What is United Airlines Elite Status Worth in 2016?

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If you’re spending the time and money to earn elite status with an airline, you need to be getting some solid value in return. In the latest post in his series evaluating elite status levels with the major carriers, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at the United MileagePlus program and its various tiers.

Here at TPG we’re constantly asked questions like, “Is it worth it for me to earn ____ status with ____ airline/hotel chain?” While it’s impossible to come up with a universal answer to this question, it can be helpful to plug in some numbers and try to put a value on the elite status levels of these loyalty programs. I recently kicked off a revision of last year’s series that considers the various benefits of each tier of the major programs and quantified both the American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles programs. Our next subject is the third legacy carrier in the US — United and its MileagePlus program.

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What is United elite status worth?

Before we get to the analysis, a couple of disclaimers. First, it’s important to note that these mathematical analyses represent just one way of calculating the value you’d get out of a given elite status level. You probably have your own way of calculating how much value you can get from these programs; if you (or your company) pays for first or business class, you probably don’t care about complimentary upgrades. And if you travel exclusively within the US, you probably aren’t concerned with having lounge access on international itineraries. Just like with any analysis, feel free to adjust the numbers to make it more relevant to your own personal situation.

Second, these numbers are all based on the benefits you’d enjoy after achieving the given status level and continuing to qualify each year thereafter. If you’re starting from scratch or if you suddenly have a drop-off in your travel, the calculations become significantly more complicated.

For this analysis, I’ll assume that you overqualified by 20% for each of the four United elite levels.
For this analysis, I’ll assume that you overqualified by 20% for each of the four United elite levels.

This brings me to the third and final critical part of this analysis: the underlying assumptions I’m making. To really hit a value for benefits, I have to assume a certain amount of flying and a corresponding amount of spending. For the sake of the airline portion of the series, I am making the following assumptions:

  • You earn 20% more Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) than the minimum required for the given status level.
  • You spend an average of 15 cents per PQM.
  • Your travel is evenly spaced across the year.

As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. Those who travel exclusively in the US may spend less than $0.15 per mile, while those who travel in paid first or business class internationally likely spend significantly more. You also may qualify on segments rather than miles, and you may have heavier travel in certain parts of the year.

Two final bits of information. For the sake of this analysis, I am valuing any bonus miles earned on TPG’s most recent valuations, which pegged United miles at 1.5 cents apiece. In addition, I am rounding all of the individual benefit valuations to the nearest $5 to make the math a bit simpler.

So, all that being said, where do the four elite levels of the MileagePlus program land? Here’s my analysis:

MileagePlus Premier Silver ($970)

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Even Premier Silver flyers can enjoy Premier Access privileges when traveling on United.

The lowest tier in United’s program is Premier Silver status, which normally requires 25,000 PQMs or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments plus $3,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs). For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 30,000 PQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $4,500 in spending).

  • Unlimited complimentary first-class upgrades ($200): All United Premier customers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on flights within the US (excluding long-haul flights to Hawaii and p.s. routes) as well as on flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Unfortunately, these upgrades will only begin clearing within 24 hours of departure, and you’ll be behind all other elite members and their companions on the United upgrade priority list. I pegged this at a conservative $200, since you’ll likely only grab a few of these a year when business travel isn’t in high demand (e.g., Saturdays and holidays).
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus ($150): United’s Economy Plus section is similar to American’s Main Cabin Extra seating, providing extra legroom on most United-operated flights. Premier Silver flyers can access these seats within 24 hours of departure, but unlike Delta’s new Comfort+ requirements on flights within the US and Canada, it’s just a seat selection and not an actual upgrade.
  • Premier mileage bonus ($135): Since United followed Delta’s lead in instituting a revenue-based model for accruing miles, Premier Silver members have earned 2 additional miles per dollar spent on the base fare of their tickets. Assuming that you spend $4,500 in a year to earn your 30,000 PQMs, that’ll net you an additional 9,000 MileagePlus miles when compared to members with no status, worth $135 based on TPG’s latest valuations.
  • Checked bag fee waiver ($100): Premier Silver members and one companion can check a bag for free when traveling in economy on United, saving up to $100 per round-trip flight. However, your bag cannot weigh more than 50 pounds. This is also a benefit for those who hold the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, but only when you use the card to book your ticket. If you frequently need to check a bag and have a corporate travel agent who books your flights, this can be a very valuable perk.
  • Premier Access ($125): As a Premier Silver traveler on United, you’ll actually enjoy the same priority access as higher-tier elites. The Premier Access program includes priority check-in, screening, boarding and baggage handling. Neither American nor Delta provides this collection of benefits to its lowest-tier.
  • Priority phone line ($50): This benefit may help out when you really need to make a change or are dealing with a significant weather event, but it’s likely not the most valuable perk out there.
  • Award travel benefits ($100): United is unique among the legacy carriers in that it provides Premier members with several benefits when booking award travel. First of all, all Premier travelers enjoy enhanced Saver availability for economy award flights. In addition, if you want to waitlist for a higher class of service, you’ll be prioritized above other travelers who have also waitlisted for the flight. You can also standby when one (or more) segments of a business or first-class award ticket are only available in economy at the time of booking. Finally, if you want to use miles to upgrade a flight in the regions eligible for complimentary upgrades, you won’t pay a copay to do so.
  • Fee discounts/waivers ($100): One of the other great things about United’s elite program is that even Premier Silver members get discounts or waivers on a variety of fees (when compared to general members). This includes:
    • Booking an award ticket within 21 days of departure: $50 instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket 21 or more days ahead of departure, with no origin/destination change: free instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket less than 21 days in advance, or changing origin/destination: $50 instead of $100
    • Canceling an award ticket or MileagePlus upgrade award: $125 instead of $200
  • Star Alliance Silver ($10): When traveling on a Star Alliance partner, Premier Silver travelers enjoy priority waitlisting and priority airport standby, though these benefits likely aren’t worth a ton to the average flyer.

MileagePlus Premier Gold ($2,455)

United elite perks include free access to Economy Plus seats.
United Premier Gold members can access Economy Plus seats at booking.

The second tier in United’s program is Premier Gold status, which normally requires 50,000 PQMs or 60 Premier Qualifying Segments plus $6,000 PQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 60,000 PQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $9,000 in spending).

  • Unlimited complimentary first-class upgrades ($600): Premier Gold travelers will also enjoy complimentary first class upgrades, including one companion. Both you and your companion are prioritized above Premier Silver members and will start clearing as early as 48 hours ahead of your departure. Given the additional flying and likelihood of clearing into first class coupled with the companion clearing at the Gold window, I’m bumping the value up to $600.
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus ($300): As a Premier Gold member, you can actually select Economy Plus seats at booking (or anytime thereafter). This includes a companion as well.
  • Premier mileage bonus ($405): United’s revenue-based program awards Premier Gold members an additional 3 miles per dollar spent on the base fare of their tickets. Assuming that you spend $9,000 in a year to earn your 60,000 PQMs, that’ll net you an additional 27,000 MileagePlus miles when compared to members with no status, worth $405.
  • Checked bag fee waiver ($200): Premier Golds enjoy a slightly more generous baggage allowance, as they can check two free bags weighing up to 70 pounds apiece when traveling in economy.
  • Premier Access ($250): Golds enjoy the same Premier Access as Silvers, though they’ll be able to utilize it more frequently as a result of more travel.
  • Waived same-day flight change service charges ($150): Premier Gold travelers can make same-day flight changes without incurring the $75 service charge imposed on lower-tier elites and general members. While there are a variety of restrictions to making these changes, it can still be nice to have the flexibility to modify your itinerary if your plans change at the last minute. I’ll assume that you utilize this benefit twice during the year.
  • Priority phone line ($50): United’s Premier Priority Desk phone line can be a lifesaver, especially when inclement weather strikes and you need to get a hold of a phone agent ASAP.
  • Award travel benefits ($100): Premier Gold members enjoy the same award travel benefits as Premier Silver members, though I’m keeping the value the same, since Golds may not use them more frequently than Silvers.
  • Fee discounts/waivers ($200): If you’re a Premier Gold member, your fee discounts and waivers are even more generous than those of Silver travelers:
    • Booking an award ticket within 21 days of departure: $25 instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket 21 or more days ahead of departure, with no origin/destination change: free instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket less than 21 days in advance, or changing origin/destination: $25 instead of $100
    • Canceling an award ticket or MileagePlus upgrade award: $100 instead of $200
  • Star Alliance Gold ($100): Premier Gold passengers traveling on a Star Alliance carrier in any class of service will enjoy Star Alliance Gold benefits, including priority check-in, boarding and baggage handling; extra checked luggage allowance; and lounge access.
  • Marriott Rewards Gold Status ($100): Back in 2013, United and Marriott teamed up to launch the RewardsPlus Partnership. Through this program, Premier Gold travelers and higher on United can enjoy reciprocal Gold status in the Marriott Rewards program, which includes bonus points, free internet and lounge access/breakfast. To activate this status, simply visit this page and sign in using your United credentials (though note that this isn’t available for individuals with temporary status through United’s status challenge program). If you frequently travel to Marriott properties but can’t hit the 50 nights normally required for Gold status, this can be a very valuable benefit.

MileagePlus Premier Platinum ($4,335)

United has flat-bed seats on some flights to Hawaii.
As a Premier Platinum, you can use your RPUs for p.s. transcontinental flights.

The third tier in United’s program is Premier Platinum status, which normally requires 75,000 PQMs or 90 Premier Qualifying Segments plus $9,000 PQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 90,000 PQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $13,500 in spending).

  • Unlimited complimentary first-class upgrades ($1,200): Premier Platinum members enjoy a higher priority for upgrades and will clear starting 72 hours before the flight, and you can again include a companion. Given the increased flying plus increased likelihood of clearing into first class, I’m doubling the value of this perk for Premier Gold travelers.
  • Regional Premier Upgrades ($200): When you qualify for Premier Platinum status, you’ll earn two Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs). These allow you to upgrade yourself or a friend/family member on the same routes eligible for complimentary upgrades plus routes to Hawaii and transcontinental p.s. flights. They’ll give you priority over those requesting complimentary upgrades, and I love how they are transferable to other members, even when you aren’t traveling with them. I’m going to assume a value of $100 for each, though on longer flights, you’ll likely get much more out of them.
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus ($400): Like Premier Golds, Premier Platinums can also select Economy Plus seats at booking. However, this benefit extends to a whopping eight companions!
  • Premier mileage bonus ($810): Premier Platinum members will earn 4 extra miles per dollar spent on base airfare (when compared to members with no status). Assuming that you spend $13,500 in a year, that’ll get you an additional 54,000 MileagePlus miles, worth $810.
  • Checked bag fee waiver ($300): Premier Platinum members can check in three free bags of up to 70 pounds apiece when traveling in economy, a slightly more generous benefit than that offered to Golds.
  • Premier Access ($375): Same priority services, more frequent usage.
  • Waived same-day flight change service charge ($225): Platinums enjoy the same fee waivers as Golds when making changes on the day of departure, saving $75 each time. I’ll assume a slightly higher utilization of three times per year (given the additional time spent traveling).
  • Waived direct ticketing charge ($25): United’s website is quite good at booking both revenue and award tickets, but if you do feel like calling to book, you won’t pay the $25 service charge imposed on lower-tier elites and general members. I’ll assume a once-a-year valuation.
  • Priority phone line ($100)
  • Award travel benefits ($200): Premier Platinum members enjoy the same award travel benefits as lower-tier members with one addition. Platinums enjoy extra Saver award inventory in premium cabins, so I’m bumping the value of this perk to $200 as a result.
  • Fee discounts/waivers ($300): As a Premier Platinum traveler, you can get even more generous fee discounts and/or waivers:
    • Booking an award ticket within 21 days of departure: free instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket 21 or more days ahead of departure, with no origin/destination change: free instead of $75
    • Changing an award ticket less than 21 days in advance, or changing origin/destination: free instead of $100
    • Cancelling an award ticket or MileagePlus upgrade award: free instead of $200
  • Star Alliance Gold ($100)
  • Marriott Rewards Gold Status ($100): Again, the value of this benefit can increase significantly if you regularly stay in Marriott properties during your travels.

MileagePlus Premier 1K ($8,370)

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United’s top-tier elites can use GPUs to upgrade from business to first class on long-haul flights.

The top tier in United’s program is Premier 1K status, which normally requires 100,000 PQMs or 120 Premier Qualifying Segments plus $12,000 PQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 120,000 MQMs at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $18,000).

  • Unlimited complimentary first-class upgrades ($1,500): Premier 1Ks will enjoy the highest priority for first class upgrades, behind only Global Services members and other elites on full-fare Y or B class tickets. You can also upgrade a companion on the same reservation, and these will begin clearing 96 hours ahead of the flight.
  • Regional Premier Upgrades ($400): As I mentioned above, when you qualify for Premier Platinum status, you’ll earn two RPUs, and then you get another two for qualifying for Premier 1K status (plus two more for every additional 25,000 PQMs you earn in a calendar year). That means that a Premier 1K who flies 120,000 miles in a year will earn a total of four RPUs, and I’ve kept these valued at $100 apiece.
  • Global Premier Upgrades ($2,400): In addition to RPUs, Premier 1Ks will also earn six Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) upon qualifying for 1K status. These can be used to upgrade any United-operated flight for you and/or a friend or family member, though the deeply discounted fare classes for flights to certain regions can’t be upgraded with GPUs. As a result of this fare class limitation (which notably isn’t part of American’s systemwide upgrade program), I’m dropping the value of these down to $400 apiece.
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus ($400): Same benefit as Premier Platinum members, though I’m keeping the valuation the same given that you’ll likely spend most of your time riding up front.
  • Premier mileage bonus ($1,620): Premier 1K members will earn 6 extra miles per dollar spent on base airfare (when compared to members with no status). Assuming that you spend $18,000 in a year, that’ll get you an additional 108,000 MileagePlus miles, worth $1,620.
  • Checked bag fee waiver ($350): Premier 1K members have the same checked bag benefit as Premier Platinums, though you may wind up using it more frequently.
  • Premier Access ($500)
  • Complimentary snack and drink in economy ($50): One relatively new benefit of Premier 1K is that you’ll receive a free alcoholic beverage and snack item if your upgrade doesn’t clear on flights within North America. Ideally you wouldn’t need to use this perk very frequently, but it’s still nice to have!
  • Waived same-day flight change service charge ($300)
  • Waived direct ticketing charge ($25)
  • Priority phone line ($125): Premier 1K members actually have a dedicated phone line.
  • Award travel benefits ($200): Same benefits as Premier Platinum travelers
  • Fee discounts/waivers ($300): Same as Premier Platinum travelers
  • Star Alliance Gold ($100)
  • Marriott Rewards Gold Status ($100)

What About Global Services?

So far, I’ve covered the four main elite status levels of the United MileagePlus program. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the quasi-public tier reserved for the airline’s highest-spending customers: Global Services. You’ll find certain references to the status on United’s website, and members get top priority for upgrades and enjoy the same host of benefits given to Premier 1Ks.

However, I’m not including a formal valuation of Global Services because there’s simply no concrete way to know how to earn it. Instead, it’s offered on an invitation-only basis and likely combines high levels of spending (at least $50,000 per year) on first and business-class tickets. In addition, any perks for Global Services members are likely intangible, like top-notch customer service and “surprise and delight” upgrades. As a result, putting a value on the perks you’d enjoy to encourage you to qualify won’t do much good, since there’s no way of knowing for sure what it’ll take.

Is It Worth It?

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Whether it’s worth it for you to earn United elite status is entirely dependent on your individual situation.

So given these values, is it worth it for you to push for that next elite level? As with any analysis, there isn’t an easy answer to that question, as it entirely depends on your travel patterns. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help make this decision:

1. How much will you be traveling in the future? If you go out of your way to earn a given elite status level, it would be a shame to not utilize the benefits as much as you’d like.

2. What’s the incremental value of one level over another? If you’re close to qualifying for the next level, consider the additional (or enhanced) benefits you’d get. There’s no sense in taking a mileage run to earn a higher status when the additional perks you’d get don’t matter to you.

3. Would you sacrifice price or convenience for elite status? One of the hardest things to quantify in this hobby is whether or not it’s worth booking with your preferred carrier if it isn’t the most convenient or cheapest. As the father of a fourteen-month-old, I have come to love the nonstop flight both when traveling for work and for fun. As a result, I typically don’t go out of my way to fly a particular airline; if JetBlue is the best option, I’ll do it!

While the answers to these questions won’t give you an absolute answer, they can help bring out the key considerations to be made as you’re deciding whether you want to push for the next status level (or whether you want to earn status at all).

Bottom Line

As I mentioned earlier, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a perfect valuation of any loyalty program’s elite status that applies to everyone, since each flyer has his or her own way of figuring out the value for each perk. Nevertheless, it’s critical to think carefully before pursuing status with a given program, and hopefully this breakdown has given you a framework to use as you decide whether or not United should earn your loyalty.

How do you value United elite status?