, probably not, other factors are more important.” Only 11 percent said they hadn’t thought much about it and no one said that elite wasn’t important to them. In this article, we’ll compare the programs that offer lifetime elite programs.

If you have not settled on your “retirement FFP”, this guide will help you find one to fit your needs. One of the first things you’ll want to keep in mind is how you earn the lifetime status. Most airlines give lifetime status according to how many “redeemable” or elite qualifying miles (EQMs) a member has accumulated for the duration of his membership in the program (meaning, no miles earned through bonus offers and partnerships) and the number is based on how much you’ve earned by flying regardless of how many miles you’ve spent–generally the magic number for lifetime elite is one million miles. But not all programs follow this pattern, as you’ll read below.

As with most things related to frequent flyer programs, all of this is subject to change. “Lifetime” is a relative term and the programs can change any aspect of their programs at any time with little warning–and sometimes with no warning at all. And if you look closely at the terms used for the “lifetime” programs, you’ll see that the programs tend to like the term, “complimentary annual elite status” rather than “lifetime” when referring to the status that is achieved–a telling fine print detail.

So, shoot for lifetime elite but don’t be too surprised if the rules change midway toward your goal. After all, there are no guarantees in life or frequent flyer programs.

Lifetime Elite Programs

Aeroplan, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American AAdvantage, Continental OnePass, Delta SkyMiles and United Mileage Plus offer lifetime elite programs. You’ll notice that one of the major airlines, US Airways, is not in this list; however, we have heard that the folks over at Dividend Miles are currently reviewing the idea of a lifetime elite program so stay tuned for news from that quarter.

Frequent flyer programs outside the Americas also offer lifetime elite, including Air China PhoenixMiles, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Asiana Club, bmi diamond club (soon to be Miles & More), EgyptAir Plus, Lufthansa Miles & More, Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Miles, Korean Air Skypass, Qantas Frequent Flyer, SAS EuroBonus and South African Airways Voyager. For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at the elite programs in North America.

Aeroplan

Aeroplan recently started to quietly mail out gift packages to frequent flyers as part of its new “undocumented” lifetime program, featuring benefits at one million, two million and three million status mile thresholds. The status miles that count were tallied from 1988, when the Air Canada Top Tier program was introduced, for flights on Air Canada and its regional affiliates such as Jazz. The new lifetime program was set to begin in 2011, but Air Canada chose to fast track the launch. The lifetime membership packages started shipping in August, to the great surprise and delight of Aeroplan members.

At one million miles: Aeroplan members get annual Air Canada Elite status along with a special edition model aircraft. Elite is the second tier in Air Canada’s three-tiered elite program and offers benefits such as complimentary Maple Leaf lounge access along with the option to choose from a range of “Select Privileges” allowing each member to customize their benefit package based on their travel needs. For 2010, these Select Privileges included upgrades and elite flight bonuses, among other options. One million milers will also receive Star Alliance’s highest Gold status, offering worldwide lounge access for the member and a guest when traveling on any eligible Star Alliance member flight, along with other benefits like priority boarding, baggage handling and waitlisting.

At two million miles: In addition to the benefit of complimentary annual Air Canada Elite status for the qualifying member, members will be able to nominate a friend or partner for the equivalent ongoing Elite status recognition and will receive unique gifts to recognize their status, including additional upgrade certificates. Members at this level will also continue to receive Star Alliance Gold.

At three million miles: Members will receive annual Air Canada Super Elite status, Aeroplan’s highest elite tier. Super Elite offers access to Air Canada’s Concierge services with dedicated agents at all major airports around the globe. In addition, these members enjoy the ability to book any unsold economy class seat, and most Executive Class seats, on an Air Canada flight as an Aeroplan Classic flight award seat. Members at this level will also receive special gifts to recognize their loyalty along with the ability to nominate a friend or partner to complimentary annual Elite status.

Bottom line: Aeroplan members are thrilled with this latest development. Lounge access available at the one million miles level–a very nice benefit that is not available in the one-million mile programs of American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Alaska Mileage Plan

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan currently has a one-tier lifetime elite status program at one million elite qualifying miles flown on Alaska and Horizon Air where members are given lifetime MVP Gold status. Because Alaska does not belong to a global alliance, there is no corresponding alliance elite status.

At one million miles: Members receive MVP Gold status for life, which comes with 100 percent flight bonus miles, unlimited first class upgrades (including from certain discount fares), four guest one-way upgrades per year and other typical benefits such as free checked luggage and priority check-in, but no lounge access. Coming soon, members will be offered complimentary upgrades on Delta flights.

Bottom line: Alaska Mileage Plan has offered a rather plain-Jane two-tiered elite program for quite a long time now but recently introduced a MVP Gold 75K status level offering top priority on waitlisting and upgrades, ability to nominate a friend or family member to MVP status and four complimentary lounge passes, plus other benefits. Perhaps this new level will lead toward the program also expanding their lifetime elite program. We posed this question to Rick Rasmussen, Alaska Airlines’ director of customer loyalty and marketing programs, and he said, “Not at this point. Our program rewards million mile flyers with lifetime MVP Gold status, which is our highest tier with the exception of the new, and very small MVP Gold 75K recognition program.” Even though the lifetime program is one-tiered, it does offer a 100 percent flight bonus at the one-million mile level, something that Aeroplan, American, Continental and Delta do not offer.

American AAdvantage

AAdvantage takes center stage when it comes to lifetime elite. The airline offers two levels of lifetime elite membership and most importantly, all miles earned count toward lifetime elite status–this means that those members who rack up thousands and thousands of miles through using an American Airlines co-branded credit card can actually spend their way to lifetime elite. American AAdvantage is currently the only program we know of where gaining elite status is available from all redeemable miles, including miles earned from flight bonuses, credit cards, hotels, rental cars, dining, shopping partners and more.

Members who earn one million AAdvantage miles will get lifetime Gold status and if you earn two million lifetime miles, you’ll get lifetime Platinum status. There is currently no way that a member can earn lifetime in the highest AAdvantage status category, Executive Platinum. As you move up to three million miles and more, you get more upgrades instead of earning the highest elite category.

Like many programs, the lifetime AAdvantage elite program is not documented and you cannot go to aa.com to read about it. You can, however, access information via FlyerGuide.com at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2935

We’ve heard that there is an AAdvantage member who has earned 34 million miles, but when we asked AAdvantage how many miles a single member has earned, they said “more than 10 million”.

At one million miles: Lifetime Gold, plus oneworld Ruby status, is obtained for million milers and U.S.-based members receive eight 500-mile sticker upgrades while non-U.S.-based members receive four systemwide upgrades. The 500-mile sticker upgrades are for travel on any published fare and are confirmable 24 hours before departure. You will also receive luggage tags and a new membership card reflecting your lofty status. Gold status has many benefits including 25 percent flight bonus miles on American Airlines, American Eagle, AmericanConnection and the flights of nine airline partners including Alaska Airlines. Oneworld Ruby status (the first rung of elite in the oneworld alliance) does not come with lounge access but does have the usual perks of priority check-in (business class), boarding, standby and waitlisting as well as some preferential seating.

At two million miles: Lifetime Platinum, plus oneworld Sapphire status, is obtained and you’ll receive four additional systemwide upgrades, luggage tags and a new membership card. Platinum members earn an impressive 100 percent flight mileage bonus but not much else beyond what Gold members get other than they are higher on the upgrade pecking order and can confirm 500-mile sticker upgrades 72 hours prior to departure. Oneworld Sapphire status (the second of three tiers) gives access (with one guest) to all business class lounges regardless of the class of travel.

At three million miles and more: Members get the same lifetime Platinum status (plus oneworld Sapphire status) and four additional systemwide upgrades as well as a new AAdvantage status card and two luggage tags reflecting current status embossed with a logo with the millions of miles you have earned over your lifetime.

Bottom line: American’s lifetime program is the easiest to obtain because all redeemable miles count toward membership. But at one million miles, you’ll only get a 25 percent flight bonus where United and Alaska offer a 100 percent flight bonus for million milers. There is also speculation from a few AAdvantage members that the ability to earn lifetime elite status through all miles is doomed, but this is pure speculation and as one member on FlyerTalk.com, greatsagex, pointed out, “Do you believe that AA makes more money from a frequent traveler or a frequent spender (credit, shopping, eating out, etc.)? I wager the profit margins are roughly the same. … The FF program has to be very profitable. AA has a HUGE advantage over the other programs by offering the lifetime status for any form of miles … You want people that can spend lots of money being loyal to your airline–it’s a huge promotional boon that AA enjoys.”

Continental OnePass

OnePass has a documented lifetime elite program where as a “Million Miler” your status will never fall below Silver. You can read about the program at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2889

Lifetime Gold is earned at two million status miles and Platinum Elite is awarded at four million status miles. Status miles are earned by flying Continental Airlines and most airline and rail partners, including Star Alliance member airlines. Elite qualification mile bonuses do count toward membership–other types of bonus miles do not. Flex Elite Qualification Miles also count toward lifetime elite membership–these Flex EQMs are offered every time you spend $5,000 on your Continental Airlines Presidential Plus card.

The lifetime flight mileage calculation goes back to the beginning of the program–even back to the original Continental Travel Bank frequent flyer program and the Eastern Airlines Frequent Flyer Bonus program that was merged with OnePass.

And there have been some happy OnePass elite-level members through the years, especially those who took advantage of a generous promotion OnePass ran where a member earned lifetime elite after being elite for five straight years. Members look back very fondly on that promotion, such as frequent flyer Michael Rubiano. In 1997, at the age of 26, he earned his fifth and final year of being elite to earn his “Infinite Gold” status by conducting a mileage run. “By 1997, the Infinite Elite program was no longer available for those who had not yet started their ‘streaks’ but I was grandfathered in, as I began my series of five consecutive years of top-tier CO Elite status in 1993,” he related in a recent email. For a grand total of $1,800 he was able to earn elite for his fifth year. “… $1,800 out-of-pocket seemed like an exorbitant amount, but I looked at it as an investment with a high probability of return, especially given my age. And especially given the Gold level bonus mileage I would earn (125 percent of base back then) for the mileage run itself. As it turns out, that 1997 mileage run was one of the best investments I’ve ever made in any industry! I’ve been Infinite Gold/Platinum ever since (13+ years), and the mileage bonuses, free upgrades, free travel for family and fee-waivers have all been worth it!”

Another unique aspect of the OnePass lifetime program (and one certainly worth mentioning) is that as a Million Miler, your spouse or significant other residing at your same address can share your elite status and enjoy the same benefits as you, including upgrades, mileage bonuses and EliteAccess airport services.

At one million miles: Lifetime Silver is obtained along with Star Alliance Silver (the lowest elite-level status for both). Members get a 25 percent bonus on Continental flights as well as flights on some partner airlines. You will also receive a new elite card and personalized luggage tags. Silver Star Alliance membership offers priority reservations waitlisting and priority airport standby.

At two million miles: Members get lifetime OnePass Gold status that comes with a 100 percent flight mileage bonus on Continental and some partner airlines. Members also get lounge access when traveling internationally and pre-assigned exit row seating with Continental among other benefits. Star Alliance Gold is obtained, which is the highest elite-level for that two-tiered program, offering lounge access for you and a friend when you travel on an eligible Star Alliance member flight as well as priority airport check-in, baggage handling, baggage allowance and boarding at your convenience with business class passengers.

At four million miles: Members are welcomed into OnePass Platinum Elite, which comes with 100 percent bonus miles for flights on Continental and some partner airlines. Members also receive waived fees for just about all fees related to awards. There is also better award availability for all classes of service.

Bottom line: It’s too early to know what will be the outcome for lifetime elite memberships when United and Continental merge and the two frequent flyer programs unite. Currently, Continental’s lifetime elite program stands out for its gifting of spouses/significant others the same elite level as the member. United’s current program offers Star Alliance Gold at one million miles while Continental only offers Star Alliance Silver. We can only hope that the combined programs will include the best of both lifetime elite programs. Also of note is that with the addition of the new Presidential Platinum Elite highest status, which is invitation only for OnePass members, there have been rumors that those who earn four million miles or more will be welcomed as Presidential Platinum Elite members, but a representative of Continental OnePass was not willing at this time to comment on that possibility.

Delta SkyMiles

Delta has a three-tier documented lifetime elite program similar to Continental OnePass with levels at one million, two million and four million lifetime miles. The Million Miler program offers Silver Medallion status to those who reach one million Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs), Gold Medallion is offered to those who reach two million MQMs and Platinum status is offered to those who reach four million MQMs. Delta has a four-tiered elite program and Platinum is the second highest elite level. Every time you reach a new level of Million Miler status you will have the opportunity to choose an exclusive gift, such as jewelry from Tiffany & Co. or Hartmann luggage (the gift offers are subject to change).

MQMs are earned through flight activity on Delta, Delta Connection, Delta Shuttle, SkyTeam partners and Alaska Airlines and with the Delta Reserve or Platinum SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express. The Delta Reserve card offers 15,000 MQMs for every $30,000 spent in a calendar year or you can earn 30,000 MQMs if you spend $60,000 in a calendar year.

Delta reports that the top lifetime flyer has earned more than 12.5 million miles in the SkyMiles program–keep in mind that these are Medallion Qualifying Miles, not bonus miles that were earned from promotions or partner use. Information on the Million Miler program can be found at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?2892

At one million miles: Members receive annual Silver Medallion membership as well as SkyTeam Elite status. Silver Medallion status offers 25 percent flight bonus miles, baggage fee waivers, preferred seating, priority boarding, rollover Medallion Qualification Miles, unlimited Medallion upgrades at booking for full-fare tickets and one day out for discount tickets and complimentary companion upgrades, among other benefits.

At two million miles: Members receive “complimentary annual lifetime Gold Medallion status” as well as SkyTeam Elite status. Gold Medallion offers all the benefits of Silver, plus 100 percent flight bonus miles and unlimited Medallion complimentary upgrades on revenue, award and Pay with Miles tickets. SkyTeam Elite offers priority waitlisting, check-in, standby, boarding and preferred seating, but no lounge access. However, you can purchase Sky Club lounge access for a discounted $350 (from $450) or 50,000 miles per annual membership.

At four million miles: SkyMiles members get complimentary annual Platinum Medallion status and SkyTeam Elite Plus. Platinum Medallion offers all the benefits of Gold plus waived award redeposit/reissue fees and a Choice Benefit selection, which includes 20,000 bonus miles, the ability to gift Silver Medallion status, four one-day lounge passes or four systemwide upgrades and more. SkyTeam Elite Plus members have access to most SkyTeam lounges as long as travel is in conjunction with a same-day international connection on a SkyTeam-operated flight. In addition, SkyTeam Elite Plus members are allowed to invite a guest to join them in the lounge. Members can also purchase an annual lounge membership for Delta Sky Clubs for $300 or 40,000 miles (adding companions will cost more).

Bottom line: At one million miles, you’ll get just a 25 percent flight bonus and you’ll have to earn two million miles to get a 100 percent flight bonus. And you’ll need four million or more Medallion qualification miles to get complimentary lounge access on international SkyTeam flights. You cannot obtain Delta’s top elite level for a lifetime membership.

United Mileage Plus

Mileage Plus has a documented “Million Miles and Beyond Rewards” program offering differing benefits when members reach one million, two million, three million and four million status miles. Lifetime status is earned through qualifying flight miles earned on most published fares on United and United Express.

Members can also earn some EQMs through co-branded credit card spending such as 5,000 EQMs when you reach $35,000 in spending each year on your Mileage Plus Club Visa or Mileage Plus Access Visa and make one additional purchase within that year; also, you can earn up to 5,000 additional EQMs each year at a rate of one EQM for each $10 of net purchase over $35,000. The Mileage Plus Select Visa offers up to 5,000 EQMs per year at a rate of one EQM for each $1 of net purchases at united.com. If you have more than one Mileage Plus co-branded credit card, the total amount of EQMs that can be earned with credit card spending each year is 10,000.

At one million miles: Mileage Plus members receive lifetime Premier Executive status along with Star Alliance Gold–the highest of the Star Alliance two elite tiers. Premier Executive is the second tier in a three-tier elite program and offers a 100 percent flight mileage bonus as well as complimentary domestic upgrades for Premier Executive members and one traveling companion flying within the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

Lounge access is also available for member and a guest with a same-day international ticket on a Star Alliance carrier departing from that airport. As a million miler you’ll also receive two regional upgrades per year and three systemwide upgrades.

At two million miles: Members get Mileage Plus Premier Executive status and Star Alliance Gold as they did at one million miles, and you also receive a complimentary annual membership to the United Red Carpet Club for life, your choice of an exclusive gift and four systemwide upgrades instead of the three offered to mere one million milers.

At three million miles: Members are welcomed into United’s highest elite level, 1K, for life. Membership at the exalted 1K level includes complimentary Economy Plus seating for member and up to eight family members traveling together under the same confirmation number as well as access to Star Alliance lounges worldwide for 1K member and guest as long as you can show your same-day international ticket on a Star Alliance carrier departing from that airport. Upgrades are also offered including six systemwide upgrades anywhere United or United Express flies plus additional upgrades according to how many miles you earn (which is not as important if you’re a lifetime member who is no longer flying as much as you once did). Domestic upgrades are automatically requested for 1K members 100 hours before departure. There are other 1K benefits as well such as a dedicated Web site and dedicated phone reservations and you have access to an exclusive inventory of United economy Saver Award seats. As a three-million miler you’ll also receive your choice of an exclusive gift.

At four million miles: Along with 1K and Star Alliance Gold status for life, you’ll get another choice of an exclusive gift and four systemwide upgrades and also what United calls on its Web site “personalized upgrades of status.”

Bottom line: United stands out as a program that gives three million milers their due. Continental and Delta skip over three million miles as a milestone and only convey noticeably more benefits to those who rack up four million miles. The program also gives a 100 percent mileage bonus for members who have flown one million miles, something not all programs do. It also gives the highest elite level as a lifetime level–something else that not all programs do. However, the top 1K members are bested by an invitation-only Global Services program that is based on revenue.

The right lifetime elite program for you

Often the frequent flyer program you choose is dictated by where you live, but if you have a choice between programs and are aiming toward lifetime elite, there are several factors that might sway you toward one particular program. Below, we compare the programs in relation to what they offer.

Lounge access: Aeroplan is the most generous when it comes to lounge access. Members who pass the one million mile threshold get not only Star Alliance lounge access for the member and traveling companion on international flights but also complimentary Maple Leaf lounge access.

Upgrades: Alaska Mileage Plan offers unlimited first class upgrades at one million miles. United Mileage Plus offers complimentary domestic upgrades for one-million milers for the member and one traveling companion flying within the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

Spouse/partner benefits: Continental OnePass stands out here offering members who have earned one million miles the ability to share their elite status with their spouse or significant other residing at the same address as the member. Aeroplan also offers lifetime elite to nominated partners starting at the two million mile level.

Easiest route to lifetime elite: American AAdvantage holds this distinction because of the way lifetime miles are calculated–all redeemable miles count toward membership. You can look it this way–you can either fly 50,000 miles a year for 20 years or fly 50,000 miles a year for 10 years and spend $50,000 on a credit card each of those years. (And that’s not even taking into consideration the miles you get for hotel stays, rental cars, dining and other ways to earn miles.)

Flight bonus miles: Both Alaska Mileage Plan and United Mileage Plus offer 100 percent flight bonus miles when members reach one million miles. The other programs we mention here only offer a 25 percent mileage bonus at that level, and Aeroplan offers no flight mileage bonuses.

Highest elite status for lifetime program: Programs do not always offer their highest elite level for lifetime elite status. Aeroplan and United Mileage Plus offer their highest-tier elite status at three million miles (not counting invitation-only status). Continental OnePass offers their highest elite tier at four million miles (not counting invitation-only status).

Global alliances: Star Alliance Gold (top of a two-tiered program) is offered at the one million mile level for Aeroplan and United Mileage Plus members; two million for Continental OnePass members. SkyTeam Elite Plus (top of a two-tiered program) is offered at the four million miles level in Delta SkyMiles. Oneworld Sapphire status (second in a three-tiered program) is awarded to American AAdvantage members at two million miles.

As the year begins its descent, keep in mind that those EQMs you’ll be racking up on mileage runs will not only be able to get you to that next status level, but they should count toward lifetime elite status in your favorite frequent flyer program. If they’re not, you might want to rethink your “favorite” program.

To read about the lifetime elite programs of international airlines, visit http://www.insideflyer.com/articles/article.php?key=6534

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