Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jetset: "The Joy of Double Miles"

I didn’t need to go to Boston. And even if I did, the quickest way would be flying through Chicago or Washington. So why did I fork out 875 bucks for a last-minute roundtrip ticket from Beijing to Boston via San Francisco? Three magic letters: EQM – or elite-qualifying miles.

In the convoluted world of frequent flier programs, all miles are not created equal. Most casual fliers focus on accumulating redeemable miles (RDM) because they deliver free tickets or other awards; you can earn them by staying at partner hotels or shopping with an affinity credit card.

Hardcore mileage addicts, however, focus on EQM, which bring special status and sundry perks, and can only be earned by actually flying. Most airlines offer three elite tiers – for customers who fly 25,000 miles (silver), 50,000 miles (gold) and 100,000 miles (platinum) within a calendar year.

Having maintained at least gold status with United Airlines for almost a decade, I have come to count on the “extras” – double RDM for every UA flight (enough for a free domestic US ticket after just one transpacific trip), pre-booking a coveted exit-row seat (more legroom than in domestic first class), and bypassing crowds at check-in counters and boarding gates (more time relaxing in lounges and guaranteed space for carry-ons). These all provide some solace in the increasingly less-friendly skies.

For China-based travelers, it takes three to four transpacific roundtrips to achieve gold status – ordinarily not a problem for road warriors flying on corporate dimes. But as businesses cut travel budgets, airlines are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Trade group IATA predicts the global airline industry will lose a combined USD 5 billion this year.

So how do airlines lure back their most loyal passengers? More EQM! Pioneered by American Airlines and quickly matched by other major US carriers, double EQM promotions are now all the rage. Until June 15, you can rake in twice as many EQM on all American, United, Continental and Delta (along with its Northwest subsidiary) flights. Translation: After just two transpacific roundtrips, you’re set for gold status on your favorite US airline for the rest of 2009 and the whole of 2010. (Each carrier has slightly different fine print – see their websites.) Non-US-based carriers, however, are less generous; so far none have followed suit.

For my Boston hop, I chose to connect through San Francisco because it offered some 2,500 more miles than the Chicago or DC routing. For a 17,236-mile Beijing-Boston roundtrip, USD 875 was already an appealing fare. Throwing in double EQM (the promotion) and double RDM (my status), I was sold. After a hearty lobster meal in Chinatown and a boisterous dorm party at Harvard, even jet lag felt like a small price to pay. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the May 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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