These Days, ‘You Practically Need a Ph.D.’ to Figure Out Frequent-Flier Status

If a traveler wants to take a long flight, mainly just to earn miles, Mr. Larounis suggests taking those “mileage runs” early in the year. There are lots of great deals on long flights in January and February after the holiday rush, he said, and padding the mileage account early in the year reduces the stress of putting together last-minute trips later when prices may be higher.

Gaining status early in the year also gives the flier more time to enjoy the benefits. On Southwest Airlines, for example, fliers who cross the 25-flight or 35,000-point threshold requirements receive “A-List” benefits immediately, and those benefits extend through the calendar year in which the status is earned as well as the next calendar year.

Some airlines give customers who are close to a cutoff at the end of a calendar year the chance to buy their way into a status level. Paying can be an expensive way to go, Mr. Leff said, but can be less of a hassle than taking an extra flight just to rack up miles.

On Delta Air Lines, miles earned above a “medallion tier” threshold are rolled over to give fliers a jump start on next year’s totals. If, for instance, a passenger has flown 30,000 medallion qualifying miles with Delta at the end of the year, that is enough to qualify for the 25,000-mile platinum status, and the extra 5,000 miles will be rolled into next year’s total.

Ms. Umbach said she mainly kept up her elite status for business reasons, but the little touches mattered, too. She said she flew from Seattle to Boise, Idaho, about once a month to help take care of her parents, and the airplane she takes is small without much food or beverage service.

“A flight attendant always comes to my seat to thank me for me being a Gold flier and gives me a chocolate bar,” she said.