Last-minute strategies for United Premier elite status

Nov 15, 2019

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Now that we have just over a month left in 2019, your time is running out to qualify or requalify for airline elite status in 2020. This is the moment to check your mileage balances, calculate your travel for the rest of the year, and see where you will end up in terms of elite-status qualification for 2020.

If you think you will finish short of your goal, here are some ideas for earning the qualifying miles, segments and dollars you need before the end of the year. Today we’ll focus on United Premier status, but you can check out our other guides to last-minute elite-status qualification on American and Delta, too.

This is an especially important time period for United loyalists to lock in their status, as 2020 will see a radical shift to the way elite status is earned. Starting next year, United is eliminating PQMs and PQSs and focusing solely on the dollar amount you spend. In order to qualify for elite status you’ll need to spend at least the following amounts, before taxes and fees:

  • Premier Silver: $4,000
  • Premier Gold: $8,000
  • Premier Platinum: $12,000
  • Premier 1K: $18,000

Obviously there will be some winners and some losers with a change like this, but if you’re accustomed to earning United Premier status a certain way, make sure you lock in your current level or jump up a tier before the changes kick in next year.

(Photo courtesy of United)
(Photo courtesy of United.)

Useful posts

Before we dive in, take a look at these helpful posts for information you should have on hand as we enter the final countdown.

Now it’s time to put your plan together for the end of the year.

United Premier qualification and benefits

Let’s begin with the basics of United Premier elite status. You can find information on the Premier program and its membership tiers here. Below, we’ll look at the qualification requirements and benefits of each tier.

Flyers earn United award miles based on their airfare, elite status and whether or not they use a United cobranded credit card. However, when it comes to Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs), flyers still earn them based on the fare code of their ticket and the distance of a flight.

Partner flights are a different story. You generally earn both redeemable and Premier Qualifying Miles based on the distance of your flight. However, you will only earn Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) on fares purchased through United, so keep that in mind if partner flying is part of your plan. You can find out earning details here.

Premier Silver

United’s first tier of elite status requires you to earn 25,000 PQMs or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) and earn $3,000 PQDs during the calendar year. You can get that spending requirement waived by making $25,000 or more in purchases on a United MileagePlus credit card, if you have a United MileagePlus Presidential Plus Card or if you use a military or diplomatic address.

Related: How United credit cards fit into the new MileagePlus program

Here are the benefits of this tier:

  • Earn 7 miles per dollar spent (a 40% bonus)
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus for self and one companion 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 PQM minimum accrual
  • Priority check-in, security screening, boarding and baggage handling
  • One complimentary checked bag (70 pounds) for domestic economy tickets, two to Europe
  • Premier priority desk phone line
  • Access to most sold-out flights
  • Award priority including: award waitlisting, standby for international awards, better availability for United Saver Awards in economy, unrestricted access to United Standard Awards on United and United Express
  • Reduced close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees ($25 off)
  • Star Alliance Silver status benefits
  • RewardsPlus benefits. Silver Premier members get some basic benefits from the RewardsPlus partnership between Marriott and United, like a 10% bonus when converting Marriott Bonvoy points to United MileagePlus miles, and 10% more United miles when redeeming Marriott points for flight and hotel travel packages.
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy.)

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Premier Gold

The next tier of United Premier status requires flying 50,000 PQMs or 60 PQSs and earning $6,000 PQDs in a calendar year. The same credit card spending waivers apply.

Additional benefits at this tier include:

  • Earn 8 miles per dollar spent (60% bonus)
  • Complimentary access to Economy Plus for self and one companion at booking
  • Complimentary Premier upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 48 hours in advance
  • Two complimentary checked bags (70 pounds each) for domestic economy tickets
  • Lounge access when traveling internationally
  • Waived same-day flight changes
  • Reduced close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees ($50 off)
  • Star Alliance Gold status benefits including lounge access when traveling internationally
  • Marriott Gold status benefits via RewardsPlus. These include benefits like room upgrades, late check-out and a 25% bonus on points earned for every stay.

Premier Platinum

To qualify for this tier, you need to fly 75,000 PQMs or 100 PQSs, and earn $9,000 PQDs, with the same credit card spending waiver.

The additional benefits you enjoy upon reaching this tier include:

  • Earn 9 miles per dollar spent (80% bonus)
  • Complimentary Premier upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 72 hours in advance
  • Up to 8 Economy Plus companions
  • Three complimentary checked bags (70 pounds each) for domestic economy tickets
  • Two Regional Premier Upgrades
  • Waived/reduced close-in award booking fee, award redeposit fee and award change fees (award redeposit within 60 days of departure is $50)
  • Waived phone service charge
  • Better availability for United Saver Awards in select premium cabins
  • Discounted United Club membership rates ($50 off)
United
Hopefully upgrades will start coming through once you hit the upper echelons of elite status. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

Premier 1K

For United’s top tier of elite status, you need to fly 100,000 PQMs or 120 PQSs, and earn $15,000 PQDs in the calendar year. There is no credit card spending waiver for this tier.

At this level, the additional benefits you receive include:

  • Earn 11 miles per dollar spent (120% bonus)
  • Complimentary Premier upgrades and companion upgrades as early as 96 hours in advance
  • Instant upgrades on M-class economy tickets
  • Two additional Regional Premier Upgrades
  • Six Global Premier Upgrades and the ability to earn more upon each additional 25,000 PQMs earned (beginning 2019; otherwise, each additional 50,000 PQMs)
  • Premier priority desk phone line with dedicated 1K line
  • Waived award redeposit fees
  • Complimentary drinks and food in economy
  • Discounted United Club membership rates ($100 off)

Now that you have all the qualification information, it’s time to put together a plan for the end of the year so you achieve the highest elite status possible.

Last-minute earning strategies

Time is running out, but there is still a month left to rack up some Premier-qualifying activity if you need it. Here are some ideas to help put you over the top.

Buy Premier Qualifying Miles

This is probably the most expensive option, but might be just what you need in a pinch if you already have your travel for the end of the year blocked out.

United’s Premier Accelerator is a program that lets you earn extra PQMs along with extra award miles on eligible itineraries. To use it, you must have purchased flights and then you can log into your MileagePlus account. Once there, you should see an option to purchase accelerator miles.

B
Buying miles through United’s Accelerator is an expensive way to hit the next tier.

Unfortunately, the prices for PQMs are also outrageously high, in the range of 10-33 cents apiece according to this FlyerTalk thread. On the plus side, they do post to your account within a matter of days, no matter when your flight is scheduled to depart, so accelerator miles you purchase now should count toward your 2019 qualification requirements even if your flights aren’t until next year.

Also note that these purchases do not count toward your Premier Qualifying Dollar total.

Related: The best credit cards for flying United

Mileage-run scenarios

Because achieving elite status with United requires earning both Premier Qualifying Miles or Segments and hitting spending thresholds, mileage runs are not usually a useful tool toward qualifying like they once were.

Related: How and why you might want to book a mileage run

However, if you’re up to the PQD spending threshold for your desired status level but still lack some miles, you have some time to make up the deficit.

Cabin shot from after the flight.
You might have to do some flying to hit your goals.

If you plan to credit flights from United’s airline partners to your MileagePlus account, just be sure you’re aware of the earning rates for the specific carrier and fare class you purchase. Also remember that Basic Economy fares on United do not earn PQMs, PQSs or PQDs.

You should check the Mileage Run Forum on FlyerTalk for news about cheap fares. In the meantime, here are a some ideas for how to rack up a few thousand extra miles before the end of 2019.

1,000 miles short: Believe it or not, some folks who diligently spend their entire year racking up the miles necessary for elite status end up missing it by a few thousand, or even hundred, miles. Don’t let that be you.

Assuming you’re already a Premier member who earns 500-mile minimums on flights, you could do a quick single-day round-trip between Washington (IAD) and New York (LGA) for $209 and 1,000 PQMs.

West Coasters are even better off with fares between Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) for just $177 and 1,000 PQMs.

5,000 miles short: The easiest way to rack up 5,000+ PQMs quickly is probably to fly coast to coast with a possible stop in either direction.

This quick round-trip between Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX) with an outbound stop in Washington, D.C. (IAD) would earn 5,242 PQMs for just $350 (including a 500-mile minimum on the EWR-IAD leg).

You could get more creative and try to find some itineraries with one or more stops to add some more PQMs to your bottom line. For example, this round-trip from Boston (BOS) to San Diego (SAN) via Newark (EWR) and Denver (DEN) would earn a total of 5,533 PQMS for $354 (including a 500-mile minimum on the BOS-EWR leg).

10,000 miles short: Have a few more miles to rack up? You could do it on a series of short- or mid-range flights. However, given the time constraints and the crush of holiday travel that’s about to begin, you might want to try achieving this with a single, inexpensive itinerary with a couple of long-haul flights.

The best options at the moment are cheap flights from the U.S. to China. This three-day round-trip from Newark (EWR) to Shanghai (PVG) would earn 14,768 PQMs for $617.

If you don’t have a China visa, you could try this round-trip from Chicago (ORD) to Singapore (SIN) via San Francisco (SFO) for $783 and 20,594 PQMs.

Apart from cheap long-hauls, if you think you might purchase tickets in premium cabins on United’s airline partners, it might be worth looking up the individual earning page for that airline and calculating just how many PQMs you could earn. Then, if possible and if there is no or little fare difference, you should try to ticket it through United so you earn PQDs on your purchase as well.

Segments

If your mileage-run strategy centers on earning segments instead, check the FlyerTalk Mileage Run Forum for ideas and then use Google Flights’ multi-city search to piece it together.

This gets a little tough since you might have to purchase separate tickets for various itineraries, but I was finding it relatively easy to piece together multi-stop itineraries beginning and ending in Newark (EWR) and Washington (IAD) and traveling through Boston (BOS), Charlotte (CLT), Detroit (DTW), Houston (IAH), Chicago (ORD), St. Louis (STL) and Seattle (SEA) in various combinations for around $400-$500 for anywhere from 6-11 segments over one or two days in December.

The more complicated the itinerary, the more likely it is you will have to purchase several separate tickets and put them together piece by piece. Also remember that you’ll face a decent upcharge to avoid basic economy, an unfortunate necessity for those looking to mileage run on United.

Bottom line

While 2019 is drawing to a close, there’s still plenty of time left to requalify for your current United Premier elite status or level up to the next tier for 2020. The first step is sitting down and calculating where you stand and what you’ll earn from any scheduled end-of-year travel, so you can decide if a mileage run is right for you.

Remember that United is overhauling its elite status qualification process in 2020, so it might be worth going out of your way to lock in status before those changes take effect.

Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg.

Featured photo by George Rose/Getty Images.

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