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Cheat sheet: How to get an airline elite status match

Business Traveler Baggage Claim

 (REUTERS)

Airline frequent flyer programs give extra benefits (upgrades, free checked bags, and lounge access among them) when you attain upper-tier “status,” and they sometimes offer incentives to switch your loyalty from the program you use the most. It’s called a “status match” in airline parlance. So if you’d like to leverage your status on one airline’s program to get status on another airline, here’s how to do it.

Airlines are competing for your business especially when carriers merge and become stronger. They know they can lure flyers away from other airlines because of their expanded network, and many flyers take the bait especially when media coverage touts the new airline's program.

The coming American Airlines-US Airways merger has opened new possibilities. American is a member of OneWorld, and US Airways is a member of Star Alliance. The new carrier will belong to oneworld, and it will work hard to bring over Star Alliance loyalists from the US Airways program while also courting other airline elite members to take advantage of the new airline's expanded program.

Carriers often provide status matches to certain tiers within their program to give new customers a chance to see what it's like in the loyalty program without having to do all of the work to get there.

What is required of most airlines is usually a copy of one’s current elite credentials and account activity. Some airlines are more lenient than others especially when a traveler is paying higher, more lucrative fares.  

Other airlines offer challenges requiring new members to show they will be loyal by flying a certain amount within a specified time period to maintain a status level for the whole year. Be aware that some airlines limit the number of challenges available per member within a certain period of time so be sure to ask as it varies frequently. For example, if you take a status match this year, you may not be eligible for it again next year. And some airlines offer status matches just once per member.

When applying for a status match, it is wise to decide if another airline may serve your needs better than another. And while one carrier may not have worked for you in the past, recent mergers may have made it a better. For example, Charlotte, N.C. travelers may not have been interested in American's AAdvantage program before, but now that it is merging with US Airways, it is the new “home program”.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska offers status matches by simply showing that you have elite status with another carrier. No mileage requirements or co-pay hoops to jump through. Status matches can only be done once. Send a copy of your account statement, driver's license or passport, and elite level card from another carrier to elite.flyer@alaskaair.com. Matches take about two weeks to process; those requested before Nov. 1 of the calendar year are good until the following February. Those requested after Nov. 1 are good for the entire following year.

MVP Gold 75K, the airline's top level, is not eligible for a status match; only its bottom two levels. If you have substantial travel on Alaska coming up and are elite with another carrier, this may be a great option to enjoy some elite perks.

American Airlines

AA does not offer an outright status match opting instead to challenge new members to fly a certain amount within a period of time in addition to paying a fee. The airline offers the challenge for all but their top tiers although these are sometimes granted an exception based on the types of fares paid and number of trips taken. To ask about a challenge from your current carrier, call 800-882-8880.

The cost varies depending upon when it is requested in the calendar year. Flyers will spend around $120 for a Gold challenge (lowest elite tier) and $180-240 for a Platinum challenge (middle elite tier). The gist of the challenge is that one must fly 5,000 Elite Qualifying Points (not the same as miles) within three months or 10,000 Elite Qualifying Points within three months to earn Gold and Platinum status respectively.

The caveat with the new Elite Qualifying Points system is that discounted fares only count for half (one mile=half a point) while more expensive tickets count as a whole point or 1.5 points (one mile=one point). The breakdown is found here.

Typically, American does not offer elite status during the challenge period meaning no upgrades for new American flyers until they complete the requirements successfully.

Delta Air Lines

DL offers immediate status matches based on various factors including current travel with one’s existing airline. To qualify, visit this special web page to submit your information online. People who have requested status matches before are not eligible, and you must be a non-Medallion member at the time of requesting the match. Status is granted immediately so that participants can enjoy the benefits as they work to meet the requirements.

Silver, Gold, and Platinum Medallion levels are eligible for matches and are earned based on the Medallion Qualifying Miles or Medallion Qualifying Segments earned. Like American, these are based on the type of fare purchased. No matter when the status is earned, it is good until the following February.

In 2014, Delta is overhauling its Medallion program adding in a new component requiring people to spend a certain amount of money with the airline. This may throw a wrench into its current status match program so if you want status with Delta, do it quickly. More details on this new revenue requirement can be found here.

United Airlines

UA offers a simple elite match program. The airline offers status matches to an equivalent level with one’s current program and requires a corresponding number of miles to be flown within 90 days to maintain that specific status. Uniquely, status match participants can fly on either United or Copa Airlines to qualify, and all fares are eligible. The new status can be earned based on mileage flown or on the number of flight segments flown within 90 days, which is helpful for people who travel frequently but on short-distance flights.

During the challenge period, one gets the status automatically allowing upgrade and elite bonus miles opportunities. Email premiermatch@united.com to qualify, but visit United for more information first. No fees are required to participate.

Only status for the lower tiers of the program (Premier Silver, Premier, Gold, and Premier Platinum) are available for match. If people have asked for a status match with either United or Continental in the past five years, they do not qualify for a status match.

US Airways

US offers a similar trial challenge program to American’s, which requires a fee. It costs $200 to make a run for Silver, $400 for Gold, and $600 for Platinum. The fees for this program are a bit expensive, but worth it for those who have immediate travel needs on US Airways. The requirements in place include a trial period of 90 days flying 7,500 miles or ten segments for Silver; 15,000 miles or 20 segments for Gold; 22,500 miles or 30 segments for Platinum; or 30,000 miles or 40 segments for top-tier Chairman's Preferred.

It is open to anyone even if you don’t have elite status with another carrier, which is a nice perk for new flyers. US Airways is one of the few airline programs that offers a challenge to match up to its top tier.

To participate, apply here. This is one of the simplest elite trial programs out there and may be worth it for those looking to grab top status before the completion of the merger with American (since AA's status match program is based on type of fare booked). Status is awarded immediately so participants can enjoy it while meeting the requirements.

Or, flyers can simply buy Preferred status at the astronomical cost of $1,499 for Silver all the way up to $3,999 for Chairman's Preferred. Some companies that require people to travel frequently may be willing to pony up for this cost so that travelers can benefit from free checked bags and first class upgrades.

Virgin America

Virgin America occasionally offers status match challenges, like the most recent one to poach United and Delta flyers found here. Simply email a copy (screen shots will do) of your elite account summary with another airline to statusmatch@virginamerica.com.

The deadline to meet the airline's requirements of flying 8,000 status points (not miles) for Elevate Silver or 12,000 status points for Elevate Gold status is June 30, 2013. Five status points are earned for every dollar spent with the airline. Cardholders of the Virgin America Visa Signature credit card have significantly reduced status point requirements to retain status. Participants receive Elevate status immediately to enjoy as they work toward their goal, but to keep status all year, they must meet the status point requirements.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.