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If you want good service when you fly, the first rule is to pick an airline and stick with it. Stick with it even if it means an occasional red-eye back from the West Coast or an inconvenient three-hour layover in Milwaukee. Even when the check-in clerk at San Francisco International Airport is rude. The goal is to become an elite member of that carrier’s frequent flyer club. This should be the only thing that matters to you when you book a flight. “I’d rather be a somebody on one airline than a nobody on three,” sighed a seatmate on a recent flight. Just watch how the flight attendants take meal orders in business class. They know your frequent flyer status and treat you accordingly. The more miles you have flown, the more likely you will get your choice of entr�es. But that’s just a taste of what elite travelers enjoy. These are the passengers who are called first from the standby list; who get upgraded, for free, to business class and first class; who get special reservation phone numbers; whose luggage comes out first at the carousel; who are assigned those seats with extra leg room in coach; and who get to check in ahead of everybody else. Airlines may be klutzy — remember United’s performance last summer? — but they aren’t stupid. Frequent flyers are the passengers most likely to book four-figure, last-minute flights. Even if you aren’t one of those on-the-go types, it’s worth your while to be treated as one. Most frequent flyer programs — including Delta Air Lines’s SkyMiles, Continental Airlines’s OnePass, American Airlines’s AAdvantage, TWA Aviators, and United Mileage Plus — offer three levels of membership (silver, gold, and platinum, or some variation of that theme). Generally, the real payoff comes in becoming a gold member. Be sure to read the fine print about how to qualify for the elite levels, because there are some important differences between the programs that may affect your choice of a primary carrier. (Of course, if you live in Chicago, chances are that United will be your primary carrier; in Minneapolis, Northwest; in Atlanta, Delta, etc.) Most airlines distinguish between “actual” miles flown and “accumulated” miles. The miles that you earn by using affinity credit and debit cards, staying at affiliated hotels, and renting cars don’t generally apply to your frequent flyer status. On United, it takes 25,000 actual miles flown (or 30 flight segments) in a calendar year to become a Premier member, and 50,000 miles (or 60 flight segments) to reach Premier Executive status, which is where the benefits really kick in. At 100,000 miles in a year (or 100 segments) you reach United’s august 1K level. American uses a “points” system that rewards flying first-class or full-fare economy but penalizes penny-pinching. Most carriers have partnership relationships with other carriers. While you may earn miles, sometimes you don’t earn status. For example, Delta miles can be applied to your United account, but not toward your Premier status. However, miles flown on a Star Alliance member (for example, Air Austria or Lufthansa) are status miles on United. Frequent flyer clubs are decidedly undemocratic. Once you become an elite member, the benefits and bonuses start rolling in. For example, United gives Premier members a 25 percent mileage bonus every time they fly United; Premier Execs and 1K members, 100 percent. Continental’s even more generous, with bonuses ranging from 50 percent to 125 percent. With each level, the service and attention also improves. United 1K members get priority airport check-in; wait-listing and standby status; a special reservations number; discounts on the Red Carpet Club lounge membership; use of Star Alliance club lounges when traveling overseas. They are exempt from blackout dates for award travel and have access to special airport 1K Service Centers. Many flyers use their miles to obtain free flights. Typically, a domestic round trip costs 25,000 miles; 40,000, if you are traveling business or first-class. But if a free flight is your idea of a busman’s holiday, it might be better to spend your miles on upgrades to business or first-class. Compared with the cost of paying for a full price business or first class ticket, upgrades are relatively economical. On Delta, you can upgrade one class for 5,000 miles if you paid full fare; 10,000 miles for discounted fares. The other alternative is to use coupons to upgrade. United sends Premier members four free 500-mile upgrade certificates for every 10,000 paid miles flown. The carrier also sells upgrade kits at a discount ($125 per four, rather than $200). The longer the flight, the more coupons you must use to upgrade. Of course, there are rarely as many first/business seats as people who want to upgrade. Here’s where your status really counts: The most elite get the upgrade seats first. 1K members get first crack, 100 hours before the flight. At 72 hours, seats are made available in in this order: Premier Execs, full-fare Premier members, then non-Premier full-fares. Twenty-four hours in advance, Premier members with discounted tickets get whatever seats are left over. Fat chance. Don’t you wish you were a member of the club that will have you as a member? Monica Bay, editor in chief of Law Technology News, is a Mileage Plus addict and the daughter of a retired United Airlines pilot.

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