Why (and How) I Flew 1,000,000 Miles With United

Aug 17, 2017

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A few years ago, I noticed an ever-growing number in my United MileagePlus account: Lifetime flight miles. I had never paid it much attention before (would I ever really fly a MILLION miles with United?), but once my balance ticked beyond the 700,000 mark, that sky-high target felt within reach. I did some research, discovering that award travel, premium cabin bonuses and Lufthansa, EVA Air and other partner flights didn’t count — ugh! And so I made an effort to fly United going forward, whenever it made sense.

Million miler status conveys a variety of benefits, including elite status for life. You can score lifetime membership to the following tiers once you reach certain thresholds:

  • Premier Gold — 1 million miles flown
  • Premier Platinum — 2 million miles flown
  • Premier 1K — 3 million miles flown
  • Global Services — 4 million miles flown

While some recognition of the achievement is nice, there’s no question that lifetime elite status can be incredibly useful. I’m pretty happy as a Premier 1K, and I’ll continue to qualify for as long as feasible, but when I can’t make it anymore, I’ll never fall below Gold — even if I don’t have a single paid flight in a year. Or ever again.

In This Post

The Road to a Million

I actually haven’t been flying United for very long — the first flight I remember was from Chicago to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, where I worked with reporters and photographers at several venues. I flew there in an economy window seat on a United 747. Since I was flying with other travelers headed to the Olympics, I passed the time getting to know them, but I remember very much disliking the in-flight experience itself. Even in 2008 our 747 felt well past its prime — much like economy on United’s 747s today, there was no seat-back entertainment and the cabin felt like it hadn’t been updated in decades.

I remember the plane looking something like this — but without the LCD screens up front:

I didn’t walk away from that trip loyal to United. But I really loved Continental, which became my airline of choice after a family trip to Ireland in 2004. Soon after I officially “entered the workforce” in 2008, when I was a consumer electronics beat editor at PC Magazine, I booked my first business trip — to Las Vegas for CES — on Continental, of course:

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I earned 4,454 elite-qualifying miles for that trip — and, unbeknownst to me, 4,454 lifetime flight miles. I continued to rack up loads of miles over the years to come, mostly thanks to long-haul business travel that took me to Taipei, Tokyo and other destinations in Asia and Europe a few times a year. On some occasions, I would rack up some 18,000 lifetime miles on a single business trip — at that pace, it would take someone “just” 56 round-trips from New York to Taipei to make lifetime Gold.

Then, last year, even though United later confirmed that there weren’t any plans to change the program, I set out to fly my millionth mile by the end of 2017… just in case. United’s million miler status is considerably more generous than similar programs with American and Delta — since a devaluation seemed possible, perhaps assigning 1MMs to the Silver tier instead of Gold, I figured it didn’t make sense to risk waiting to fly a million.

The Million Miler Flight

While it wasn’t possible to pinpoint my million miler flight more than a few weeks out, earlier this year I decided that I wanted to celebrate (and reach that milestone) on United’s brand-new 777-300ER. So how did I make that happen? Well, it was entirely by chance.

Last year, I came upon an outstanding business-class fare, bringing me from Hong Kong (HKG) to Los Angeles (LAX) and back via San Francisco (SFO) for about $1,000. In the process, I would earn almost 30,000 elite-qualifying miles and the remaining lifetime miles I needed to hit the million-mile mark.

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A couple of weeks before departure, once I was certain that I wouldn’t be booking any earlier travel that could push me over a million, I reached out to United’s PR team to request early boarding so I could take pictures of the cabin and my seat before the special flight. As a result, the airline was well aware that I’d be crossing the finish line on Flight 862 on August 7. After they reached out to reconfirm that I wouldn’t be booking any last-minute flights, I figured something special was in store, so I invited my mom to come along for the adventure.

We began our journey on August 4, flying from Newark to Hong Kong on United 179. We were both flying on economy tickets upgraded to business class with Global Premier Upgrades — I cleared right away back in 2016, and my mom’s “Polaris Lite” upgrade cleared within a few hours of booking.

Just before the flight, an agent from OTG (which manages the restaurants at Newark Terminal C) appeared at the gate with some pastries and a note of congratulations written in chocolate.

After an uneventful (but long) 16-hour flight in United’s older 2-2-2 business class, the old “BusinessFirst” seats, we spent two phenomenal nights at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong (booked for 23,333 Starpoints each, transferred to Marriott Rewards).

Then, after just 36 hours on the ground, it was time to check in. When a number of HKG United agents greeted me by name, it became immediately clear that this wouldn’t be an ordinary flight.

We were escorted from check in all the way to the gate, where I got to board early for some photos with the Captain and my mom.

I decided to go all out on the food and beverage front, starting with a tasting of all six wines.

I then ate my way through the appetizers and entree, eventually making it to the three dessert courses.

After a post-feast nap, I hit the mark a few hours (and about 3,000 miles) into the flight. I got to celebrate with a congratulatory cake.

Then, just before landing, the purser presented a book signed by the crew, which was a very nice surprise!

And just like that, the most memorable flight of my life was over. Reality hit almost right away, when we arrived at the rental car agency to find that National had run out of cars, and was working off a waitlist 30 names deep.

Recognition You’ll Receive

There’s no question about it — my million miler flight was different. Everything was a surprise — I wasn’t expecting much more than early boarding and maybe a nice note. But after hearing from other million milers on Twitter, it seems like even the in-flight cake was out of the ordinary, not to mention the greeting from the Captain and a book signed by the crew.

Based on other reports, it seems more typical for passengers to get some modest recognition in-flight, be it in the form of a congratulatory letter or perhaps a mention from the purser. Other times, the occasion isn’t recognized until a few weeks after travel, which, for better or worse, actually makes sense.

The challenge is that it can be nearly impossible for an airline to zero in on a million miler flight — many business travelers book travel at the last minute, change their routing at the airport and in some cases could have recently taken flights that didn’t yet post to their MileagePlus account. That was actually the case for me — my Newark-Hong Kong flight didn’t post until after I arrived in San Francisco, so had I not calculated my millionth mile myself and requested early boarding, United would have had no way to know that Flight 862 was “the one.”

All that said, I think enjoying an in-flight cake is an appropriate option for celebrating the occasion. And while United most likely won’t be providing one, you could always bring your own (which is what I probably should have done, given that I wasn’t expecting one on board). Note that certain cakes (with a particularly gooey filling, perhaps) could pose some challenges with the TSA, but most should be a-okay.

A Lifetime of Benefits

While an in-flight cake — or, more commonly, a congratulatory note — is a nice option to mark the occasion, the real reason to work toward million miler status is a lifetime of elite perks.

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Even as a base million miler (earned after earning 1,000,000 lifetime miles), United loyalists get mid-tier Gold status for life. American and Delta, on the other hand, require 2 million miles for mid-tier status (Platinum on American and Gold on Delta) — after your first million you’ll only end up with entry-level Gold and Silver, respectively, though partner flights earn lifetime credit with AA and Delta, while they don’t with United.

Gold elites get Marriott and SPG Gold status through RewardsPlus, earning you extra points and perks at hotels like the St. Regis Maldives.
Gold elites get Marriott and SPG Gold status through RewardsPlus, earning you extra points and perks at hotels like the St. Regis Maldives.

United’s Gold status can be quite valuable — TPG contributor Nick Ewen values it at $2,455 per year (assuming a fair amount of flying). Benefits include:

  • Complimentary Economy Plus at booking for you and a companion
  • Complimentary Premier Upgrades (prioritized after Platinum members)
  • A 60% mileage bonus (8 miles per dollar spent)
  • Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling
  • Waived checked-bag fee (with extra allowance)
  • Free same-day flight changes
  • Star Alliance Gold status (including United Club access on intercontinental flights)
  • Marriott and SPG Gold status (via RewardsPlus)

And if you 2, 3 or 4 million lifetime miles, you’ll end up with many more benefits via the Platinum, Premier 1K and Global Services tiers, respectively.

Sharing Your Current Status

Since I’m planning to continue earning Premier 1K for as long as I reasonably can, lifetime Gold status doesn’t do me any good — yet. The benefit I’m most excited about is getting to share my current status with a companion — not just whenever they’re flying with me; they’re now a Premier 1K member as well.

I “nominated” my girlfriend for this privilege, and her account reflected Premier 1K instantly.

2017-08-09

As per the terms of the program, you can share your status with someone other than a spouse or significant other, though their home address needs to match your own in their MileagePlus profile. Also note that you can only change your companion for the year by the end of the previous November. Your companion receives all of the benefits of that status level, with the exception of upgrade certificates, though they are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades.

Bottom Line

I hadn’t always expected to hit a million miles with United, but within a couple years of the Continental merger, this goal was within reach. Knowing that I’ll never fall below Gold minimizes the pressure of requalifying — though I’ll continue chasing Premier 1K for the time being, especially now that I’m earning status for two people thanks to the companion benefit, not just one.

While I’m not sure I’ll ever hit 4 million miles for lifetime Global Services, perhaps 2,000,000 will be within reach within a decade or so — assuming United doesn’t change the qualification requirements or benefits before then. For now, I’m perfectly happy with lifetime Gold, and I’ll continue working toward lifetime Platinum with SPG (and now Marriott), now just a couple years away.

How did you celebrate your millionth mile?

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