The Brancatelli File



July 19, 2001 --In case you hadn't noticed, I'm no John Milton and the elite levels of the frequent-travel programs are hardly Paradise. But my poetic shortcomings notwithstanding, I am compelled to deliver this bit of ignominy and shame: Many of you have suddenly come to the realization that Paradise--your hard-won elite status with your favored airlines and preferred hotels--may soon be Lost.

As business travel has collapsed in recent months, elite travelers have begun toting up their miles and room nights and concluded that, for the first time in years, they won't measure up. For the first time in years--or maybe even decades--you may not be flying enough miles and piling up enough room nights in 2001 to qualify for bronze, gold, silver, diamond or platinum elite status in 2002.

Loss of elite status--or even a step down to a lower elite level than the one to which you're accustomed--is certainly the frequent-travel equivalent of Paradise Lost. As Johnny Boy so floridly reminds us, loss of status is nothing less than a dungeon horrible on all sides round. Gone will be the much-needed upgrades to first class. Banishment to the huddled masses waiting for general boarding is assured. Sacrificed forever will be the minimal extra attention and courtesies extended to an elite-level traveler. Automatic suite upgrades will be few and far between without elite frequent-stay status.

But all may not be lost. With a bit of unconquerable will-—and a hell of a lot of advance planning--there may be a way for you to salvage some or all of your elite perks for 2002. Let's consider some things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme and see if we can discover a little transcendent brightness in the utter darkness.

With more than five months remaining in the qualification year, you can still earn status in 2002 by traveling more in 2001. If you're company won't pay--and, obviously, they won't or you wouldn't be in this predicament--then travel on your own. One strategy: Don't cash miles and points for free vacations this year. Buy your vacations instead. Airline fares and hotel rooms are incredibly cheap for leisure travel just now. Take advantage of that fact by purchasing your vacation travel, thus piling up the points and miles. And consider one of those really far-away vacations. Hong Kong, Sydney, London, Tokyo and Bali are all dirt cheap and one vacation roundtrip on those long hauls this summer would go a long way toward making up the miles you'll lose by not flying on business between Detroit and Dallas this fall. Another practical strategy: Buy coach-class tickets and standard rooms, then use miles and points to upgrade. Upgrade awards are substantially cheaper than free-travel awards and you still get mileage and points for the flights and hotel stays.

Airlines and hotels are pumping out a dizzying stream of Internet-only weekend fares and room deals. Some of the offers pushed into your E-mail box are eye-popping: under $150 a weekend night at the big-deal, big-city hotels; less than $200 for weekend coast-to-coast travel; under $100 for shorter-haul flights; and just $70 or $80 a night for many swanky resort properties. If you're desperate for miles and points to keep your elite status up, take a few last-minute getaways this year. There probably isn't a cheaper way to earn qualifying miles and points.

Airlines and hotels are keenly interested in stealing the other guy's elite travelers. They'll often match your elite status if you call and express interest in switching your business. If you think you're not going to qualify for elite status on your current preferred carriers and hotel chains, call a competitor's frequent-travel plan and put yourself up for bid. Offer to switch your business if you're guaranteed elite status through 2002. They'll ask for proof of your frequent travels, of course. So send them your last statement of 2000.

Major airlines and hotel chains are not unaware that many of their most elite customers have suddenly stopped or severely curtailed their traveling. And while there's very little chance they will publicly reduce their elite-qualification levels, you can bet your last upgrade coupon that they will soon be offering some exotic requalification "challenges." You'll be offered a chance to retain your status if you fly so many miles or segments within so many weeks or if you complete so many stays within a specified period of time. So think about saving what travel you can muster this year until you get a requalification challenge from your preferred airline or hotel chain.

Admit it, you're spoiled. You've gotten used to being elite on several airlines and more than a few hotel chains. Well, this isn't the year to be arrogant. It might be wiser to focus: Concentrate your travel this year to guarantee you attain the highest possible elite level on a single airline and one hotel chain. Some elite status is better than no elite status at all.

Later this year, if you're still short of elite status or in danger or tumbling several levels, swallow your pride and call your preferred airline or hotel chain. Ask them--politely as you can, of course--if they'll carry you for a year. Point out your previous loyalty. If those pleas fall on deaf ears, then ask what you would have to do to requalify for 2002. You might be offered a private requalification deal based on your personal travel patterns. The key to success is persistence. If your first contact at the frequent-travel center is unsympathetic, then ask to speak to a supervisor. The higher up you get in the pecking order, the more likely you'll run into a person who understands the financial value of your past and future business.

Finally, don't panic. Our portion might not yet be set. After all, you're not the only frequent traveler having trouble getting back to the elite levels. If you end the year dropping an elite level or two, then so will tens of thousands of other frequent travelers. So your actual ability to upgrade may not be substantially hindered. And, as the year progresses and business travel stubbornly refuses to rebound, airlines and hotels may be forced to rethink what perks they make available to the mutual league of formerly frequent travelers who have been cast out.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.