American Airlines’ Shortcut to Elite Flying

Background

I first read about American Airlines’ Elite Status Challenge in Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master, a 40-page hacking manual for travel junkies. Worth a buy if you’re planning a big trip in the next year, are a frequent traveler or are simply interested in the inner workings of the frequent flyer industry.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually thought about attempting the challenge. While many of my friends and family think I’m swimming in frequent flyer rewards, the reality is that it’s quite difficult to accumulate miles the traditional way–paying for a ticket and, well, flying. Sure, I make it a point to optimize each of my trips and fight for lost miles, but after seven international trips and a handful of domestic trips over the last two years, I’m still no George Clooney.

For those curious, here are my current frequent flyer balances:

42,827 American Airlines (One World Alliance)–30k miles from a credit card offer
75,012 United Airlines (Star Alliance)–have reached “Gold” status with the Star Alliance
15,175 Delta Airlines (SkyTeam Alliance)

[image from Grzegorz Chorus]

How the Challenge Works

Bare with me here. It’ll make more sense in a second. From the AAdvantage Elite Status Challenge wiki:

Choosing a Challenge

An AA Challenge is based on flying sufficiently to earn 5,000 (AAdvantage Gold) or 10,000 (AAdvantage Platinum) Elite Qualifying Points (EQP) in a three month period. Challenges may begin on the 1st or 16th of the month. Elite Qualifying Points are figured on the basis of miles earned and fare class. See the tables at aa.com for the official rates.

Important notes:

  • Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) are not the same as Elite Qualifying Points (EQP) and it is Points that count for a Challenge, miles earned are not relevant. See Miles and Points for more information on the differences.
  • See the tables at aa.com for the number of points that you will earn for the various booking classes. (Also see Inventory Classes and Mileage Eligibility.)
  • As of January 2007, only flights marketed by AA (with an AA flight number) are eligible for earning points that count towards the completion of a Challenge. You can still fly on a non-AA metal flight operated by a partner, but you must make sure that you have booked it with an AA codeshare flight number. (Previously, points earned on partner-marketed flights were eligible, but that is no longer the case).
  • You’ll earn points in accordance with the booking class that you purchased. This holds true even if you are upgraded into another booking class.
  • Once attaining Gold through a challenge, you are not allowed to sign-up for a subsequent Platinum Challenge.1
  • You are not allowed to use a challenge to maintain status – you must lose it and then challenge to regain it.
  • You are not allowed to use a challenge to re-attain status earned through a Challenge within the same year.
  • There is no Challenge for Executive Platinum.
  • To acquire Executive Platinum status you must fly 100 segments or earn 100,000 EQM / EQP in the calendar year; Challenge completion does not affect (minimize) this requirement.

Status earned through a Challenge is treated the same as elite status earned through other means.

1There have been some reports of people doing this in the past, but it has become increasingly difficult and attempting either will likely just waste your time trying. It also goes against the spirit of the Challenge Program.

So, in an oversimplified nutshell: accumulate 5,000 or 10,000 points (not miles) in a three month period for Gold or Platinum status.

The Phone Call

After my May cost-of-living assignment to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Australia was approved, I learned that I would (mostly) fly with American Airlines. Score!

Using the information above, I called my travel agent and determined the booking class of each flight and the number of miles between each city–I was then able to calculate exactly how many points I would earn if I committed to the challenge. Since the number was just over 10,000, I decided to apply for the Platinum Challenge. If this sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Ten minutes with Microsoft Excel and a quick phone call.

I called American Airlines to verify the information.

After I walked the customer representative through my numbers, she agreed that I would indeed complete the Platinum challenge, assuming I took all the flights, of course. Here’s the best part–when I told her that I had primarily been flying United Airlines, that I had achieved Executive Platinum status with them and that I was interested in using American Airlines more in my upcoming trips, she offered to bump me up to Gold status before the challenge even started.

This means that for each flight before I reach Platinum, I get 25% extra miles. From Boston to Oceania and back, this will rack up quite a few extra miles. Several thousand, actually.

I gave the representative my credit card information–the Platinum challenge now costs $150–bid my thanks and hung up.

The Email

Thirty minutes later I received the following email:

Dear MR. ALAN PERLMAN,

Thank you for registering for the American Airlines AAdvantage PLATINUM┬« challenge. We have charged your credit card $150.00. If you successfully earn 10,000 points by 07/15/2010, you’ll enjoy AAdvantage PLATINUM status until the last day in February 2011.

Here are some tips to help you succeed:

* Be sure to fly AA (we know you want to anyway!) since only points earned on American Airlines, American Eagle and AmericanConnection® flights (including AA codeshare flights operated by other carriers) count toward Challenges

* Since Challenges are based on points, not miles, you’ll meet your goal more quickly if you select fares with high point values. If, for example, you use Deep Discount Fares, remember that those fares earn points at half the rate of miles – so you’ll have to fly twice as much! But if you buy Discount Fares, the rate is one point per mile and you can meet your Challenge by flying 10,000 elite-qualifying miles. And if you select premium fares, you earn 1.5 points per mile and can meet the Challenge by flying just — OK, you do the math!

* Know the point values you’ll earn for the booking codes you select. Yes it may look like alphabet soup, but there’s a point to these codes. In fact, there’s anywhere from 0.5 — 1.5 points!
o Earn 1.5 points per mile when the purchased fare on your American Airlines ticket is booked in one of these booking codes: A F P D I J R B C Y
o Earn 1.0 point per mile for these AA booking codes: H K L M V W
o Earn .5 points per mile for these AA booking codes: G N Q S O (excludes tickets between North America and Latin America booked in O inventory, which are not eligible for mileage credit)

* How can you determine what booking code is used for the fare you’re purchasing? Simply ask the booking agent, whether that’s your travel agent, corporate travel planner or AA Reservations representative. Or, even better, when you book your flights on AA.com, the Flight Summary screen displays the booking code in the same column as the cabin booked.

* If you have the opportunity to upgrade, good for you! But with respect to the points you will earn, traveling in a premium cabin is not the same as purchasing a premium fare. When you upgrade, the points for your flights are still calculated on the fare and booking code you purchased, not the cabin that you were lucky enough to travel in!

* Remember that the charge for your Challenge is nonrefundable – even if circumstances beyond your control (or ours!) prevent you from meeting the goal. But we’re thinking positive thoughts and we know you can do it!

Keep in mind that a Challenge is intended for members who are in a hurry to get to the elite level they desire and begin enjoying their benefits. Think of it as a shortcut to the status you would probably earn on your own during the normal qualification period. Assuming you’re successful, please be prepared to meet the normal criteria when it comes time to requalify for your status, since we offer only limited opportunities to earn status via a Challenge. That’s fair, right? Now you’re all set — Good Luck!

I’ll keep you all posted!

4 thoughts on “American Airlines’ Shortcut to Elite Flying”

  1. @Nate: Yep! I realize now that I focused more on achieving status rather than explaining why status is so attractive/sexy. With Gold status it’s 25% more miles, with Platinum 100%–amongst other benefits like checking in early, no baggage fees and access to international lounges.

  2. I’ve done this – I actually requested the gold challenge, then realized I was flying enough for platinum. I called and asked if I could upgrade my challenge and was told no problem, just had to pay the fee difference. It’s a great perk. I now have enough miles for a free biz class RT to China for my wife & I to visit friends living there.

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