Frequent travelers know the benefits that accrue with their loyalty on one airline. Free upgrades. Priority check-in and TSA lines. Dedicated phone lines. Free checked bags. And when you hit the magic one million milestone, as George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, did in 2009's “Up in the Air,”  the captain might even come out of the cockpit to congratulate you. Most importantly, however, you instantly become an elite level frequent flyer for life, no matter how much or how little you fly in subsequent years.

With all those recent mergers, airlines will usually combine the mileage of both airlines to help frequent flyers grow their balance. Still, there is no guarantee, and airline mergers can put frequent travelers' status in jeopardy.

History has been on our side in the past decade. American Airlines took the status and mileage balances of TWA flyers into account when it acquired the carrier. Delta did the same with Northwest combining the miles earned with Northwest and Delta for Million Miler status. Continental and United will follow suit. Any smart airline would do that lest they foment a revolt among their most loyal customers.

Airlines recognize that there is value in maintaining the loyalty of passengers and as baby boomers pursue their love of travel, the ranks of million miler flyers continue to swell.

Typically, airlines offer elite status for life to those who have flown a million miles. One million miles equate to the lowest level of status with most airlines (e.g., Lifetime Gold on American), two million miles moves travelers to the second level of elite status (e.g. Lifetime Platinum on American), and so on.

Not all of the airlines provide the benefit of lifetime elite status although most American carriers do (mainly the three mega carriers American, Delta, and United). Soon to be the fourth largest of the legacy carriers, US Airways recently announced their lifetime elite program for those who have flown a million miles. Their announcement was noticeably behind that of other airlines which have had such programs in place for a few years now.

Most airlines are very specific about what miles they count towards the accrual of elite status usually including only flown miles on the airline and its alliance partners. However, American stands out of the crowd to include any miles earned (such credit card spend and promotions) towards its AAdvantage program as part of its million mile status calculation. This makes it the easiest program in which to earn lifetime elite status. United counts elite levels from only its own UA-coded flights towards elite status whereas airlines like Delta and Continental also count its alliance partners' flights towards lifetime accrual.

Continental’s OnePass program (which will be combining with United's very soon) also offers the combined status to an elite member’s spouse although it is unclear whether this benefit will continue with the newly-merged United's program.
Either way, accruing status within one airline's mileage program is quite valuable as it leads to elite status over time even for travelers whose travel patterns may change, but still want to enjoy the benefits on certain airlines. With baggage and other airline fees clearly here to stay, reaching airline elite status can be a huge money saver. Consider your elite program wisely, and visit frequently for the latest in promotions and updates on your favorite program and sign up for fare alerts to learn about "mileage run" fares such as recent $118 round-trip trans-Continental fares that can add thousands of miles to your account with little cash outlay.

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