What It’s Like to be a United 1K Premier Elite Traveler
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Airline elite status is something you get by virtue of having lots of required paid travel, by setting a goal and flying a bunch, or often it is something that requires a combination of the two. Elite status doesn’t really make sense if you didn’t have a bunch of paid travel to begin with, but most of us don’t just naturally travel enough to have upper tier elite status with an airline without setting it as a goal and tracking the progress throughout the year.
A few years ago my own travel picked up to a level where elite status was within reach on Continental, now United Airlines. I went through the ranks first with Silver Status (bottom tier elite), then Gold (mid tier elite), then Platinum (upper mid tier elite), and for the last year I have had top tier 1K status.
For those curious by the strange name, 1K stands for 100 1,000’s or something like that. In other words, earning it required me to fly 100,000 elite qualifying miles in 2013. That is roughly four laps around the globe, and doesn’t count any award travel of flights on other non-Star Alliance airlines.
One hundred thousand miles is an awful lot of flying, more than I personally like in a year given my family life at home. If you have nothing better to do with time and money on nights and weekends than criss-cross the globe to rack up miles and return home a bit dazed, then it can be fun to travel that much, but that isn’t my preference or reality. This year I will barely hit 75,000 elite qualifying miles, and return to the Platinum level for 2015 with United (and even that took some mileage running). I’m 100% okay with that status level, especially given the increased revenue requirements kicking in next year.
The pedestal I had top tier 1K status on in my mind didn’t live up to the reality. It was nice, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t magical. It wasn’t special. It wasn’t that much different than Platinum. I was still just another cog in the airline system, albeit one that probably went into interactions with higher expectations. Just as I have done with all of the other status levels, here are the highlights and low-lights of 1K status based on my experiences over the past year.
Highlights of United 1K Status:
- Up to 8 E+ (extra legroom) seats at the time of booking for those on your reservation. This is a huge benefit that came through 100% of the time for my family. This perk saved us money since we would frequently purchase E+ seats if we didn’t get them as a perk thanks to my tall husband and my squirmy kid. E+ seats are often at least $40 or so per person on longer flights, so this has been a big savings, and availability of E+ seats together at booking is often fantastic unless you are booking at the last moment, but even then it’s better than the rest of coach. 1K and Platinum levels get 8 E+ seats at the time of booking, which is a big improvement over Silver and Gold status where you can only have up to one complimentary E+ companion, and with Silver status it is only valid at check-in.
- Six Global Premier Upgrades. Premier 1K members get six GPU’s each year that can be used to upgrade paid travel around the world into one cabin higher. This sounds amazing, and it can be if it works in your favor. Being able to buy a coach ticket to Europe or beyond and then apply a GPU and have your reservation become one that is in a lie-flat bed is pretty great. You have to purchase at least a W fare class or higher, and availability isn’t great. More on that in the low-lights, but when this benefit works, it is pretty fantastic. You can use these not just for yourself, but for anyone, so they are very simple to share with family members.
- Four Regional Premier Upgrades. Premier 1K elite members are given four regional premier upgrades that you can use to upgrade one cabin on paid fares on domestic flights, as well as those to Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, and other “close-in” destinations. There has to be “R” space available to confirm the upgrade, and I have had overall decent luck when requesting the upgrade well in advance. You can typically do this online, and can use them for your flights or a friend or family member’s flights. Regional upgrades are how we secured business class seats to Hawaii the last couple of years, so I think that regional upgrades do have some very real value. That said, they don’t always clear, and if you are flying on primarily regional jets then they have a diminished value. Still, these really improved the flight experience for us several times over the last year, especially when we land ourselves on an internationally configured plane on a domestic route.
- No last minute award booking fees or award change fees. Award tickets become your playground when you have Platinum or 1K status as you are exempt from all award ticket related fees that I can think of. You can redeposit miles, change flights, book flights at the last minute, and more all without incurring a fee. This fee-freedom applies for tickets booked not only for yourself, but for anyone when using miles from your account. I have enjoyed being able to make speculative bookings that I may or may not need without having to think long and hard about whether it is worth a fee to cancel or change later on.
- Fee Free Same Day Flight Changes. In addition to freedom from fees on award tickets, as a Platinum or 1K member you also have the ability to do unlimited “Same Day Flight Changes” for free on paid flights. This means on your United flights, you can change to flights up to 24 hours before or after your scheduled flight potentially for free. You can even change the routing, as long as the origin and destination are the same. This means that if you booked a very inexpensive flight at an off-peak time that required connections to save money, but the “same day” you may be able to change to the non-stop flight at the time you really wanted for no additional charge. There has to be space available in your fare class, but I have had decent luck when trying to switch to the flight I want – especially at exactly 24 hours from the flight I want, or within just a couple of hours from that flight. This has worked a little less successfully for me this year than the previous years, but it is still pretty good. You can do this not just for your flights, but everyone on your reservation. This perk has saved me and my family literally hundreds of dollars this year and allowed us to get home (or to our destination) faster.
- 100% mileage bonus on paid tickets. Compared to some other airlines, United is a bit stingy on the redeemable mile bonuses they give to elite members at the lower levels, but getting a 100% bonus on redeemable miles is quite nice. What this means is that if I book a flight that normally earns 2,000 United redeemable miles (which are different than elite qualifying miles), then due to my status I am actually earning 4,000 miles to use for future award travel. Considering I flew 75,000 paid miles on United this year, this perk amounts to about 75,000 bonus redeemable miles that are conservatively worth at least $1100, so that is another actual real and tangible benefit to 1K elite status.
- Compensation for Global Entry and $60 credit for MileagePlus card holders. I haven’t used the Global Entry benefit since I already have Global Entry, but United will pay the $100 fee for a Platinum or 1K member to apply for Global Entry. I did get the $60 credit for having a United co-branded credit card, which was appreciated.
- No phone service fee and dedicated 1K line. 1K and Platinum members do not have to pay the $25 fee for booking over the phone. I rarely book over the phone anyway, but it is still nice to not be subjected to a fee when you need to do so. There is also theoretically a 1K line, though when I called it was usually just answered by the Premier Desk and the service wasn’t any different than I would randomly get before having 1K status. Still, being able to get someone on the phone pretty quickly is very handy.
- Priority boarding, free checked bags, Star Gold Status, improved award availability, and priority security screening. These perks of having 1K status all mean something, but most are available even with lower tier status, and priority security doesn’t mean near as much as it used to for me and my family because of Pre-Check. Priority boarding with Group 1 does help when we are traveling and want ourselves and our carry-on bags settled. However, even that isn’t as important anymore since our almost-five-year-old doesn’t fly in a car seat at this point, so we don’t need as much time to get it down the aisle and installed. I’m glad I have these perks, but, for the most part, they aren’t unique to 1K status.
- Upgrade percentages. I don’t have a spreadsheet where I meticulously track each upgrade I do or do not get on United. I don’t care enough, and simply don’t have the time for that, so I can’t give an exact percentage of how often I was upgraded as a 1K elite. However, I can approximate that I got complimentary upgrades to first class on eligible flights about half the time. That is dramatically better than when I was a Silver or Gold elite, but not much different than the Platinum level. Keep in mind that I live at a United hub, and those flights are often harder to upgrade due to more elites. I also am often traveling with a companion, so that will further hurt my upgrade chances (more on that in a moment). I was upgraded almost all the time on flights where you would guess upgrades are likely such as on off-peak travel days like Saturday mornings and to destinations that are typically leisure-0riented (fewer elite business travelers). I was also sometimes upgraded on flights that are typically harder to get, such as flights to another hub and during busier travel days, but sometimes I was still number 37 on an upgrade wait-list a mile long as a 1K. Getting upgraded close to half the time isn’t bad, but I do not think my percentage as a 1K was any better than as a Platinum. I generally either easily cleared days in advance, or still wasn’t even close to clearing.
Low-lights of United 1K Premier Status:
- Upgrade when traveling with companions. United allows complimentary space available upgrades for the elite traveler plus one companion, but they sure don’t make the process simple. When you are on the same reservation as a companion, and check-in for your flight at 24 hours out, you will be asked if you want to be split from your companion and both placed on the upgrade list. If you split the reservations and are placed on the upgrade list you may both be upgraded, but you may not be. Additionally, you will be on a separate reservation from your companion and now some of your elite benefits like free same day changes won’t automatically apply to that other reservation. If you decide not to split the reservation to be placed on the upgrade list, then you and your companion simply aren’t placed on the upgrade list at all. It really is bananas and has been this way for years! What I do is simply not check-in until just a little before the flight (1-2 hours). This way you still could be auto-upgraded with your companion, the same way you can be up to 96 hours in advance as a 1K. If the upgrade doesn’t happen that way, I just usually pass on it all together, especially when traveling with my daughter as I do not want my reservation split from hers.
- Global Premier Upgrades are hard to use. While it is great that 1K members get six Global Premier Upgrades to use annually, they come with some serious strings attached. First, you cannot use them on Z, P, S, T, L, K G, and N fare classes, which are typically the lower cost fare buckets. This means to purchase an eligible W fare class or higher, you are spending more money. How much more can vary, but W is often at least a couple hundred dollars more to Europe. That would be okay by itself, but the larger issue is that there also has to not only be an upgraded seat available, but it has to be in the elusive R fare class dedicated just for upgrade space. R space is elusive and pretty rare to secure in advance on BusinessFirst routes. It can be done if you have luck, date, and routing flexibility, but it isn’t easy. So, you often have to pay more to purchase a higher fare class just to have the chance for R space to open up and your GPU to clear in the future. In other words, you have to pay the ante and gamble.
- It’s a lot of flying without a lot of additional benefits over Platinum. The biggest downside to 1K status was simply that it wasn’t much better than Platinum status. For me the last 25,000 miles needed to get to 1K over Platinum was a lot, and something that wouldn’t just happen naturally most years. It felt like a lot more flying with one airline without a whole bunch of additional benefits. Now with the revenue component that will require $12,000 in premier qualifying dollars to be spent annually with United to get 1K, as opposed to Platinum where the revenue component can be waived with $25,000 annually on the co-branded Chase card, that difference to get to 1K will feel even more painful for some. If they got rid of the fare class requirement to use GPUs, or if R space availability improved, that would probably help somewhat since the GPUs are the main perk of 1K status over Platinum.
I had a good year as a United 1K traveler in terms of elite benefits. I avoided thousands of dollars in change fees, booking fees, E+ seat fees, and more. This is real savings, as I did spend a good amount on some of those fees before having status, and would have continued to do so. I was able to change dozens of flights via “same day change” to get home to my family as quickly as possible. I earned 75,000 more redeemable miles worth at least $1,100 thanks to a 100% redeemable mile bonus. I received ten total RPUs and GPUs and was able to use those upgrades for Hawaii, Alaska, and even Europe. We were upgraded on roughly half of my flights via complimentary upgrades. I generally had very prompt and helpful customer service over the phone via the elite line. United is not a perfect airline, and they do not have a perfect elite system, but my experience at the highest elite level was overall very good.
However, just because the experience was good doesn’t mean it was something I can’t live without. It would be a little bit of shock to drop back to having no elite status at all at this point (though anything can happen in the coming years, so no big deal if it comes to that), but just going back a notch to Platinum probably will be barely noticeable. I’m glad I got a year at the 1K level, and I put the GPUs to good use while I had them, but I think the Platinum level will be much more attainable going forward.
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