HOW TO WIN THE ELITE-STATUS GAME
By Joe Brancatelli
July 17, 2014 --When I learned that the inventor, author and frequent business traveler Phil Baker was scheduled to be in Hong Kong on some of the same days this week as your humble scribe, I pitched him a dumpling dinner at an obscure place a brisk walk from my hotel.
Baker was game, but decided he should switch to my hotel, the Hyatt Regency in the Tsim Sha Tsui district. I urged him to call Hyatt and ask for a "status match" into the elite levels of Gold Passport, the chain's rich frequent-guest program. Hyatt wanted his business, so it promptly matched Baker's Marriott Rewards status for a few months. It also offered him a "status challenge," a fast-track process where Baker will keep his Hyatt credentials for another year so long as he stays a certain number of additional nights.
Baker won the status game. He parlayed his loyalty and elite standing in one frequent-travel program into similar status in a competing program. And that's no surprise. Airlines and hotels are constantly trying to poach each other's customers—especially high-paying, high-value frequent travelers—and the quickest way to steal our business is to match the perks and privileges we get from our preferred suppliers.
Besides a short-term status match and the show-us-the-money status challenge, there is often another way to get immediate status at an airline or hotel: Buy your way in, either by paying for the credentials outright or by taking an airline or hotel credit card.
I've detailed the status match/status challenge/buy-in policies of more than a dozen major airlines and hotel chains below. But before you go charging off in search of more status than you can use, consider these caveats:
Now, onto the elite program specifics, airlines first followed by hotels:
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Despite its low profile, the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is admired for the flexibility of its point. It has partnerships with American and Delta airlines and several major international carriers. What it doesn't have, however, is a published status match program. But Alaska does match status or offer a challenge to travelers who can prove their current elite level at another airline. Call the Mileage Plan customer-service line at 800-654-5669 and negotiate.
American Airlines AAdvantage: The American AAdvantage program has been aggressively courting the elite fliers of Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Call the service center (800-882-8880) and discuss terms. You'll also get credit for flying American's primary international partners, British Airways and Japan Airlines. Meanwhile, if you had AAdvantage status last year, you can still buy your way back in for cash.
Delta SkyMiles: Delta Air Lines is switching SkyMiles to a revenue-based earnings scheme that will make the program less rewarding. And Delta already has a much-deserved reputation for restricting award availability and charging high rates for seats it does make available. But there is good news: Not only does Delta have a published status challenge program, in the last 30 days it has lowered the number of miles and flight segments needed to qualify. Even better, if you ace the challenge, your status will last through February, 2016.
JetBlue TrueBlue: Shortly after Delta Air Lines announced its switch to a revenue-based program, JetBlue TrueBlue mounted its first status match. That promotion has expired, but call the airline (800-538-2583) and negotiate. However, TrueBlue remains a fairly limited program and its quasi-elite Mosaic level isn't particularly rewarding.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards: Southwest Airlines has generally eschewed status matches or challenges, but Rapid Rewards has recently done some targeted promotions. Call the customer service line (800-445-5764) and negotiate.
US Airways Dividend Miles: Now merged with American Airlines, US Airways will almost surely scrap Dividend Miles when the two carriers combine operations more fully. But if you want to gamble, you can buy 90 days of elite status and then fly a challenge to keep it through February, 2016.
United MileagePlus: Given United's ongoing operational woes, its decision to match Delta's switch to a revenue-based program and a recent devaluation of award charts, it's hard to understand why business fliers would desire status in MileagePlus. But if you think you can benefit by switching, United has a published status challenge path. Win the challenge and your status will be valid through February, 2016.
Virgin America Elevate: Virgin America's Elevate program has no published status match scheme, but it has targeted Delta, United and Southwest customers in recent months. Call the airline (877-359-8474) and discuss your options.
Best Western Rewards: Best Western Rewards has long offered a public status match. A special webpage details the procedure, which isn't much more complicated than proving your standing in another hotel plan. One warning: Best Western's elite-status benefits are weaker than many other hotel groups.
Club Carlson: Club Carlson, the frequency program of Radisson, Country Inn and other hotel brands, has a generous status match program. Although there are no published details, getting first- or second-tier elite in Club Carlson is often no more challenging than proving your status at another hotel chain. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and discuss details.
Hilton HHonors: Hilton has repeatedly devalued the HHonors program in recent years, so it's no surprise that its status matches and challenges have been hit-or-miss affairs. The best strategy is to buy Gold HHonors status by taking the $95-a-year Citi HHonors Reserve credit card. At the moment, Citi is even offering a $100 statement credit for new cardholders, which means you can have your Gold status free for the first year.
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 status challenge with proof of equivalent status in a competitive hotel chain. And as Phil Baker learned, short-term status matches are sometimes available, too. Call Gold Passport's service line (800-228-3360) for complete details. You can also score ongoing first-level status with the $75-a-year Hyatt Card from Chase or Chase's $395-a-year United Airlines Club Card.
IHG Club Rewards: Formerly known as Priority Club Rewards, IHG Club Rewards covers several popular brands (Holiday Inn Express, InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, and Hotel Indigo). The program seems to match your status in other major chains (call 888-211-9874 to discuss), but it's a bit of a mirage since IHG's elite level benefits are unimpressive.
Marriott Rewards: Although Marriott Rewards has no published standards, they offer fast-track status challenges. They will also occasionally do targeted promotions to existing members. Call the Marriott Rewards service center (801-468-4000) and let the negotiations begin. If you don't want to haggle, acquire Chase's Marriott Premier Card. The $85 annual fee is waived in the first year and bundled with enough Marriott credits to guarantee entry-level elite status each year.
Starwood Preferred Guest: The frequency program of Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels and other brands, Starwood Preferred Guest has jettisoned its once-generous status match and challenge programs. But you can negotiate with a note to email@example.com. Or, get the $450-a-year American Express Platinum Card. It includes Gold Level SPG 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 © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.