Fliers face a Catch-22 these days: Either you pay a hefty fee to check a bag (hoping and praying it actually arrives intact) or you cram everything except that tube of toothpaste! into a carry-on bag (hoping and praying there'll be room for your bag in the overhead bin). A story in the New York Times this weekend discussed how some travelers are getting around this predicament: gate-checking your bag to avoid the fee; booking a seat in the back half of the plane so you’ll be among the first board; or flying Southwest, which doesn’t charge to check bags. But it left out my favorite tactic, which comes with tons of extra benefits: attaining elite status in a frequent-flier program.
You don’t have to be Ryan Bingham (aka George Clooney) to do this, at least on American Airlines. AA has a semi-secret program called the Gold Challenge that lets you join the elite ranks of its AAdvantage program for earning just 5,000 points in a three-month period (there’s also a Platinum Challenge with a 10,000-point minimum). It’s a lot easier than you think, especially if you’re taking a couple of trips to or from New York to California, or visiting South America or Asia or even Europe. I’ve done it twice already, and find that the benefits of being Gold or Platinum are even better than the miles you earn. For one thing, you don’t get charged for checking a bag, and you board first no problem with the overhead bin. Even better, you have a dedicated line for checking in and going through security. You can get an exit-row seat assignment; you’re eligible for upgrades (though those are becoming rarer; and you get bonus miles every time you fly. Plus a whole lot of other nifty little benefits, including on AA’s partner airlines.
The Challenges are explained in detail in this entry on
but here are the basics:
My partner Michael and I earned Platinum status last year by flying from New York to Rio de Janeiro over Christmas 2008 (around 9,600 miles, or 4,800 points), then taking weekend trips in January and February to London (3,400), Miami (1,100), and Toronto (700). That put us just over the 10,000-point threshold and earned us Platinum status for all of 2009. We didn’t fly AA enough to requalify this year, so they dropped us down to Gold for 2010. Not too shabby we still get to skip the lines and pity all the poor saps trying in vain to find a spot to stash their duffel bag.
P.S. I'm not shilling for AA. I just think this is a great program, especially if you live somewhere where American has a lot of flights (New York, L.A., Miami). I'm surprised more people don't know about it.