This is a guest post written by Robert Schrader of Leave Your Daily Hell
How Budget Travelers Can Earn Elite Flyer Status
Budget travel, by definition, involves spending as little money as possible. What some budget travelers fail to realize is that skimping on cost should never mean skimping on travel experiences.
To be fair, budget travelers do often have to “go without,” at least when compared to other types of travelers. You save money by sleeping a hostel dorm bed, for example, but forgo having the privacy (and, in many cases, the comfort) of a hotel room.
What if I told you it was possible for budget travelers enjoy perks like priority check-in, security lines and boarding, free checked baggage and even complimentary first-class upgrades? If you play your cards right and earn “elite” status with your favorite airline, it absolutely is.
What Is Elite Status?
Elite status is the general term used to describe the perks a particular airline bestows among frequent flyers who surpass a certain flying threshold. All airlines have different policies, but use the same logic to determine which flyers earn elite status.
There are two ways to earn elite status on an airline. The first is to fly enough elite qualifying miles, or “EQMs,” within the span of a year. The second is to fly the requisite number of elite qualifying segments. This is “or,” not “and” — you don’t need both.
Most airlines define elite qualifying miles and segments as miles or segments flown in economy class. For example, if you take a 5,000-mile flight that require a plane change and fly in economy, you earn 5,000 EQM and two elite qualifying segments.
It’s important to note that airlines divide their elite qualifying years into halves. If you achieve elite status before June 30, you retain your status for the rest of that year. If you achieve elite status after July 1, it lasts the rest of the current year and all of the next year.
Elite Status Tiers
Before I moved forward, we should talk about elite tiers. An elite “tier” refers, essentially, to how elite a flyer you are. Most airlines use well-understood terms like “Silver,” “Gold” and “Platinum,” although some have put their own spin on it.
The number of EQMs or segments you need varies between airlines. For example, airline “A” might grant you silver status at 25,000 EQM or 30 elite qualifying segments, while airline “B” requires that you fly 40,000 miles and 40 segments to achieve “Sapphire” status.
Your perks likewise vary depending on which tier you are. Airline “A” might offer silver flyers access to benefits like lounge access, priority check-in and free first-class upgrades, which airline “B” might restrict some or all of those perks to “Ruby” or “Emerald” flyers.
Your airline will issue you an elite flyer card, but you usually don’t need to take it with you. Rather, your elite status is automatically associated with your frequent flyer number and all reservations you make using that number.
Understanding Airline Alliances
“But Robert,” you’re probably saying. “I’m on a round-the-world trip. How do you expect me to fly an airline that’s based in my home country if I’m not there ?”
I don’t — and neither do airlines. In today’s airline industry, very few airlines operate alone. The majority of airlines are members of a global airline alliance, in which a group of world carriers cooperate to maximize create a seamless travel experience for customers.
I have a “Mileage Plus” frequent flyer account with United. United is also a member of the Star Alliance, so I earn elite frequent flyer miles and elite qualification miles/segments when I fly other Star Alliance carriers, like Lufthansa, EgyptAir and Singapore Airlines.
Other major airline alliances include SkyTeam, whose major members are Delta, Air France/KLM and Alitalia; and oneworld, whose members include American Airlines, British Airways and Qantas.
So, Where Again Do Budget Travelers Come In?
This depends on what sort of budget traveler you are. If you don’t fly at all, then you can’t achieve elite status with your airline. This is the case even if you use one of the many available airline credit cards, which generally accrue miles, but not EQMs or segments.
Indeed, the key is being strategic. If you need to fly anyway, research whether any member of your airline alliance flier the route and, if so, if the fare is affordable for you. It might actually be the cheapest.
During one trip last year, I hit an elite qualifying jackpot. I flew Aegean from Athens to Tel Aviv, EgyptAir from Cairo to Casablanca, Swiss from Madrid to Zürich and TAP Portugal from Amsterdam to Lisbon — all Star Alliance carriers, and all super-low fares!
Keep in mind that while you can accrue EQMs and segments on carriers within your airline’s alliance, you may not receive all (or any) of your usual elite perks with partner airlines. For example, you might enjoy priority check-in, but not free first-class upgrades.
Robert Schrader is a writer, photographer and travel coach who has been location independent for two years. He edits Leave Your Daily Hell, a blog to which more than 20,000 travelers per month turn for expert advice on how to travel more often. Follow Robert on Twitter, add him to one of your Google+ circles, “Like” Leave Your Daily Hell on Facebook or subscribe to email updates for destination guides, practical advice and inspirational essays delivered daily.