How to earn United elite status for less by flying partner airlines
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new analyses after United imposed caps on earning status through partners.
At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information you need to make educated decisions about travel and your rewards-earnings strategy. This is not the best time to travel, but we are sharing these card offers because they could provide value to cardholders for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.
At the beginning of 2020, United MileagePlus overhauled how you earn United Premier elite status.
Most noticeably, United removed the miles out of how you earn elite status and instead replaced them almost exclusively with dollars spent on United-operated flights. The carrier introduced two tracks to Premier status: one based on Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs), and another requiring just PQPs, but at a higher spending threshold.
It's hard to maximize a system where you earn points based on how much you spend but, until recently, it was possible to earn PQPs at a much faster rate by booking partner airline tickets. The methodology has changed a bit, though you can still earn United elite status by flying partners.
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How do you earn United PQPs
You can earn United PQPs in a few different ways.
The simplest equation is earning one PQP for every dollar of base fare and carrier-imposed surcharges on United-issued tickets. You can also earn PQPs from Economy Plus and Preferred seating purchases, and with your United cobranded credit cards. Card earning is normally capped at 1,000 PQPs a year, but for 2020 goes as high as 4,000 PQPs with spending on a card such as the United Club Infinite Card.
Related: Best credit cards for United flyers
You can also earn PQPs from MileagePlus Upgrade Award copays, paid upgrades on United flights and flights ticketed and operated by Star Alliance partners.
For the first few months of this new program, the best way to maximize your United PQP earnings was by flying partner airlines.
On April 29, 2020, however, United dramatically altered that PQP earning opportunity since it started capping how many PQPs you can earn from Star Alliance partner-issued and operated tickets based on your cabin. The PQF earning rates would remain unchanged — you still earn 1 PQF for each flight, which is defined as a takeoff and landing.
|Class of service||Preferred partner PQP||MileagePlus partner PQP|
|First and business||1,500||1,000|
|Economy and premium economy||750||500|
Here's the thing: Although United recently added a PQP cap, it's applied per flight segment. That's why there's still some hope for travelers looking to earn Premier status faster by flying partner airlines. You can theoretically still earn PQPs easier via partners if you really want to, but you'll have to be strategic.
Earning United status with partners
As we explained, you can earn United PQPs by flying on any of its Star Alliance partners and select MileagePlus partner airlines. In those cases, how far you fly is still somewhat relevant, subject to the new caps.
On a preferred partner, your PQP earnings are equal to the number of award miles credited to MileagePlus divided by five (subject to the aforementioned caps). Preferred partners include Air Canada, Air China, Air Dolomiti, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Austrian Airlines, Avianca, Azul Brazilian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Edelweiss, Eurowings, Lufthansa and Swiss International Air Lines.
For other MileagePlus partner airlines, you'll earn PQPs based on the number of award miles earned divided by six (again, subject to the cap).
Other MileagePlus partner airlines include Aegean Airlines, Air India, Asiana Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Air, Juneyao Air, LOT Polish Airlines, Olympic Air, SAS, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, TAP Air Portugal, Thai Airways International and Turkish Airlines.
The premium economy example
Let's say you booked a ticket with Singapore Airlines to fly in premium economy on the world's longest flight from Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN). If you were booked in S, T, P, L or R premium economy fare classes, and you booked the ticket with Singapore (instead of through United), you'd earn 100% of the miles flown as award miles if you add your MileagePlus number to the reservation.
In this example, the ticket costs $1,137 round-trip and would earn 19,068 redeemable United miles based on 100% of miles flown. As a MileagePlus partner, you'd divide 19,068 by six to get the United PQP total and come up with 3,178 PQPs earned on a $1,137 ticket.
But because of the newly imposed cap, you won't earn the 3,178 PQPs. Instead, you'll earn the maximum for flying in a premium economy cabin for a MileagePlus partner, which is 500 PQP per segment, or 1,000 PQPs for the round trip.
Now let's take a look at how to maximize your PQP earnings under the new rules.
Long-time TPG readers may know that Singapore offers a fifth-freedom flight from New York-JFK to Singapore (SIN) with a stop in Frankfurt (FRA). If you choose that flight, you'll actually earn double the PQPs as the nonstop by breaking up your journey with connections.
In this example, the ticket costs $1,225 round-trip and would also earn 100% of the miles flown. The segments from JFK to FRA earn 3,856 miles each, and the segments from FRA to SIN earn 6,389 miles each. That totals about 20,500 redeemable miles earned from this one flight. Dividing each of these by six yields 642 PQPs for JFK to FRA and 1,064 PQPs for FRA to SIN.
Due to the new caps, you won't get credited with that many PQPs. Instead, you'd earn:
|Segment||PQPs earned without cap||PQPs earned with cap|
|JFK to FRA||642||500|
|FRA to SIN||1,064||500|
|SIN to FRA||1,064||500|
|FRA to JFK||642||500|
As you can see, by breaking up your journey with a connection, you'll now earn 2,000 PQPs for the journey to Singapore, instead of the 1,000 you'd earn if you fly direct. Of course, that's still way less than the former 3,178 PQPs you'd earn for the direct flight and 3,412 PQPs for the one-stop flight.
But, by adding a connection, you're only missing out on 1,400 PQPs with the new caps. If you went nonstop, you'd miss out on 2,178 PQPs. And finally, as a reminder, a $1,225 ticket booked with United would only earn a max of 1,225 PQPs.
So, while the opportunities with partners are diminished, you can still theoretically earn more PQPs this way since 2,000 is clearly greater than 1,225.
The economy example
In this example, you'll fly from San Francisco (SFO) to Singapore (SIN) via Taipei (TPE), and back to San Francisco from Singapore via Taipei. You'd fly about 6,470 miles from San Francisco to Taipei and 2,000 miles from Taipei to Singapore. That totals about 17,000 total miles flown, which would earn 12,700 redeemable United miles.
Again, as a United MileagePlus partner, you'd divide this number by six to come up with your PQPs. The ticket in this example costs $906. Remember, if you'd booked directly with United, you'd earn less than 906 PQPs as taxes and fees don't count toward the total.
|Segment||PQPs earned without cap||PQPs earned with cap|
When booking with EVA, however, the price itself doesn't matter; only the distance and fare class. Also, by adding a stop in Taipei, you're earning more PQPs than by flying directly to Singapore. Plus, you're earning two more PQFs as well.
As we are starting to see, you can earn PQPs at a faster rate when booking long-distance, lower-cost tickets on MileagePlus partners. On preferred partners, you might potentially earn them even faster.
The business class example
In this example, let's pretend you're an important person flying on an important person's expense account. (You're important, to be clear.) A Lufthansa flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt in business class with a D fare class earns 200% miles flown in redeemable miles. That means you would earn about 22,798 redeemable United miles for the round-trip flight. Divided by five, you'd walk away with 4,559 United PQPs.
But, because of the new cap, you'd be maxed after earning 3,000 PQPs for these flights. That's a lot of points, but that isn't always a win when compared to booking via United on a United-issued 016 ticket number.
That's because a round-trip business class ticket to Europe on Lufthansa can cost $10,000, and when it does, you might be better off booking the Lufthansa-operated flight on United.com to earn 1 PQP per dollar spent, rather than booking it directly with Lufthansa to earn fewer capped PQPs.
Business-class flights on partner airlines won't always be a clear PQP win. It all comes down to price and fare class — and whether you're willing to connect. When the price is high, booking the flight directly with United, when possible, may be the best elite status play.
But, what happens when you can find a deal on business class? Let's take a look at this Air Canada itinerary from Seattle (SEA) to Frankfurt, with a stop in Toronto (YYZ). In this case, you're maximizing the PQPs you earn, even with the new caps. (You'll also get to experience one of the best lounges in North America.)
Air Canada flights earn 200% redeemable United miles for all business-class fare classes. Plus, the carrier is a United preferred partner, so you divide redeemable miles by five to see how many PQPs you earn. This $2,182 itinerary books into P class, which would earn the following:
|Segment||Miles flown||Redeemable miles||PQPs earned without cap||PQPs earned with cap|
|SEA to YYZ||2,060||4,120||824||824|
|YYZ to FRA||3,953||7,906||1,581||1,500|
|FRA to YYZ||3,953||7,906||1,581||1,500|
|YYZ to SEA||2,060||4,120||824||824|
As you can see, the new caps for preferred partner business-class flights just barely apply in this case. You'd earn a whopping 4,648 PQPs with this itinerary. If you booked through United instead, you'd earn just about 2,000 PQPs. You're earning more than double by flying with a partner, so it pays to do the math.
Tips for earning United elite status with partners
Booking flights with United's partners to earn elite status faster in the new system is far from a simple strategy.
At a high level, you want to look for long-haul flights on low fares in fare classes that earn at least 75% to 100% of flown miles -- which are then divided by five or six. You can see the earnings for each airline on United.com (all are subject to change, so be sure and double-check the numbers).
Now that United has imposed caps on the number of partner PQPs you can earn, adding connections will typically help you get closer to the pre-cap PQP earnings. You'll also earn more PQFs by adding in more flights. Now, especially in our new reality, we aren't advocating that you should book more flights to earn more PQPs. We're simply pointing out how the math works so you can choose the best way to credit the flights you do take.
Though you may not be a fan of the mileage run, especially in our new traveling reality, the taste of airline elite status is undeniably sweet. On United-operated flights, "dollar runs" may replace the traditional mileage run once travel returns, since you simply need to spend more to earn status. But, theoretically speaking, the mileage run as we knew it isn't fully dead with United partners. It's just very complicated.
Even if you don't mileage run, there's wisdom in being extremely strategic about how you book international partner flights to earn as many redeemable and elite qualifying miles — er, points — as possible. Of course, if none of this works but you're a loyal Star Alliance traveler, here's a look at some other Star Alliance programs that might be a better fit for you than United 2.0.
What's your strategy to earn status in United's program with newly imposed caps?