How to earn United elite status for less by flying partner airlines

Nov 13, 2019

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You’ve probably already heard that beginning in 2020, United MileagePlus is overhauling how you earn United elite status. As a longtime United elite flyer, I’m not a fan of taking the miles out of how you earn elite status and replacing it almost exclusively with dollars spent for United-operated flights. But opinions aren’t going to change what’s coming, so let’s look into how flying United’s partners may help you earn United elite status faster than just flying United-operated flights.

TPG has a full guide on the coming 2020 United MileagePlus changes, but to understand leveraging partners, you need to loosely understand the basics of how it all will work.

At a basic level, starting in 2020, United elite status will be earned based on how much you spend with the airline. There’s no more balancing that with how far you fly. It’s now all about the Premier Qualifying Point (PQP), which is almost 100% tied to what you have paid when booking with United. For example, $1,000 spent on United airfare, seat assignments, upgrades, etc. (excluding taxes/fees) = 1,000 Premier Qualifying Points. Status requirements start at 4,000 PQPs and go up to 24,000 PQPs.

You can earn status based solely on PQPs or on a combo of the number of flights you take + PQPs. Again, it doesn’t matter how far those flights are (a flight is defined as takeoff/touchdown) — Houston to Tokyo and Houston to Austin count the same for the PQF portion of the chart.

Related: Credit cards that help you earn elite status faster

However, there are variances in how you will earn PQPs when flying United-operated flights vs. flying eligible United partners that may make it easier to earn status next year.

Earning United status with partners

You can earn United PQPs on Star Alliance partners and select MileagePlus partner airlines. In those cases, how far you fly is still somewhat relevant.

On a preferred partner, your PQP earnings are equal to the number of award miles credited to MileagePlus divided by 5. 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.

(Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

For other MileagePlus partner airlines, it will be award miles earned divided by 6.

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 from New York’s JFK to Singapore (SIN) with a stop in Frankfurt (FRA). If you were booked in S, T, P, L, R premium economy fare classes, and you booked the ticket with Singapore (instead of via United), you’d earn 100% of the miles flown as award miles if you add your MileagePlus number to the reservation.

Singapore premium economy (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
Singapore premium economy. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

In this example, the ticket costs $1,251 round-trip and would earn about 20,500 redeemable United miles based on 100% of miles flown. As a MileagePlus partner, you’d divide 20,500 by 6 to get the United PQP total and come up with 3,416 PQPs earned on a $1,251 ticket.

As a reminder, a $1,251 ticket booked with United would only earn a max of 1,251 PQPs (and 3,416 > 1,251).

The economy example

Now let’s look at EVA in regular economy (codes M, Q and H). These tickets earn 75% of flown miles as redeemable miles when booked with EVA and credited to United MileagePlus. In this San Francisco (SFO) – Taipei (TPE) – Bangkok (BKK) – Taipei (TPE) – San Francisco (SFO) example, you’d fly about 16,031 miles and earn 12,000 redeemable United miles.

Again as a United MileagePlus partner, you’d divide by 6 and come up with 2,000 PQPs. The ticket in this example cost $737. Remember, if you’d booked directly with United you’d earn less than 737 PQPs as taxes and fees don’t count toward the total. However, when booking with EVA, the price itself doesn’t matter, only the distance and fare class. Since Bangkok may be the best mileage run destination, maybe you can find it even cheaper than in this example.

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 expense account. (I mean, you are 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. Divided by 5, you’d land at 4,559 United PQPs. That’s a lot of points, but that actually isn’t always a win over booking via United on a United-issued 016 ticket number.

That is 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 PQPs.

Business class on partner airlines will not always be a clear PQP win. It all comes down to price and fare class. When the price is high, booking the flight directly with United, when possible, may be the best elite status play.

(Photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy)

Tips for earning United elite status with partners

The strategy of booking flights with United’s partners to earn elite status faster in the new system is far from simple. 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 5 or 6. You can see the earnings for each airline on United.com (all are subject to change, so be sure and double check).

Premium economy flights to Asia seem to be a sweet spot at the moment since the flights are long, fares are low and fare classes can be found at around 100% of mileage earning.

Traditional tips for searching for mileage run fares still apply in United’s new elite status system when booking with partners, but you just have to triple check everything and dig a bit deeper than before. Be sure to look at the fare class, the earning rate within United for that fare class and see if the partner is a preferred or MileagePlus partner (and then divide by 5 or 6). Also be sure you book with the partner if you want to follow those partner-earning rules.

You can use a site like the Great Circle Mapper to calculate distance flown on various routes to estimate mileage earnings.

Bottom line

I’m not a fan of the mileage run myself, but the taste of airline elite status is undeniably sweet. On United-operated flights, “dollar runs” are replacing the traditional mileage run, since you simply need to spend more to earn status. But on United’s partners, the mileage run as we knew it isn’t fully dead. It’s just — complicated.

Even if you don’t mileage run, there is wisdom in being extremely strategic in 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 are a 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 forthcoming program?

Featured image by Ryan Patterson/The Points Guy.

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