As we enter the final weeks of 2015, frequent fliers begin asking a familiar question: "Will I be able to hold onto my airline elite status for another year?"
Before you answer that question, ask yourself this one: Is airline elite status worth the trouble?
Airline loyalty programs, including those of major legacy carriers United and Delta, have undergone seismic changes in the last two years that have included the inception of additional elite-qualification requirements. American will change its loyalty program in 2016.
"It's harder than ever to earn elite status," Ben Schlappig, founder of the loyalty-program blog One Mile at a Time, said in an email. "Not only do you have to fly a certain number of miles or segments, but you also have to spend a certain amount of money on airfare each year to earn status with some airlines."
Why bother? "In general, top-tier status is as valuable as ever because it confers perks which you couldn't otherwise get, such as international upgrades, lounge access, bonus miles and fee waivers," Schlappig said.
"Low-tier status is worth less as airlines have taken certain benefits away, and most airline co-branded credit cards also now offer similar perks, such as priority boarding and free checked bags," he said.
First, some background. When you fly an airline, you earn two kinds of miles. Award miles are the kind of miles you now generally earn based on your spending with the airline. Those can be redeemed for award tickets. Elite-qualifying miles count toward earning elite status and are calculated based on distance flown and fare class.
The easiest way to earn elite-qualifying miles or segments is still by flying, and you might even be able to earn more miles than you think.
"It is very important to decide where to credit your flights," Schlappig said. "Most major airlines belong to alliances." That means you can credit flight activity on any number of carriers to your program of choice. To see which airlines belong to which alliances, go to www.lat.ms/1Q2UGpM.
Not all airlines credit partner flights the same way. For instance, if you flew Korean Air, some fares that would earn Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles would not earn Delta SkyMiles, so it pays to know the earning rules of your program.
"Crediting your flights to the right program could be the difference between achieving elite status or not," Schlappig said.
Some airline co-branded cards can also help you earn elite status through spending.
Among them, Schlappig said, are the Citi Executive AAdvantage card, which offers 10,000 bonus elite-qualifying miles when spending $40,000 on the card in a calendar year, and the Delta Reserve card, which offers 10,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles as a sign-up bonus and up to 30,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles for achieving certain spending thresholds.
It is also worth asking your friends and co-workers to see whether any of them can give you the gift of elite status.
"Some airlines, such as Delta and Alaska, give their top-tier elite members the benefit of nominating someone else for elite status," Schlappig said. "Corporate travel departments often have the ability to nominate employees for status on a case-by-case basis."
Finally, if you are not going to fly or spend enough to qualify for elite status, some airlines sell "boosts," in which you can retain your status by paying a one-time fee.
"The price is typically outrageously high," Schlappig said, "and I would do everything possible to avoid having to pay, including taking a year-end trip instead to earn the miles you need."