My friends joke that I’m George Clooney. I probably make waaaay too big of a deal out of loyalty programs, namely my AAdvantage account. However, they can impact the quality of your travel in a major way. Instead of comparing different programs, I’m going to help those who travel mostly with the brands I frequent, such as American Airlines.
Elite status comes with many benefits. I’m currently Platinum, but expect to reach Executive Platinum this year because the levels tend to compound as you get more bonuses at higher levels. My favorite benefits are:
- Early boarding – avoid the cattle lines and always find space for your carry-on
- Earning First Class upgrades
- With higher elite levels, you increase your chance of receiving the upgrade
- Premium seats for free (including exit rows)
- Separate security lines at many airports
- Mileage bonuses and a guarantee that you earn at least 500 miles for all flights
- Priority baggage handling
- Free checked bags (which I seldom use, but it’s great for golf trips)
Here are my top 5 recommendations for making the most of the AAdvantage Program.
- Take The American Challenge Shortcut To Gold Or Platinum
What’s strange about this is that American created this “cheat,” but takes great effort to hide it. They don’t even publish it in writing on their website.
Here’s how it works: as a one-time option, travelers who will be doing a good deal of travel in a 3-month period may contact the AAdvantage help desk (800-882-8880) and sign up for the AA Challenge.Without the Challenge, it takes 30,000 miles in a calendar year to reach Gold and 60k miles to reach Platinum. However, for a Gold challenge, you pay a $120 fee and then travel 5,000 miles in a specified 3-month period. For a Platinum challenge, it costs $200 and you must travel 10k miles in that period. Past travel is not eligible and you can only attempt a Challenge once, so be sure you’ll meet the requirement before you waste your money.The AA Challenge is especially helpful because reaching platinum gives you a 100% elite mileage bonus, so you’re earning double elite-qualifying miles for each trip. This helps you reach future elite levels more quickly.
- Sign Up For The Citi®/AAdvantage® Credit Card
The card will notgive you elite-qualifying miles, but your mileage balance will jump with the 40,000 bonus miles for sign-up and you’ll earn at least 1 mile per dollar you spend on the card. I began using the card for everything and paying it off monthly early last year. I even go so far as to pay tithe to my church via PayPal with my card, thus earning mileage on my giving. In fact, I typically earn more miles each month on my credit card than I do by flying.In November, I earned 3,566 miles from spending and earned another 2,515 bonus miles from Citi. Considering 25,000 miles is a round-trip ticket, I’m earning 25% of a round-trip ticket each month, or 3 free trips per year at that rate.
- Pick An Airline And Stick With It.
I fly out of XNA (NW Arkansas Regional) for Pacealmost 100% of the time. About 95% of the time, American Airlines is my cheapest option. The other 5%, they are close enough. Because of this, I’ve pretty well abandoned Delta and Continental (I refuse to fly United and US Air due to many issues in the past). Southwest is a great option for many, but the closest Southwest airport to my home is about 2 hours away.Because American is always reasonable, I’ve chosen the AAdvantage program as my program and I stick with them almost without exception. When I traveled to Asia last June, my customer flew Delta. I could have joined him for the 14 hour flight, but I would have wasted 15,000 elite qualifying miles. I talked to him about it and he insisted that I fly American and get the miles. That trip alone completed my AA Platinum Challenge mentioned in #1 above. In fact, I accomplished the Challenge on the flight to China and my return flight netted me a 100% bonus, so I ended up earning over 20,000 miles for the trip.
- Don’t Ignore The Segments
Because I fly out of XNA for Pace, I almost always fly through DFW (Dallas) or ORD (Chicago), then connect to my destination. That means each trip is 4 segments. It also means that my first flight only nets me 500-520 miles. As I watch my stats increase toward each elite status, my segments are usually ahead of my miles. Even last year with a long trip to Asia, my 60th segment was the same flight I hit Platinum with miles.An even more extreme example of the value of segments was my first time reaching Gold status. In December a few years ago, I was 6 segments short of Gold, but nowhere close with miles. I decided to book a flight from XNA to ORD to DFW to CUU (Chihuahua, MX), then returned the same way. That was the 6 segments I needed and I earned Gold for the first time.If you live near a smaller airport, it’s likely that your segments will get you to an elite level before miles.
- Explore Options So You Can Take ‘Em With You!
Look carefully at different days when you redeem miles for flights and you can find some great value. For example, I recently looked at award travel to Vegas. If my girlfriend and I traveled Thurs-Sun, each ticket was 50,000 miles, totaling 100k. If we traveled Wed-Sat, each ticket was 25,000 miles, totaling 50k. I decided to make the trip a Wed-Sat trip and booked two friends to go with us. We were able to take 4 people to Vegas for the 100k miles it would have taken to get the two of us there on different days. Vegas is always more fun with friends.Additionally, if you book any flight (award or purchased), everyone you book for will enjoy the benefits of your status. The 4 of us all enjoyed priority baggage handling, free checked bags, priority seating (exit rows on all flights) and priority boarding. If I had purchased the tickets instead of using award travel, we all could have upgraded to first class as well.
These are just a few highlights, so feel free to share your tips below.