Last-Minute Elite Status Strategy in 2015: United MileagePlus Premier
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It’s that time of year again. As the clock winds down on 2015, many flyers’ attention turns to qualifying or requalifying for elite status. This week, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen covers the elite-status programs of the three major legacy carriers in the US and shows you how to rack up those last-minute miles before we hit 2016.
Once you earn elite status and all those attendant benefits that make the travel experience just a little bit easier (or a lot nicer in some cases), it’s hard to give it up. That’s why flyers start to scramble toward the end of the year in order to make sure that they hit those mileage or segment requirements while there’s still time.
In order to help you strategize your year-end travel and spending, all this week, I’ll be covering the elite-status programs of the three legacy US carriers — American, Delta and United — discussing their qualification requirements and benefits, proposing some last-minute earning ideas and picking out a few choice routes to help you make a successful dash to the finish line. Today, we’re talking about United MileagePlus Premier status.
Before we get going, be sure to check out some of these posts for helpful hints and reminders about what you should be doing around this time of year.
- What is United Premier Elite Status Worth?
- Tips to Qualify for United Premier Status in 2015
- United Upgrade Priority and How to Improve Your Chances
- Comparison of Elite Status: Which Program is Best
- When Does Elite Status Reset and How Long Does it Last?
- Audit Your Mileage and Points Accounts
- When Will Elite Credits Post?
- Which Low-Tier Airline Elite Status is Best?
- How to Get Last Minute Elite Qualifying Miles Without Flying
Also check out our United Elite Status Series from last year detailing the benefits of each tier as well as other unique program features:
If you have expiring elite perks you’re not going to be able to use yourself, consider posting them in our Expiring Elite Perk Exchange.
United Airlines MileagePlus Premier Status
Among other changes to its MileagePlus program back in 2014, United instituted a spending element to its qualification requirements called Premier Qualifying Dollars, which you need to hit for each of its four tiers. And then it raised them in 2015! Here are the current requirements.
In addition to overhauling its Premier-qualification requirements, United also changed the way flyers earn regular frequent-flyer miles. Now, depending on your status and whether you have a United credit card, you earn between 5-13 miles per dollar that you spend on airfare.
Previously, United flyers simply earned one mile for each mile traveled, plus bonuses for class of service (or fare class) and Premier status. In 2015, however, miles are earned based on the dollars spent, with bonuses still offered based on elite status. General members get 5 miles per dollar, Silver get 7, Gold get 8, Platinum get 9 and 1K elites get 11.
However, in terms of elite qualification, you still earn miles based on the distance you fly – which just makes it more confusing. Here’s what you need to do to earn each level of status.
Silver: Earn 25,000 PQMs or fly 30 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs), and spend $3,000 on United flights. You can waive that spending requirement by making $25,000 in purchases on a United co-branded credit card, such as the United MileagePlus Explorer Card.
Gold: Earn 50,000 PQMs or fly 60 PQSs, and spend $6,000 on United flights. The same spending waivers apply as for Silver status.
Platinum: Earn 75,000 PQMs or fly 90 PQSs, and spend $9,000 on United flights with the same credit-card spending waiver.
1K: Earn 100,000 PQMs or fly 120 MQSs, and spend $12,000 on United flights. No credit-card waiver applies.
For full details on the MileagePlus Elite program, check this page. Meanwhile, here’s a basic breakdown of the benefits by tier. I’ve just noted additional benefits for each tier.
- Earn 7 miles per dollar spent
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades and companion upgrades on day of departure
- Instant upgrades on Y- or B-class full-fare economy tickets
- 500 award miles and PQM minimum accrual
- Priority check-in, security screening, boarding privileges and baggage handling
- Single complimentary checked baggage allowance (50 lbs) for domestic economy tickets
- Premier Priority Desk phone line
- Access to most sold-out flights
- Award travel benefits
- Reduced or waived close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees
- Star Alliance Silver status benefits
- RewardsPlus benefits. Silver Premier members get some very basic benefits from the RewardsPlus partnership between Marriott and United, such as a 20% discount when converting Marriott Rewards points to United MileagePlus miles and 10% more United miles when redeeming Marriott points for flight and hotel travel packages.
- Earn 8 miles per dollar spent
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus at booking
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 48 hours in advance
- Two complimentary checked bags (70 lbs each) for domestic economy tickets
- Lounge access when traveling internationally
- Discounted or waived same-day flight changes
- Reduced or waived close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees
- Star Alliance Gold status benefits
- Marriott Gold status benefits. These include benefits like complimentary continental breakfast, room upgrades, late check-out and a 25% bonus on points earned for every stay.
- Earn 9 miles per dollar spent
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 72 hours in advance
- Up to 8 Economy Plus companions
- Two Regional Premier Upgrades
- Waived close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees
- Waived phone service charge
- 10% discount on in-flight Duty Free purchases
- Better availability for United Saver Awards in select premium cabins
- Earn 11 miles per dollar spent
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 96 hours in advance
- Instant upgrades on M-class economy tickets
- Six Global Premier Upgrades
- Premier Priority Desk phone line with dedicated 1K line
Last-Minute Earning Ideas
Though time is short, if you find that you’re not quite going to make the earning threshold of your elite status tier, there are still some options out there to put you over the top.
Same-Day Flight Changes To Maximize Routing
It can be a bit of a gamble and certainly more time-consuming than the point-to-point travel most of us generally buy. However, if you’re willing to make the effort, you can try to make changes to upcoming travel plans in order to extend your routing and thus earn more miles and/or segments by flying through connecting cities instead of directly between your origin and destination.
For example, instead of just flying from Chicago to Houston and earning 925 PQMs each way, you can fly from Chicago to Denver to Houston instead and earn 1,750 PQMs.
Now for the monetary consideration: United’s change and stand-by fees. With United, any traveler can take advantage of a same-day change provided that the original fare class is available and the new flight is within 24 hours of the originally scheduled departure. However, if only higher fare classes are available, you can/must pay the fare difference to “upgrade” your ticket to the lowest available fare class and then make the change. There is also a $75 same-day change fee, but it’s waived for Premier Gold, Platinum, 1K and Global Services members.
There are some more things to note about this policy, though. First, you’re allowed to change your routing as long as origin/destination are the same and the new routing is permitted by the fare rules of your original ticket. You can also make the change after checking in, even with checked baggage, though you need to be confirmed on your new flight at least 60 minutes before its departure time in order to get your bags on it. Finally, United does not restrict your flight to the same calendar day, but it has to be within 24 hours of your original flight.
Buy PQMs with the Premier Accelerator
United’s Premier Accelerator is a program where you can earn extra regular (redeemable) miles as well as elite-qualifying miles when you purchase a flight.
Sounds great, right? Now for the bad news: Unfortunately the prices are very high. In general, United will charge you 2-3 cents per regular mile and 10+ cents per elite-qualifying mile. There have been FlyerTalk threads dedicated to discussing the pricing of these miles. TPG had an experience where each elite-qualifying mile cost around 22 cents and some FlyerTalkers have clocked them at up to 35 cents per mile!
To add insult to injury, United also tends to jack up the prices toward the end of the year to take advantage of those who are desperate to requalify for elite status. The prices also seem to vary based on the traveler, routing and reservation, so your decision will have to be based entirely on your own elite status situation and budget.
If you want to use the elite maximizer, you will have to purchase a flight and then log in to your MileagePlus account. From there, you should see an option to purchase accelerator miles.
One nice feature is that these miles post within two to three days regardless of when your flight is scheduled to depart, so your accelerator miles for flights in 2016 should count for 2015 elite-status qualification.
I wouldn’t suggest doing this, but some posters in the FT threads have even purchased refundable tickets, added the accelerator options and then canceled the actual ticket. You could also purchase a non-refundable ticket, add the accelerator and then cancel the ticket within 24 hours for a full refund. Just beware that miles/PQMs purchased through this program are non-refundable.
As I said, that seems borderline fraudulent to me and I don’t know whether the airline will retaliate in some way, so I would not suggest this option.
FlyerTalk has some extensive, informative threads on this topic that you can check out for more information:
- Purchasing extra PQM/EQMs on United via Elite Maximizer
- United Airlines Award/Premier Accelerator Rates 
- Consolidated Award accelerator questions
Status Matching or Challenging
A status match or challenge can also be a great shortcut to bypass the normal requirements. You can read more about how these work here, but the gist of it is: With a match, you can provide an airline with proof of your current status with a competitor and hope they’ll match you to their equivalent status. Or with a challenge, you have to fly (and usually spend) a certain amount within 90 days and you get status for the rest of the elite-status year.
Unfortunately, the only United credit card that allows you to earn PQMs is the MileagePlus Presidential Plus card, which is no longer available to new applicants. If you’re an existing cardholder, though, you can earn 1,000 Flexible Preferred Qualifying Miles (Flex PQMs) for every $5,000 you spend. That’s an earn rate of 1 PQM per $5 spent, so not great, but still something to consider.
Those Flex PQMs can be converted to regular PQMs to help you qualify for status up to and including Premier Platinum, but not 1K. You must make this conversion online or by calling the MileagePlus Service Center. However, as an added plus, these Flex PQMs are valid for conversion for the entire calendar year in which they are earned and three subsequent calendar years. So if you’re already set with PQMs for this year, you can hold them in reserve for next year. Or the one after. Or the one after.
Mileage Run Scenarios
Of course, the most cost-effective (though time-intensive) way to earn PQMs is still probably to fly, so if you’re far short of your goal (or even just a few thousand miles), you might have to set aside a couple of days for travel. Though airfares at this time of year do tend to rise, your best bet is traveling either over Thanksgiving (have turkey next year!) or between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If this is of interest to you, don’t forget to check The Flight Deal and the Mileage Run Forum on FlyerTalk for cheap fare news and ideas. In the meantime, here are a couple options I recently found that should give you an idea of what to look for.
Note that I’m finding options where you can complete the mileage in one trip, since time is of the essence at this point, but you can find more options if you’re willing to travel on multiple dates.
1,000 miles short: You’d be surprised by how many people miss out on elite status by as few as a thousand (or even a few hundred) miles. It’s the result of simple miscalculations, routing changes or a number of other factors that can throw you off. So be sure to audit your account, be sure how many miles you have and if you do need a few extra ones, check out some short routes that might get you there.
The good news is, if you already have elite status, United guarantees you a 500-mile minimum per flight, so even if you’re not going too far, a quick round-trip could net you the 1,000 miles you need.
The bad news is these short hops can be relatively expensive, but you should be able to get them for about $100-$150 round-trip. Here’s one from LA-San Francisco for $121.
And another from Chicago to Cleveland for $154.
Both of which you can complete over the course of a day.
5,000 miles short: You might think the transcontinental flights from New York (EWR in this case) to LA or San Francisco would be the best way to hit this mark, and if you can find a flight for $300 or less, you might be right — one and done.
For example, you could fly from Washington Dulles-LA and back for $296 and earn 4,576 PQMs over a Saturday-Sunday.
However, get a little more creative in your thinking and you can take advantage of non-direct routing or non-hub to non-hub flights to hit this mark. For example, this $249 itinerary from Boston to Boise routes via San Francisco and earns 6,452 PQMs.
Or this one also from Boston to Boise via both SFO and Denver costs the same and earns 5,629 PQMs.
Here’s one from Orlando to Seattle via SFO and Newark that costs $319 and earns 6,464 PQMs.
I also found New York LaGuardia to Reno via Denver for just $153 and earning 4,848 PQMs.
The key is to look for flights that might not have nonstop options but will route you through a nearby hub instead for that extra little mileage bump.
10,000 miles short: Though you might want to break this up into a few shorter trips, as I mentioned, time is of the essence and you might have some vacation days to use before the end of the year. In that case, taking three to five days to fly somewhere far on a cheap mileage run might be your best option, and the good news is that there are plenty of choices out there!
United seems to be offering a ton of cheap flight options from various US cities to Asia right now. Check The Flight Deal for the evolving list, but here are a couple I found.
Newark to Bangkok via Tokyo for $801 and 19,238 PQMs.
Houston to Hong Kong via San Francisco and Chicago for $666 (ominous!) and 17,204 PQMs.
Chicago to Beijing for $559 and 13,158 PQMs.
But it’s not just Asia. Here is an itinerary from San Francisco to Tel Aviv for $658 and 16,894 PQMs.
If you have a Brazil visa, you can get from Cleveland to São Paulo via Houston and Washington Dulles for $645 and earn 11,229 PQMs.
There are lots of options, but the deals are coming and going quickly, so if you find one that works for you, I’d suggest booking immediately.
Just a quick section on flight segments in case that’s your preferred method of qualification. I find that the Mileage Run Forum on FlyerTalk is the best place to get ideas, even if the entries are a bit of a jumble.
From there, I go to Google Flights to the Multi City booking link and manually enter a few cities and dates and see how the itinerary comes together. Google Flights dynamically prices things out, so you’ll often see the airfare rise or fall slightly.
Though I look to FlyerTalk for guidance on where there might be good flight runs available, I also just like to play around with Google Flights. For example, for you DC-based flyers out there, I concocted this example itinerary out of Washington National (DCA) instead of Dulles:
- Washington National DCA – St. Louis via Chicago
- St. Louis – Dallas via Chicago
- Dallas – San Francisco via LA
- San Francisco – Dallas via Denver
- Dallas – Washington National via Houston
The total came to $554 for 10 Premier Qualifying Segments (so about $55 per segment), and if you’re interested, it would earn 5,757 PQMs. While not a truly amazing value, 11 segments for about $550 is pretty good (spending requirements aside, you could qualify for Silver status for about $1,662 or 1K status for $6,648).
If you want to go ahead, you just click on the “Book” button at the bottom and it should take you to your exact itinerary on United.com.
Any other tips or strategies to share? Leave a comment below!