This might be obvious to most people, but it was not to me when I was a novice frequent flier. I thought that every mile I earned, no matter how I earned it had the same value. That is not true at all. Airlines award two types of miles. The regular mileage one earns are called Redeemable Miles (RDM) or Award Miles. These miles add up every time you perform any activity that earn you miles – like fly (duh!), make a charge on your airline branded credit card, rent a car, etc. The amount of miles you earn depends upon the activity. For example, you earn 1 mile for every mile flown, 1 mile for every Dollar charged on the branded credit card, etc. The earning rate also depends on your Elite status level. For example, if you are at an Elite level on an airline, you may actually earn more than 1 mile for every mile flown. These miles can be accumulated and redeemed for a free trip or an upgrade award. Hence, the term ‘award’ or ‘redeemable’ miles.
To qualify for Elite Status on an airline, you have to earn ‘Status’ miles. Airlines also refer to them as ‘Elite Qualification Miles’ (EQM). Some airline may also refer to them by the titles they have for their elite levels. For example, Delta airlines calls its status miles ‘Medallion Qualification Miles’ (MQM), named as such for their Medallion elite levels. Status miles are awarded by the airlines to award Elite status to travelers who are loyal to their airline. Typically an airline only awards status miles when you take a trip and fly on an aircraft operated by the airline itself or one of its Alliance partners.
There are a few exceptions – some airlines such as Delta and United also award status miles to their branded credit card users when they purchase tickets on the airlines website using the branded card. They also award status miles to the branded credit card users when they charge a certain (very large) amount on the card over a year. For example, United Airlines awards 5,000 status miles if you charge $35,000 in a year on their branded Visa card.
Status miles are quirky in many ways. They might not equal the actual miles flown. For example, if flying on an ultra cheap ticket, you may earn less that the miles flown or earn no status miles at all. (I will discuss this in a later post. This is a topic dear to my heart as I once painfully earned only 1600 status miles for a 8000 mile trip!) The reverse scenario is also true where one may earn multiples of the miles flown if one is flying in Business or First class.
Reaching milestones of status miles is what gets you to Elite levels. Typical airline elite level milestones are at 25,000, 50,000 and 100,000 status miles. Levels are earned on status miles earned in a calendar year (there are exceptions – for example, British Midland (BMI) computes status miles on a rolling 12 month window). Once you earn an ‘Elite’ level, you stay at that level till the end of the following calendar year, with maybe a month or so grace period.