A few years ago, one of my best friends, puts up a picture of himself flying first class on Facebook.
Knowing he wouldn’t pay for that ticket I was intrigued. I asked “What’s the secret?”
He laughed only he can laugh and said… “It’s the MILEAGE game. It’s freaking awesome! You should definitely get on board.”
I have and it’s certainly with it.
This article is going to show you how you win at The Mileage game.
Before I break it all down, it’s valuable to know what the prizes and perks are. There’s a long list.
- First class tickets for free
That’s right. You get upgraded for no extra costs. It’s awesome!
- First class tickets for a friend/partner
With some airlines, you’ll even get your partner upgraded FOR FREE. How cool is that?
- “Premier” lines at check-in
This is one of my favorite perks because it saves me 30 to 60 minutes to check-in. The “premier” lines in are usually 10% of the length of economy. This can be a life saver if you’re late at a major airport.
- First class lines in security
In many airports, there are first class lines in security. This is another BIG time saver when lines get long.
- Bags come out first
This is another 10-15 minute time saver when you land and grab your bags.
When you combine the time saved for perk 3#, 4# and 5# — you can easily save 60 to 75 minutes per flight. This adds up over time.
- FREE bags (including 210 lbs)
Free bags is another great perk. With most airlines, you get two 50 lb bags if you’re silver. However, if you’re GOLD you get three 70 lbs bags. That’s right you can carry 210 pounds worth of stuff. How epic is that? This is a VERY valuable perk for me since I live in Panama and pay ridiculous amounts of money to have stuff shipped to me.
- Double the value of your miles
This perk can DOUBLE the value of your miles. Once you earn miles, you can spend them to buy other flights. With this perk, you can get TWICE as much value with some airlines based on your status. With Star Alliance you get what’s called “Super Saver” options. The higher your status, the more “Super Saver” options are available.
- Free lounge access
Airport lounges are a great place to “take refuge” when you travel. Airports are busy, intense and crowded. The lounges unplug you from the hustle and bustle. You also get free WIFI, free food, free drinks, free magazines and free entertainment.
- Special Phone Lines
You get access to special access phone lines that can be another time saver. Agents are usually more experienced (and friendlier).
- Free upgrades from other companies
Hotels know the value of a frequent flyer. They are all battling for your business. This is why they often send “Gold Status” FOR FREE for Gold level flyers for hotels. I’ve experienced this a few times. This opens up a lot of perks on the hotel level.
- Legend Perks
If you reach the highest levels of status, you can even get free rides on the tarmac with a Porsche right to the plane. Delta offers this.
Assuming you fly once a month, Silver level perks are worth $3,000 to $5,000 a year.
Gold is worth $7,000 to $10,000, the reasons being you get more first class upgrades, more free weight — you get GOLD across the entire alliance (more on this in a moment).
Platinum and Diamond are worth $12,000 to $15,000 a year.
Now that you now the value, let’s cover how to qualify.
How To Qualify For Elite Status With Airlines
Every airline has their own rules. However, here’s the amount of miles you need to FLY (that’s right — you can’t buy your status) EVERY YEAR to qualify.
SILVER: 25,000 miles
GOLD: 50,000 miles
PLATINUM: 75,000 miles
DIAMOND: 100,000 miles
LEGEND: Usually spend A LOT of money on tickets and it’s by invitation only
Once you hit a status, you’ll keep it for the rest of the year… ALL of the following year and usually the first 2 months of the following year.
For an example, if you hit GOLD in April 2016 because you flew like a migrating bluejay in the beginning of this year (January, February, March and April). This means you would be GOLD from: April to December 2016, January to December 2017 and January and February 2018.
If you don’t requalify in 2017, you would lose your status in February 2018.
“Normal Miles” vs “Qualifying Miles”
It’s CRITICAL to understand this concept. There are 2 types of miles.
- Normal Miles
These are the miles you get when you buy stuff with your credit card or other methods.
THEY ARE USELESS FOR QUALIFYING FOR ELITE STATUS. You can have a million of these and they won’t give you “status”. Of course, you can use these miles to buy flights (including first class flights). But that’s not the same thing as I’m explaining in this article.
- Qualifying Miles
These are the miles that you EARN by getting on a plane and flying. There are a couple of other ways to earn these which I detail below.
THESE ARE THE MILES THAT GIVE YOU STATUS AND FREE UPGRADES TO FIRST CLASS.
How The Free Seats Work
If there’s a flight with 7 unsold first class seats, the airline will GIFT those seats to their elite flyers.
It’s very important to understand the hierarchy of the levels. Here’s an example of how it works:
The Diamond flyers get the first shot. Let’s say there’s 1 Diamond flyer. He will usually get a notice a week before the plane leaves saying he got upgraded.
The 6 available first class seats now get go to the Platinums. Let’s say there’s 2 Platinums, they will get upgraded usually 3 or 4 days before the flight leaves.
The 4 remaining seats now go to the Golds. If there’s 3 Golds on the flight, they will get notification usually 48 hours before they leave.
Then the final first class seat go to the Silvers. If there’s 7 Silvers, then the airline has rules to determine which one gets it. I will explain some of these rules in a moment.
Gold Is The Goal
If you really want to reap the benefits of the frequent flyer programs, GOLD IS THE GOAL.
Why? Because with most alliances Gold unlocks benefits across ALL airlines within that alliance.
For an example, I upgraded to first class from London to Montreal with Air Canada. I have NO status with Air Canada, but because I was Gold with Copa and United they upgraded me.
Don’t expect free upgrades with other airlines then the one you’ve achieved status with. Those don’t happen every day.
However, there are other cross alliance perks include: free access to all the lounges, free bags, the “GOLD” line when you’re checking in with other airlines and more.
Now that you know the basics… let’s cover HOW TO WIN The Mileage Game
Choose your airline carefully
The biggest key is to choose the RIGHT airline loyalty program.
Some programs, like United, are almost useless for getting free flight upgrades. I was a member of United before they merged and it was great. With Gold/Platinum I would get upgraded 80% of the time. Then they merged with Continental and it was over. There was so many Diamonds and Platinums, that there was no seats left for Gold and Silver.
My friend who’s got status with Delta gets upgraded often with Silver.
Here are 3 keys for selecting the right program:
Consideration #1: Smaller is better
You’ll get far more free flights if there’s less competition. So choose smaller airlines over big ones.
Consideration #2: Your Main Routes
If there’s a few places you go often, then look at the airlines that fly there and put your eggs in that basket.
Consideration #3: The Finer Points
This is where you have to go deeper into your research. Each loyalty program has pluses and minuses. For an example: Delta has a “rollover” clause. This means, that if you had 57,000 miles at the end of the year — they will give you GOLD and rollover the 7,000 extra miles into the following year.
Another thing to look at is the LIFETIME STATUS LEVELS. Most airlines will give you a status FOR LIFE if you hit certain marks. For an example:
1 million miles = SILVER for life
2 million miles = GOLD for life
3 million miles = PLATINUM for life
Some programs will even give you and your wife/partner the same status for life.
Consideration #4: Your Local Hub
Look at who has a local hub in your area because they’re the ones you’re going to be flying in and out the most out of.
There is a big exception to this which leads us to…
Choose your alliance carefully
Picking the right alliance is vital. There’s a lot of benefits shared with airlines within the same alliance.
Pro-Power Move: Let’s say you live in Austin where United flies to. But you know United’s program sucks so you decide to channel all your miles to another airline within the same alliance: United Airways.
My loyalty is with COPA (I get upgraded 95%+ of the time and it’s great service) which is in the Star Alliance program. So when I fly with United and Air Canada — I put in my COPA number and I get credited for those flights.
This helps me reach my status easily.
Here are some keys for maximizing your free flights:
Free Flight Key #1 Fly during the middle of the week (avoid business traveler hours)
Lots of business travelers will PAY for their first class seats. So the strategy is, when possible, book flights outside of popular business class travel (Monday morning and Fridays).
If you can fly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays.
Free Flight Key #2: Buy your tickets as far in advance as possible
With a lot of airlines, the “tie breaker” in case there’s 1 seat left and several people qualify is the “earliest bought ticket wins”. So if you buy your ticket before other people, you get a better chance of getting upgraded.
Keep in mind, this is different from airline to airline.
Free Flight Key #3 Know The Rules
You must know the rules if you want to win. Every airline has it’s little differences and quirks that need to be understood. Otherwise you’re going to pay the price.
Here’s a great example:
Air Canada will only give you 25% of your miles if you get the cheapest ticket. In order to get ALL your miles, you must pay a higher fee. This is vital information.
Here are some keys for maximizing your status:
Status Maximizer #1. Never use miles — always pay for your ticket.
What I do is, I use miles for my wife and I always pay for my ticket. This maximizes my status.
Another thing I will do with miles is use them for UPGRADES to first class (especially when I’m not flying with my airline).
Status Maximizer #2. Go on “mileage runs”
This is what a lot of PROS do. They actually get on a plane just so they can hit the next level of status. This is a good move if you’re only a few thousand miles away from the next level.
The key is to find the CHEAPEST mileage runs possible. Something you can accumulate thousands and thousands of miles for a few hundred bucks. That’s a BIG WIN.
Status Maximizer #3. DOUBLE DOWN your elite miles
Some airlines like United will offer you the opportunity to BUY MORE QUALIFYING MILES. They aren’t cheap, but it can be a powermove if it moves you into Platinum or Diamond.
Status Maximizer #4. Hunt for the right credit card
Some airlines have deals with banks that will grant you a Silver status if you get the right card. It’s certainly better than a kick in the rump.
I hope this clarifies how to get free first class flights. Let me know if you’re currently doing this and any other tactic I missed. And if you’re not doing this… let me know where you want to go once you do get that status and miles built up.