When I say “Elite” – you know who I am talking about. The people that are sitting in first class when you step on the place – and they look at you like they have been there all day long (even though they boarded just 5 minutes before you did). 🙂 If you think like I used to, you think that most of them paid a fortune to sit there (a full-fare first class ticket from Rochester to Los Angeles, for example, can cost over $3,000 while the lowest fare economy ticket on the same plane can cost $300). It may surprise you to know that I have sat in those first class seats on flights from NYC to Los Angeles – while only paying $150! How is that possible?
Airlines do sell quite a lot of seats in first class at premium prices. However, they also make many of those seats available for their “elite” flyers. These passengers are those who have shown a degree of loyalty to the airline that translates in amount of miles flown with them. For instance, if you were to take 2 trips to Europe within one calendar year, you would achieve elite status on most airlines. From that point forward, every mile you fly builds towards the next level of status within the airline. The higher you go, the more value you represent to the airline.
A strange aspect of the airline elite system is that a person can sometimes reach the highest status level with an airline, yet still not be a big spender on airfare. For instance, I am a Diamond Medallion member with Delta Airlines. That means I am at the top of their elite status tier. I achieved that status by flying on tickets that cost less than a passenger might spend on a first class, round-trip ticket from Rochester to Los Angeles! That means that someone could fly on Delta just ONE time and spend more than I did (the requirement to reach Diamond status is to fly 125,000 miles in one calendar year)! However, I still represent more value to Delta because they know that I am a return customer who prefers their product and will continue to use them. For that reason, the benefits for elite flyers are meant to have them continue spending money flying on them.
So, what are these benefits and how well do they work in real-life? As I primarily fly Delta, I will outline some of the real circumstances that I have enjoyed as an elite flyer.
Before the flight
As a high-tier elite flyer, I enjoy upgrades to first class (based upon availability) up to 6 days before my flight ever departs! I sometimes will forget that I am going someplace and will only be reminded when I receive the e-mail from Delta the week before notifying me that I have been upgraded. It is a very welcome experience as I have come to really enjoy flying even more than before.
Also, I receive 2 checked bags for me and for anyone else traveling on my reservation. That can be very helpful when traveling with multiple people who do not have status as they can each potentially save $60 each way! That is a tremendous savings!
One of the greatest benefits to me is what is called Same-Day Confirmed. That is a benefit that allows a Delta passenger to change their flights at 3 hours before departure to any other flight traveling to their destination on that same day (based upon availability). For Silver Medallion members and non-elite passengers, that costs $50. For everyone who is a Gold Medallion member or higher, that is a FREE benefit. I have used this many times and it has saved me a lot of money. For instance, I was planning on running the Illinois marathon and wanted to fly back right after the race. The ticket that would work out best for me was $350 – one-way! The cheapest ticket on the day left at noon, which I knew would probably be too early, but it was only $50. So, I booked that ticket and planned on calling 3 hours before that flight left to move to a later flight. No problem! Now, you have to either have flexibility or know of the availability on the flights you want to go on before you plan to do something like that or else you may get stuck overnight! However, thanks to Expert Flyer, I knew that I would have no problem. If there is ONE seat left on the flight you are trying to move to, you will be given that seat! This is a great benefit, especially for the runner who may finish a race earlier or later than originally planned and the runner wants to be able to change the flight. This has saved me a lot of money just last year as there were many times that I had to switch flights and it worked out perfect each time!
Another benefit for the elite flyer is the availability of award travel. Airlines often make low availability more accessible for their elite flyers over the general flyer. This can help in your redemption of all the miles you will accrue.
Yet one more benefit that works great (especially for a runner) is ability to have your precious award miles redeposited in your account for free. If you are not Platinum or Diamond Medallion member, that will cost you at least $150 (per person)! So, for any award tickets I redeem from my Delta account for ANYONE, I can also redeposit them at no fee (as long as it is done prior to 72 hours before the flight). That is a great benefit when you are planning to run a particular event. One way I used it this past year was when I applied for the St. George Marathon. As any runner who has ever wanted to run that race knows, it is a lottery system where they draw to see who will actually be running the race. St. George, Utah is not a huge town, so flights and hotels can start to fill up quickly after the results of the lottery are known. So, I actually booked an award ticket to St. George 2 weeks before the drawing was to be held! Unfortunately, I did not get in, so, I just cancelled my ticket – for no charge! If I had not had status, it would have cost me $150.
At the Airport/On the Flight
When you get to the airport, that is when the benefits of elite status really begin to shine. When I step into an airport, I get to go to a special check-in line (if checking luggage, which I rarely do) and receive priority care. Then, depending on the airport, I go to a special entry line to security which is almost always a lot smaller than the regular security line. I have saved a lot of time each time by utilizing that line. When I enter the boarding area, there is yet another line for the elite flyer – this time to board the plane. After they begin the boarding process and call your appropriate zone, you (the elite flyer) can go down the “other” line anytime they want during the boarding process. The ability to pre-board can be very beneficial with the amount of luggage the average traveler now brings on the plane. On most flights, I see the gate agents having to check luggage under the plane that passengers were trying to bring on the plane.
If I have been upgraded, it makes for a nicer experience on the flight. You get a more spacious seat, better attention from the flight attendant (there are fewer people in first class, so more focus can be directed to each passenger than in coach), meals, snacks, drinks, and power ports (which can be very helpful on the transcontinental flights). For the marathon runner flying a long distance to/from the race, first class can make a BIG difference in the relaxation of the runner’s body. It is always nice to be able to stretch out after a race!
Another nice aspect of elite status is the ability to reach a customer service representative on the phone quicker than by calling the general phone number. When I call in for help in some situation, the phone is picked up within1 minute of my entering my information and the caliber of representatives there to help me is excellent. Sure, I get the occasional bad experience, but on the whole, it is very helpful!
The first time I realized that having some type of elite status would really help me was when I was running through Sydney airport to make my flight to Los Angeles and making it just before the doors shut. Was it because I was late at the airport? No, I was there just about 3 hours before the flight left (for the record, it should have been 3 hours, but my driver was 40 minutes late to picking me up). It was due to the incredibly long line checking in to get my boarding pass and then the long line at security. After I got on the plane, I thought about how long that line had been trying to check-in (customers had been trying to switch to different airlines and were monopolizing the agents’ time with that) and how empty the elite line was. I thought about what would have happened had I missed that flight – that was just after my first marathon event on my Dash of Continents. Every single minute of that 5 day period was planned out and flights booked with precision in scheduling to allow for me to hit all the continents. Had I missed that first flight, I would have just had to go home! A delay can be that big! Does elite status help me now with running events? Absolutely! Do you have to have elite status to enjoy your trip? Absolutely not. However, you would do yourself a benefit to examine your flying habits and see if there is someway that you can consolidate your flying within one airline or alliance so that you can accrue your miles and earn frequent flyer status. Once you earn it, you will wonder why you did not plan out your travel like that before! In future posts, we will break down the ways you can achieve frequent flyer status OR how you can at least receive some of the similar benefits.