Andy: Sam Simon authors the website Milenomics, which is an excellent blog and one which I highly recommend. Although all his posts are highly informative, well thought-out, and entertaining, my favorite post of his so far has been on creating your own elite program, on freeing yourself from the shackles of sticking with one frequent flyer program primarily, and from participating in costly, time-consuming, and inflexible mileage runs. When pursuing elite status with one program, the most valuable thing you are spending is perhaps not the money on the flight, but your time. Sam has come up with the term T-rate, which is how much you value your time. Finally, when pursuing elite status, you are also giving up flexibility of airline choice and potential routing of your flight. If you are an elite on one airline, but another airline offers a more direct route and possibly a cheaper fare, you still might be tempted to take your trip on the airline on which you have elite status, because of the bias it introduces.

If and when you decide to break the grip of airline elite status and to pursue your own elite program, you will save money on mileage runs, save your time, which to a lot of people is more valuable than the money, and will be more flexible in their travel situations. One of the coolest perks we have as military members is that we can easily pursue strategies to create our own elite program, much more easily and cheaper than our civilian counterparts.

What is the benefit of having elite status on an airline? There are four main benefits of elite status – free checked baggage, bypassing long security lines, lounge access, and seat upgrades. (There are likely other benefits, such as reciprocal status in hotels and rental car companies, mileage multipliers, free ticket changes, etc., but for now we’ll stick with these four main ones). I’ve already written about the first three situations:

First, free checked bags is easy – as I wrote before, just showing a military ID can get you 2 or more free checked bags on almost all domestic carriers, for domestic or international travel. (some budget carriers like Spirit airlines and Allegiant air do not offer this benefit). Also, sometimes having a co-branded airline credit card can get you a free checked bag or two. Ideally though, at least for me, not checking a bag and not having to wait at the luggage carousel is the ideal situation.

Second, bypassing security lines is very easy as well for the military passenger. Just show your military ID, and this will often work. Or, even better, get your global entry pass, which includes TSA precheck, which will get you to the TSA lane in selected airports; the number is currently at 97 airports, and growing. Remember that global entry ($100) is reimbursed if you get the Amex Platinum, which has waived annual fees for military members. Even better, Travelblawg just noted that Precheck will be extended to all military personnel w/ a CAC card starting Dec 20th, at all TSA precheck airports, currently 97 and growing! This is an amazing benefit; however only extends to the active duty member and any child under 12 – it does not extend to spouses (yet!).

Third, free lounge access is obtainable too, either through using your Amex Platinum, which gets you Priority Pass, and entry into Delta, US Air, and American flights (with a boarding pass). If you want to access United Clubs, you’ll have to buy club passes (usually >50% discount on Ebay), or get the Chase United Club Card, which also has it’s annual fees waived for military members.

Finally, getting upgraded. This section will be done by Sam, as he has far more experience than I do in getting upgraded – the only time I’ve been upgraded was once, when I slipped the ticketing agent a 20BD note in a Middle Eastern Country en route to Saigon!

Sam: I’d like to first thank all of you for your service to this country.  When Andy asked me to guest write with him I was not aware of any of the military travel benefits that exist.  The benefits from airlines, airports and credit card companies for Military seem great, and align very well with the Milenomics BYOE program.

I’d say that being Upgraded is the #1 benefit elite travelers look forward too.  The first thing I’d ask you to consider is what is the threshold you have for “needing” to sit in the front of the plane.  Milenomics talks about our travel needs–not just our “wants.”  Sure we all want to sit in First all the time, for free too. But that’s not realistic unless your company pays for all your flights.

Instead of spending hard earned money on First class tickets BYOE and upgrade yourself using the following Milenomics tips:

Always check for first class awards when booking with miles.  Especially if you’re looking to book at high levels–a saver award in First would be the same number of miles, and instantly upgrade you!

United has been known to sell upgrades to first for less than the price of the first class ticket.  Check for this “Tens-of-dollars” upgrade price at T-24, and as your flight time approaches. It has been known to rise and fall–over that 24 hour period.  Sometimes they give you an offer you can’t refuse!

For Delta–if you hold an American express Gold, Platinum or Reserve Delta Card you can pay with points.  I discuss this more in detail here, but the basics are simple.  Each Skymile reduces the cost of the ticket by $.01.  So to cover $100 worth of the fare you would spend 10,000 Skymiles.

In a completely random example; a flight from MIA-ORD is priced as follows on

If you bought the $365 fare (as a true elite) you’d have to wait to find out about being upgraded. Instead BYOE, and spend your $365, plus 20,000 DL Skymiles using the pay with miles option–upgrading yourself instantly to First.  You also get Class of service bonus miles on this.

Trading/Buying status

We’re heading towards the time of year when there will be more elites than ever qualifying and re-qualifying.  One thing I wrote about in my original BYOE article was gifting mid-level status.  Both AA and DL allow giving of mid-level status as a benefit to top tier elites.  The going rate for DL gold Medallion right now is about 40,000 MR. I’m not sure if this will dip a bit due to more DM requalifing.  If you made a trade for Gold Medallion you would be Gold through next year and into Feb 2015.  If you fly DL a lot 40k MR is nothing.  You’ll also get to test drive elite status when you trade for it like this.

Another tip that is useful right now would be to buy status outright– US Airways sells their status, at all levels:

Buying up might make sense with the coming merger–as your status level should transfer over. If you’re close to a specific level this might make sense.

Remember Elite benefits of unlimited upgrades are not guaranteed. Depending on your routes, and your flexibility you may see good upgrades, or none at all.

Upgrade Instruments-

The next few months are going to be great for BYOE travelers.  This is because most elite upgrade instruments (SWU on AA, RPU/GPUs on UA) expire in February. For travel you’ll be doing between now and Jan or Feb you can score these SWU for 20,000 AA miles or so(my estimate). As we get closer to expiration expect to see trades going for far less than this–and be ready to move on them quickly.  The best place to make such trades is the coupon connection on Flyertalk.   For UA Flyers you could attempt trades for GPU/CPU with the going rate likely somewhere similar.  Ensure that when you deal for a SWU/GPU you only pay if your flight clears.

For me I do about half my travel in business and the rest in plain old coach.  Sure the more time you spend in the front of the plane the worse the back of the plane feels–but the more time you spend in the front of the plane the more likely you are to experience a Denial of Service Attack (Andy: Please link to my glossary page if the link gets broken).  The glamour of First Class flying is no longer true–and is a relic of the long ago past, and telelvision and movies which romanticize it.

One thing to watch out for: Some airlines specifically exclude military fares from being eligible for upgrades. Whatever you decide–real Elite status, or BYOE make sure to only spend what you have to, and never more than that.  Hopefully we’ve opened your eyes a little to the benefits already available to military travelers–with so much overlap why bother with the airlines’ status?

Andy: I completely agree with Sam on this – why would you ever bend over backwards to get elite airline status, when most of their benefits are obtainable for free? Be your own elite program, and reap the rewards without all the work! I want to thank Sam (who is a very prolific blogger) for going out of his way to co-write this blog post with me – to all my readers, I highly recommend Milenomics as a daily read!

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