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How To Earn Elite Status In One Flight

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It will come as no surprise to anyone who's flown in the past 10 years that the process is about as enjoyable as a colonic. Bag fees, cramped seats and waiting around in lines are just a few of the perks.

A lucky few, meanwhile, get to bypass these hassles by flying tens of thousands of miles and becoming "elite" flyers.

Most people think elite perks are reserved for the people who either (a) travel for business, or (b) take a lot of vacations.

That was once true, but now there's an easy shortcut to elite status in just one international flight planned (or even a cross-country flight). It's called a "status challenge".

Here's how it works:

American Airlines, for instance, usually requires you to fly 25,000 miles in a calendar year to become a "Gold" member, their lowest level of elite status. It comes with a lot of perks. As a Gold member, you get two free checked bags, priority check-in at security, early boarding, seat upgrades, 25 percent bonus miles, and standby fees waived.

Fortunately, they also offer a secret shortcut to Gold status.

If you call up and register for a Gold challenge, all it takes to earn elite status is for you to fly 5,000 points* in three months, which you can almost always accomplish in one international flight. For instance, if you already have a flight booked next month from New York to Paris (a roundtrip distance of 7,240 miles), you can call up American at 1-800-882-8880, get registered, and be an elite flyer as soon as you set foot back in the states. Unfortunately, it costs $140 to register, but for many people this is a small price to pay to get the countless perks of elite status and make flying a lot easier for the next 14+ months.

Similarly, US Airways allows flyers to register for a status challenge. If you fly 7,500 miles (or 10 legs) in three months, you'll earn Silver status, which includes one free checked bag, priority check-in at security, early boarding, seat upgrades, 25 percent bonus miles, and standby fees waived. It costs $200 to register.

Both American and US Air also offer status challenges for their higher elite levels, though they're more expensive and likely require multiple flights.

For American, platinum (middle tier) status, which includes two free checked bags, priority check-in at security, early boarding, seat upgrades, 100 percent bonus miles, and standby fees waived, can be earned by flying 10,000 points in three months. It costs $240 to register.

For US Airways, you have to pay $400 and fly 15,000 miles (or 20 legs) in three months to earn Gold (middle tier) status. which includes three free checked bags, priority check-in at security, early boarding, seat upgrades, 50 percent bonus miles, and standby fees waived. Platinum (upper-middle tier) status will set you back $600 for the same benefits and a bump up to 75 percent bonus miles. You must fly 22,500 miles or 30 segments in three months to qualify.

If you're like most people, "a hassle" is the most likely descriptors for flying. But it doesn't have to be that way. If you've got an international trip planned soon, you can use it to easily become an elite flyer and join the crowd who, when asked how their flight was, can honestly answer, "it was great!"

* - One important thing to note: 5,000 American points is slightly different than 5,000 American miles. (I know it's complicated, I'm sorry. Blame AA.) The number of points you earned is a product of the miles you fly multiplied by the fare class you purchased. For example, flying in "W" class, a section in "Discount Economy Class", earns you 1.00 point per mile flown, but flying in "S" class, a section in "Deep Discount Economy Class", earns you 0.50 points per mile flown. I have no idea where they come up with these letters, and yes, it's all quite silly. But that's the game they play, so just pay attention to your fare class and you can easily take advantage.

Excerpted from Keyes's new e-book How To Fly For Free: Practical Tips The Airlines Don't Want You To Know.