THE SEARCH FOR A STATUS MATCH
By Joe Brancatelli
April 4, 2012 -- A month into its troubled transition to a new computer system, United Airlines is straining the loyalty of the elite members of its MileagePlus program. Many high-spending elites are actively contacting other airlines in search of a so-called "status match."
If you have never heard the term "status match," you're missing one of the most intriguing aspects of maximizing your travel benefits. When you hold elite status in an airline or hotel program, the airlines and hotels that you're not frequenting want your business. And they'll often go out of their way to match the elite perks you already receive. Alternately, they'll put you on a fast track to elite benefits with what's called a status challenge. That allows you to achieve an elite level in a compressed time frame (usually 60 to 90 days) by flying or staying a reduced number of times.
"Of course I want the other guy's best customer," the manager of one large frequent-guest plan told me recently. "That customer has a proven track record of spending that I can quickly quantify. If I can lure them away by matching the benefits they already receive, I'm going to do it. Besides, my competitors are trying to poach my best customers, so I have to keep up."
I've put together the status match and status challenge policies of a baker's dozen of the major airlines, hotels, and car-rental firms. If you're unhappy with your current travel provider, but don't want to move unless a competitor will duplicate the perks you already get, consider a change. But before you do, some caveats and tips:
+ Only do it once and only if you're serious about moving your business. While completing a status challenge or getting a status match may not be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, most airlines and hotels are reluctant to allow you to repeatedly play one competitor against another.
Despite its low profile and distinctly prosaic name, the Alaska Mileage Plan is much admired for its flexibility. It has partnerships with American and Delta airlines and a half-dozen major international carriers. What it doesn't have, however, is a published status match program. But Alaska Air will match status or offer a status challenge to travelers who can prove their current elite level and can show that Alaska's route network lines up with their travel. Email firstname.lastname@example.org inquiring about terms or call the Mileage Plan customer-service line at 800-654-5669. American AAdvantage
Even though American Airlines is operating under bankruptcy protection, its AAdvantage program is well regarded for its generous award tickets. American doesn't publish details of its match or challenge programs, but does offer "an accelerated path to status," says Bridget Blaise-Shamai, vice president of AAdvantage marketing programs. A call to the customer-service line (800-882-8880) will yield what Blaise-Shamai calls "very individualized" challenges. Generally, however, you'll be expected to prove your status in another airline. Then you'll get 90 days to hit American's standards, which is based on a "value metric" rather than a total of flown miles. (In English, it means American is interested in travelers who buy more expensive tickets.) One bit of good news: You needn't fly only American to ace the status challenge. Blaise-Shamai says flying on British Airways and Japan Airlines, the carrier's joint-venture partners, also counts. Best Western Rewards
The loyalty program of Best Western, more of an association of member hotels than a chain, offers a public status match. A special webpage details the procedure, which isn't much more complicated than proving your standing in another hotel plan and getting the equivalent Best Western Rewards status in return. Delta SkyMiles
The Delta Air Lines SkyMiles program is sometimes derided as "Skypesos" because miles are easy to earn and award tickets tend to be expensive. But the perks of elite status are solid, and Delta has a published policy on status challenges. You'll have 90 days to hit the published standards to earn your status. Hilton HHonors
A massive devaluation of HHonors last fall makes Hilton's program a dicey proposition. But if the frequency plan of Hilton, Hampton, Embassy Suites, and other hotel chains meets your travel needs, HHonors Gold status is better than nothing. You can reach Gold status by completing four stays or nine nights at select Hilton hotels in 90 days via the MVP Challenge. One year of complimentary Gold Status is also built into the $75-a-year Hilton Surpass American Express Card. Elite status in future years is based on card spending, however. Hyatt Gold Passport
There are no published status match or challenge programs for Hyatt Gold Passport. But the plan's top man, Jeff Zidell, says that Hyatt will offer a challenge with proof of equivalent status in a competitive hotel chain. You can receive Platinum status with six nights of paid stays in 60 days. Hyatt's top tier, Diamond, requires 12 paid nights in 60 days. Call Gold Passport's service line (800-228-3360) for complete details. If you have no equivalent hotel status, you can get Platinum status for 90 days, thanks to a current promotion with Visa Signature cards. Maintaining the status will require eight paid nights during the test-membership period. You can also score ongoing Platinum status with the $75-a-year Hyatt Card or the new $395-a-year United Club Card. Marriott Rewards
Marriott doesn't have a published status match program for Marriott Rewards, the frequency plan that also covers Renaissance, Courtyard, Ritz-Carlton, and many other brands. A Marriott spokesperson says the chain evaluates status requests "on a case-by-case basis" and will frequently offer "equivalent" status to an elite player in another hotel program after a challenge. The challenge period is 90 days and generally requires travelers to stay roughly a quarter of the nights or stays needed to achieve a Marriott Rewards elite level over the course of a year. The best bet, she says, is to call the Rewards service center (801-468-4000) and discuss options. You can also receive enough credit to reach Silver Elite status with the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Card. The $85 annual fee is waived in the first year. Priority Club Rewards
Priority Club Rewards covers several popular brands (Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, and Hotel Indigo), and the fastest way to status is the Priority Club Select Visa Card. It comes bundled with Platinum Elite status, the program's highest published level, and the $49 annual fee is waived in the first year. (A warning: Even Platinum Elite doesn't offer the status benefits equivalent to what's offered at other hotel chains.) Priority Club Rewards also offers an unpublished status match program when you prove your elite level in competitive hotel-frequency plans. Call 888-211-9824 for details. Starwood Preferred Guest
Once extremely generous and aggressive with status matches, Starwood Preferred Guest switched to challenges about a year ago. If you want to reach the Platinum Level of the frequency plan that covers Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, and other chains, you must stay 18 paid nights in 90 days. Contact SPG by email (email@example.com) for specifics of the status challenge. The fastest way to reach the Gold Level is via the American Express Platinum Card. Gold Elite status is bundled into the benefits of the $450-a-year card. US Airways
The US Airways Dividend Miles program has a published status challenge—with a twist: US Airways expects you to pay for the privilege of having elite status for 90 days. In fairness, however, you needn't have status at another airline to qualify for what US Airways calls Trial Preferred. If you don't want to fool around, you could also purchase US Airways elite status. Depending on how much flying you do with US Airways and how high up in the four-step Dividend Miles program you wish to go, prices range from $249 to $3,999. United MileagePlus
Given United's current woes and the number of its elite travelers looking for greener pastures at other carriers, it's hard to understand why business flyers would look to leave their current airline for similar status in MileagePlus. But if things calm down, or if you think you're doing even more poorly on your current airline, United has a published status challenge path. The Fine Print…
They don't get the publicity of airline and hotel plans, but car-rental loyalty plans are rich in perks. You will usually receive larger and/or more interesting vehicles for lower prices, bypass counter formalities, and be able to go directly from the shuttle bus to a special elite rental area. Avis generally won't match status from another rental firm, but National and Hertz are eager to do so. Also check to see if your credit cards offer elite car-rental status.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2012 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.