Deadlines are approaching: Don't miss out on your rewards
Are you a frequent flier, frequent car renter or frequent hotel guest? Have you checked the calendar lately? Important deadlines are fast approaching. If you don't plan ahead, you may lose your chance for hard-earned rewards.
That would be too bad, because this year loyalty programs have made a comeback and there are opportunities for significant rewards. This is especially true of the airline programs. As most of the major full-service airlines recover from aggressive cost restructuring, they are focusing their attention back on their loyal customers, who are more important to them than ever. Today's loyalty programs can snag you the best airline seats, hotel rooms and low-mileage cars; complimentary access to airport lounges, concierge floors, and gyms; and, increasingly, special awards tailored to the members' own needs and interests.
For example, this year I will exceed 200,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) with my preferred carrier, Delta Air Lines. As a means of reaching out to me and rewarding me for my loyalty, Delta sent me a coupon for my choice of a) 10,000 MQMs for 2007; b) 25,000 bonus miles; or c) a free year of Crown Room Membership, which would otherwise cost me $400 out of pocket or $2,000 in tickets to earn the necessary qualifying miles. Lesson: Loyalty pays, and the more you consolidate your business with a small number of providers, the more you will benefit.
Year-end checkup
Frequent-user programs typically close their books at the end of the calendar year. That means you have until December 31 to accumulate all the frequent-flier miles -- or frequent-guest nights or frequent-driver rentals -- that you need to qualify for your program's rewards. You may also be facing an expiration deadline for some of the rewards you have already earned. Many programs give you only one to three years to cash in, and the expiration date is typically February 28. For example, membership rewards earned between January 1 and December 31, 2006, would typically expire on February 28, 2008.
For this reason, I advise travelers to give their frequent-user programs a checkup well before the December deadline. Flying the red-eye on December 31 trying to earn those last thousand miles is a really terrible way to spend New Year's Eve.
Now is a good time to review how many qualifying miles (or nights or car rentals) you still need to qualify for elite status with your preferred airlines, car rental companies and hotels. You don't want to miss out on the benefits of elite membership because of careless planning.
If you're close to reaching the minimum level required to maintain your current status, or if you are just a few steps from a higher level, now is the time to act. Otherwise you will run into the holiday rush. Here's what to do.
First, take stock of your program and see where you stand. Can you reach an elite status with one more flight, a short hotel stay or an extra car rental? If yes, consider visiting Spokane in December rather than in January, or maybe treat yourself to a fall getaway with a weekend hotel visit and a nice rental car. Business hotels often offer discounted rates over the weekend, and rental companies like Hertz sometimes offer discounts on their special-collection cars on the weekend as well.
Remember, the objective is to obtain preferred status at the lowest possible price, so look for low fares. If you don't need hotel nights, take a day trip to top off your airline qualifying status. For example, I can leave southern California in the morning, fly to Atlanta or Cincinnati and get back home for dinner -- usually earning around 5,000 qualifying miles on Delta for less than $450.
Once you've examined your direct qualifying opportunities, check with your program provider to see if there are other ways to make an elite grade. For example, holders of Delta's Platinum Sky Miles Card can earn 10,000 qualifying miles by charging $25,000 on the card annually. Putting your Christmas gifts on the card may do it for you.
What if your travel pattern has changed?
If you find that you are often flying an airline other than your preferred carrier (perhaps because your business routes have changed), don't be afraid to inquire about transferring your elite status to the other airline - or hotel group or car-rental company.
This little-known strategy simply involves calling a competing travel provider's membership office, explaining your new travel circumstances, and requesting that they match the status you hold with your current travel provider. Many companies will be happy to do so in exchange for getting your business, which they can see will be lucrative. But you must fulfill your part of the bargain: You must prove that you actually have elite status with a competing travel provider, and you must use the new provider soon and regularly. Most programs will allow only one lifetime "courtesy match," and if you try to scam the program, you'll be denied benefits.
Don't stop at the top level of elite status
If you have already reached the highest level of elite status in your loyalty program, you may think you've capped out and should throw your business to a second or even third provider. Think again. The more business you keep with your preferred partner, the greater the rewards. I have found, for example, that when my miles creep up over 75,000 or 100,000 in a year, I start getting unannounced benefits like fee waivers, not to mention upgrades galore. In fact, although I have never paid for a conventional first-class or business-class ticket in the last 15 years, I have always sat in the first-class or business section.
So go ahead, rack up the miles with one provider. Think of it as putting distance between you and your competitors -- other travelers. Consolidation also keeps tracking simple. It is no fun learning you're short at the end of the year because you have too many programs chasing too few miles.
When you're set for this year, get started on 2007. Many airlines offer special discounted flights in the slow winter months. For example, Delta is offering $99 one-way fares on their new route from JFK to London ($499 business class). I'm taking advantage of this, starting 2007 off with a nice 15,000 MQMs for my flight from Orange County to London.
In sum, now is the time to organize your travel programs for another year of rewards and upgrades. Whatever your reasons for going the extra mile, be certain that your program is going the distance for you. If it isn't, find yourself a program that will.

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