A short guide to frequent flyer programs and getting upgraded to first class for free
If you're a frequent flyer, the airline you pick and its corresponding frequent flyer program will have a big impact on the benefits you receive. Each frequent flyer program is different, and offers unique benefits. Indeed, the benefits listed on the website of many frequent-flier programs is so complex and labyrinthine that can be very difficult for a new member to decide which program to go with. Many flyer simply choose the airline that has the largest presence at their local airport; effectively choosing convenience as the most important factor to them. However, it is worth considering what benefits you may receive before picking a program.
Some frequent flyer programs concentrate on offering free flights, and free travel as the main benefit. This is particularly the case with low-cost airlines, such as Southwest, JetBlue, or Virgin America. Keep in mind that these airlines concentrate on service in North America, and therefore will not be of much help for international travel (perhaps, except for Virgin America).
However, perhaps more exciting is the opportunity to be upgraded to first class for free. Several airlines, such as Delta and Northwest (which is the same company now, after a merger), offer unlimited complimentary upgrades to first class (North American flights only). However, to get the upgrades you must fly a certain number of miles within a calendar year. If you fly more than 25,000 miles on Delta or Delta connection flights, then you will receive Medallion status. With status, any unsold first-class seats will be used to upgrade Medallion members to first class for free. Note, however, it is done in priority order with the highest level, diamond status, followed by platinum, gold, and finally silver. Therefore, if you fly enough to achieve diamond or platinum status within a calendar year, you're likely to experience frequent upgrades, depending on which routes typically travel.
Other airlines focus on giving you miles, and then expect you to use those miles to upgrade to first class if desired. Alternately, it is worth carefully considering the options, as you might decide that first-class upgrades are important, or that free flights and mileage are most important. Therefore, you should carefully review the different frequent flyer programs offered by the different major airlines.
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