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Why United’s changes make me glad I’m no longer pursuing elite status

Oct. 11, 2019
7 min read
United 737-900ER Business First Class Review ZH
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There's no getting around the fact that airline elite status can be addicting. From complimentary upgrades to bonus miles to lounge access, the array of perks is incredibly alluring, especially if you can reach the upper echelons of your favorite airline's program.

I used to be one of those travelers, as I've held elite status with Delta, American, United, JetBlue and Alaska at some point in the last 15 years. In some cases, I qualified the hard way — and I mean the really hard way (two years of 140+ segments on Delta solely on domestic flights). But four years ago, shortly after my daughter was born, I officially decided to give up on pursuing airline elite status.

Here's why United's new elite qualification criteria confirms that I made the right decision.

I'm not a big spender

In United's new program, big spenders are rewarded more so than they currently are. For the first time in any of the three legacy U.S. carriers' programs, you can now qualify for status based solely on the amount of money you spend. A traveler who purchases three or four business-class tickets on long-haul, international flights could easily spend the $24,000 needed to earn Premier 1K outright. (You could also spend $18,000 and take at least 54 Premier Qualifying Flights.)

Then there's someone like me. I'm not someone who purchases last-second tickets or splurges on paid first- or business-class flights. I try to be very conscious of my travel budget, so when the major airlines shifted to awarding redeemable miles based on dollars spent rather miles flown, I definitely came out on the short end of that stick. I would've struggled to hit the spending requirements in United's old program, and I'd definitely fall short in the new one.

I can be flexible

American Airlines, United, Alaska and JetBlue planes at LA, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
I've flown all of these airlines at some point in 2019, and I value that flexibility immensely. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Another great aspect of giving up on elite status is that I have the freedom to choose any airline I want — whether it's the cheapest option, most convenient itinerary or the only nonstop flight. In the past, I would elect to fly from Florida to Charlotte (CLT) via Atlanta (ATL) thanks to my Delta devotion rather than take one of the numerous daily flights on then-US Airways (now American). Now that I'm off the elite status hamster wheel, I no longer need to inconvenience myself (or pay more) for a flight, simply because it's on my airline of choice.

Thus far in 2019, I've flown on the following airlines to or from the listed cities:

  • Alaska: Portland (PDX)
  • American: Charlotte (CLT), Washington-Reagan (DCA), Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)
  • Delta: Atlanta (ATL)
  • JetBlue: Washington-Reagan (DCA), New York-LaGuardia (LGA), New York-JFK, Providence (PVD), Albany (ALB)
  • United: Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)

If you combine all of my flights, I probably have had enough paid tickets to qualify for low-tier status and may have reached enough for mid-tier status by the end of the year. However, that would've involved significant sacrifice in terms of time (booking connecting flights instead of nonstop ones) and money (paying more for a single airline).

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The other nice flexibility this offers involves destination selection. Would we have flown to Portland for a long weekend if we didn't want to book the nonstop flight? Probably not. Would we have visited Newport, RI if we were forced to "ignore" JetBlue's daily nonstop from West Palm Beach (PBI) in the pursuit of status? Definitely not.

One major enabler of this flexibility is the collection of transferable point currencies that I currently have. Programs like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards are my favorites, mainly because I'm not stuck redeeming miles through a single airline's program based on the award seats made available by that carrier and its partners. I can select the program I want that offers the best combination of award inventory and pricing for my desired date(s) of travel.

I'm nowhere near lifetime elite status

Each of the major three carriers offers some type of lifetime elite status program, and this can be a reason to stay loyal to a single airline. However, since I've spread the love around these airlines during my time as a road warrior, I'm still a good ways off from reaching the lowest tier with any of them. The one that's somewhat within striking distance is Delta, where my Million Miler Qualification balance is currently 681,177 miles. Still, that's a lot of additional flying to unlock complimentary annual Silver Medallion status (and the limited perks it confers).

This then feeds into the last point ...

I can still get elite-like perks

I can still travel like an elite-status flyer thanks to select credit cards. (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Finally, I can replicate many of the perks that a low- or mid-tier elite traveler would enjoy simply by strategizing with my credit cards. Sure these won't get me upgrade certificates to jump to business class on a long-haul, economy flight I purchased for $600, but they can sure make my travel life less stressful, less costly and more comfortable.

Here are some of those cards currently in my wallet:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: Access to Centurion Lounges, Priority Pass lounges and Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta) plus Even More Space seats on JetBlue as my designated carrier for the annual up to $200 airline fee statement credit. Enrollment required.
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: Access to American Admirals Clubs (including for my authorized users) plus a free checked bag on domestic flights
  • United Explorer Card: Free checked bag on all United flights, enhanced award availability and 2 United Club one-time passes each year
  • JetBlue Plus Card: Free checked bag on all JetBlue flights, 50% in-flight discount

Other cards offer similar benefits, so be sure to check out our guide to the best credit cards for elite status for additional suggestions.

Bottom line

The U.S. airlines have been sliding toward a revenue-based program for a number of years, and my colleague Summer Hull just highlighted United's history along these lines in bemoaning the carrier's most recent changes. I've never regretted making a conscious decision to stop pursuing elite status, and United's new elite status qualification scheme (that will almost certainly be copied by others) is further proof that I made the right one.

That's not to say United's new program is 100% negative. There are clearly those who benefited with the addition of a revenue requirement for elite status back in 2014 and those who began taking home more redeemable miles when Delta, United and American all shifted to what is essentially the same revenue-based earning scheme. I'm just not one of those travelers.

If these latest changes represent the straw that broke the camel's back, come join me in no longer worrying about qualifying year in and year out. You may be surprised at just how refreshing it is.

Featured image by Upgrades seem more abundant on Saturdays, when there are fewer business travelers. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.