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HOW TO GET ELITE FOR CHEAP(ER)
By Joe Brancatelli
March 20, 2013 --With some hotels devaluing frequent-guest plans, the airlines planning changes to frequent flier programs and analysts clucking about waning loyalty it's logical to think business travelers have given up the ghost on our magnificent obsession.

But logic is actually what keeps us tied to frequency plans even as they are less rewarding than ever. What, after all, is the alternative? Accepting that we deserve nothing in exchange for our travel custom?

Yet there is a useful and practical middle ground. As the real value of airline and hotel programs move to their elite strata—those rarefied levels where the travel industry actually offers tangible benefits in return for frequent, heavy spending—there's an opportunity to do much better for ourselves.

Airlines and hotels claim there are strict rules for attaining elite status in their programs. Unless, of course, there aren't. The carriers say you must fly at least 25,000 miles a year for entry-level elite status, but they'll happily offer you a complimentary "status match" if you're already elite with another airline. Alternately, they'll offer a "challenge" to reach elite status much faster than usual. Hotel chains may set minimum-night rules to attain their elite levels, but they'll also let you into those special plans if you carry the right credit card.

These back-door arrangements mean we can open real and metaphoric doors to freeupgrades, special perks and other freebies for just a fraction of the activity that the travel industry publicly demands. The cut-rate road to elite status goes a long way to restoring the real value of airline and hotel frequency programs.

How can you slip in through the back door? Here's an airline-by-airline, hotel-by-hotel list. And one tip: Everything is negotiable, especially if the airline or hotel thinks it can garner additional revenue from you.

Something special in the air
Alaska Airlines: Despite its low profile and prosaic name, the Alaska Mileage Plan is flexible, with partnerships with American and Delta airlines and a half-dozen major international lines. There's no published status march or elite challenge offer, but Alaska Air will talk about both. Call the service center at 800-654-5669.

American Airlines: American AAdvantage is generous (more than 8.5 percent of American's 2011 capacity was award tickets), but squirrelly about status matches. Airline executives claim it only offer status challenges, but last year details of a fairly generous free match plan leaked on the Net. Bottom line: the higher your elite status and the more you spend with a competitive airline, the more willing American is to talk. Call to the customer-service line (800-882-8880) and negotiate. Meanwhile, $450-a-year AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard earns 10,000 elite-qualifying miles after $40,000 in spend in a calendar year.

Delta Air Lines: Delta SkyMiles is notorious for limited awards at lower-mileage levels. 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. The $450-a-year Delta Reserve Card from Amex earns 10,000 elite-status miles after your first purchase and 15,000 elite miles for each $30,000 of spend in a calendar year.

US Airways: Unlike other plans, Dividend Miles sells elite status outright. Depending on how much flying you do with US Airways and how high up in the four-step Dividend Miles elite program you wish to go, prices range from $249 to $3,999. It'll even sell you a 90-day elite trial.

United Airlines: United MileagePlus offers a 90-day published challenge to reach elite status.

Virgin America: The Virgin Elevate plan is currently offering status matches to certain elite members of American and United airlines. But the published offers ends on April 30. You might get more generous terms if you email statusmatch@virginamerica.com and discuss terms. You'll also receive 10,000 status points when you charge $25,000 to the $49-a-year Virgin Visa Signature card from Barclay.

Getting to the hotel suite life
Best Western: Elite levels of Best Western Rewards aren't rich—there are only sporadic room upgrades—so the public status-match plan isn't compelling even though it's an easy get. The Best Western Rewards MasterCard from Barclay is also a fast route to elite: It has no annual fee and will give you Gold Elite status after your first purchase and Diamond status each year you spend $10,000.

Club Carlson: Radisson, Country Inns and Park Inn/Park Plaza hotels are playing catch-up, so Club Carlson is currently matching other chains' elite status with gusto. (Call 888-288-8889 to negotiate.) You'll also receive Gold Elite status (room upgrades, free Internet, late check-out) if you own at least 200 shares of Rezidor Hotels, a partner in Club Carlson. Otherwise, the $75-a-year Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa from US Bank is bundled with Gold status.

Hilton Hotels: With 3,900 hotels and 10 global brands, Hilton HHonors is omnipresent. But it is so thoroughly devalued that its elite status is probably best only as a safety net for frequent business travelers. The $95-a-year Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa from Citibank will grant you instant Gold status, good for free Internet, room upgrades, late check-out and free continental breakfast. It's a good investment for those times you need Hilton's global reach. Otherwise, concentrate your stays with another chain to reach its elite status.

Hyatt Hotels: There are no published status matches or challenge programs for Gold Passport. However, Hyatt offers a 60-day challenge with proof of equivalent status in a competitive hotel chain. Call Gold Passport's service line (800-228-3360) for complete details. Or you can score Platinum status--room upgrades, free Internet, late check-out--with the $75 Hyatt Visa from Chase. You'll receive additional elite credit toward the lavish Diamond level based on annual card spend. Chase's $395-a-year United Airlines MileagePlus Club Card also includes Gold Passport Platinum status.

InterContinental Hotels: Priority Club Rewards covers several popular brands (Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo) as well as InterContinental. The plan has 4,500 hotels worldwide, but its elite levels are unimpressive. The best option is getting the Priority Club Select Visa from Chase. For $49 a year (fee waived for the first year), you get Platinum Elite level, good for late check-outs and room upgrades.

Marriott Hotels: Marriott Rewards isn't notably rich at either the standard or elite levels, but the program is massive, covering about 4,000 hotels and 15 brands, including Ritz-Carlton and independent properties aligned with the new Autograph Collection. The chain has no published status matches or challenges. But it will frequently offer "equivalent" status to an elite player in another hotel program after a challenge. The qualification period is usually 90 days. Call the Rewards service center (801-468-4000) and discuss options. You'll also receive enough credit to reach Silver Elite status--late check-out and free Internet at some hotels-- with the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa from Chase. The $85 annual fee is waived in the first year.

Starwood Hotels: Compared to other hotel plans, Starwood Preferred Guest requires far too much spending to earn an award night. The program is so overpriced that you should skip it altogether unless you're an elite member. The good news? The SPG Gold Elite status (room upgrades, late check-out and free Internet) is bundled with the American Express Platinum card. The card isn't cheap ($450 a year), but it is laden with business-travel perks worth far more than the annual fee.
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 © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.