What is United Airlines elite status worth in 2020?
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
When it comes to selecting an airline to earn most (or all) of your business, many factors come into play. Fee waivers, upgrades, lounge access and other valuable perks can turn a stressful travel experience into a smooth one, but have you every crunched the numbers to see if your current carrier makes the most sense for your travel patterns and your wallet?
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In this guide, I’ll dive deep into one of the major U.S. carriers to identify how well it rewards loyal flyers by evaluating the most important benefits provided at each level of elite status and attempting to put a specific value to each. If you’re considering pursuing Premier status with United, just how rewarding can the MileagePlus program be?
Before we get to the details of the elite status tiers of the MileagePlus program, a couple of disclaimers. First, it’s important to note that these mathematical analyses represent just one way of calculating the value you’d get out of a given elite status level. Everyone has his or her own way of valuing the various benefits of loyalty programs; some may always pay for first and business class and thus have no need for complimentary upgrades, while others may travel exclusively in the US and don’t care about free lounge access on international itineraries. As a result, feel free to adjust the numbers I use to make it more relevant to your own personal valuation.
Second, these numbers are all based on the benefits you’d enjoy after achieving the given status level and continuing to qualify each year thereafter. If you’re starting from scratch, these values are a bit skewed, since the first several flights you take will provide no benefits. I’ve provided some analysis for those of you in that position toward the end of the post, including an Excel spreadsheet to help with your estimates.
This brings me to the third and final critical part of this analysis: the underlying assumptions I’m making. To really hit a value for benefits, I have to assume a certain amount of flying and a corresponding amount of spending. Here, it’s worth pointing out that United recently announced a major shift in how it will award status starting in 2020. Distance is no longer a factor at all. Instead, you must fly a certain number of segments (Premier Qualifying Flights, or PQFs) and spend a certain amount of money (Premier Qualifying Points, or PQPs), or you can simply spend a certain amount of money (PQPs).
For the sake of this analysis, I’m making the following assumptions:
- You reach United Premier status through the combination metric (PQFs + PQPs).
- You earn 20% more Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) than the minimum required for the given status level.
- You complete at least the minimum number of Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs) to earn the given status level.
- At least four of your PQFs are United-operated (a prerequisite for earning any level of United Premier status)
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. Those who travel in paid first or business class internationally will likely spend significantly more and thus earn more PQPs across fewer PQFs, while some domestic road warriors purchasing low-fare economy tickets may need dozens of PQFs to even hit the Silver PQP requirements.
Two final bits of information: For the sake of this analysis, I’m valuing any bonus miles earned based on TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg United miles at 1.3 cents apiece. In addition, I’m rounding all of the individual benefit valuations to the nearest $5 to make the math a bit simpler.
So … all that being said, where do the four elite levels of the MileagePlus program land? Here’s my analysis:
United Premier Silver ($960)
The lowest tier in United’s program is Premier Silver status, which now requires at least 12 PQFs plus 4,000 PQPs or just 5,000 PQPs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 4,800 PQPs (so a total spend of $4,800) plus taking at least 12 PQFs to ensure you satisfy the hybrid qualification criteria.
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus/preferred seats ($125): Premier Silver members are able to select Economy Plus seats for them and one companion (only available at check-in) and can select preferred seats for them and up to eight companions (at time of booking). Economy Plus seats are available on most United-operated flights and offer additional legroom near the front of the coach cabin. However, they don’t provide additional benefits (like you’d get with Delta’s Comfort+), so they’re most similar to American’s Main Cabin Extra. However, they don’t include free drinks like American does, so I’ll value this perk a bit lower.
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades ($225): You’ll also be eligible for complimentary upgrades to first class as a Premier Silver traveler, and this applies to domestic flights along with flights to Hawaii (from the West Coast only), Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Unfortunately, these typically won’t clear until the day of departure, and you’ll be prioritized behind all other elite members. Complimentary premier upgrades (CPUs) also don’t apply to award tickets unless you also have a cobranded card like the United Explorer Card, so I’ll peg this perk just below the value I assigned to the comparable benefit on Delta.
- Mileage bonus ($125): United utilizes a revenue-based scheme for awarding miles, and Premier Silver flyers will earn 7 miles per dollar spent, two more than a non-status member. With $4,800 in spending, this equates to 9,600 additional miles, worth $124.80.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($125): Unlike American and Delta, United provides its lowest-tier elites with both priority security and baggage handing (in addition to preferred check-in and boarding). As a result, I’ll bump the value a bit compared to those carriers.
- Priority phone line ($50): As mentioned before, this can be a nice perk to have in the event of a significant issue but typically isn’t the most valuable benefit out there.
- Waived baggage fee ($125): Premier Silver members can check a bag for free when traveling in economy class, saving up to $60 per round-trip flight. This is similar to the benefit offered to holders of the Explorer Card (though you’ll need to purchase the ticket using the card for that perk to apply). As of September 2018, however, the weight limit was increased from 50 pounds to 70 pounds, so I’ll peg this at the same value I assigned to Delta Silver Medallions.
- Award travel benefits ($100): One way United stands out from the other carriers is the collection of benefits it offers Premier members when it comes to award tickets. Even Premier Silver travelers enjoy priority waitlisting for award flights, can standby if their ticketed class of service isn’t available on one or more legs and will gain access to “better” availability of United Saver awards in economy.
- Fee discounts/waivers ($50): United also gives Premier Silver members discounts on certain fees on award tickets:
- Changing or canceling an award ticket more than 60 days before departure: $50 instead of $75
- Changing or canceling an award ticket 60 or fewer days before departure: $100 instead of $125
- Star Alliance Silver status ($25): Premier Silver travelers will be designated as Star Alliance Silver when flying on a Star Alliance carrier, though this only includes priority waitlisting and priority standby, neither of which is worth much.
- Hertz benefits ($10): Finally, Silver members will enjoy perks with Hertz thanks to the company’s partnership with United — including automatic Five Star status in the Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program and an additional 500 United miles per rental. This could be quite valuable if you frequently rent from Hertz, but I’ll peg this at a conservation $10 for Premier Silver travelers.
United Premier Gold ($2,645)
The second tier in United’s program is Premier Gold status, which now requires at least 24 PQFs plus 8,000 PQPs or just 10,000 PQPs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 9,600 PQPs (so a total spend of $9,600) plus taking at least 24 PQFs to ensure you satisfy the hybrid qualification criteria.
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus/preferred seats ($325): Premier Gold members can also access Economy Plus seats for them and a travel companion plus preferred seats with up to eight companions, and the big difference from Silver is that both of these perks are available at booking. Given the additional flying and earlier availability, I’ll bump this up to $325.
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades ($625): As a Premier Gold member, you’ll also enjoy complimentary upgrades to first class on paid domestic and short-haul international flights. These will be prioritized ahead of Silver travelers and will start clearing 48 hours before departure but again aren’t applicable on award tickets without a United credit card. I’ll boost this value by a little more than double due to the additional travel and higher priority.
- Mileage bonus ($375): Under United’s revenue-based accrual scheme, Premier Golds will earn 8 miles per dollar spent (3 more than non-status flyers). With $9,600 of spending, that’ll give you 28,800 extra miles, worth $374.40.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($250): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($100): Same benefit, more frequent utilization, though you’ll also likely have more knowledgeable agents than Silver members.
- Waived baggage fee ($250): Premier Gold members can check two bags weighing up to 70 pounds apiece on domestic United flights when traveling in economy, a decent step up from Silver travelers.
- Same-day flight changes ($150): One notable difference between Premier Silver and Premier Gold is that Gold members can make a same-day flight change and avoid the $75 service charge. I’ll assume that you’d utilize this benefit twice per year.
- Award travel benefits ($125): Premier Gold travelers have the same award travel benefits as Premier Silvers, including greater availability of economy awards at the Saver level. However, you probably wouldn’t use them twice as frequently, so I’m just bumping the value slightly.
- Fee discounts/waivers ($125): You’ll also enjoy a couple of discounts on award ticket fees as a Premier Gold traveler, each of which is slightly more valuable than the comparable perk offered to Silver members:
- Changing or canceling an award ticket more than 60 days before departure: $25 instead of $75
- Changing or canceling an award ticket 60 or fewer days before departure: $75 instead of $125
- Star Alliance Gold status ($200): United Premier Gold members will be recognized as Star Alliance Gold travelers when flying on any Star Alliance carrier. This provides many benefits above Star Alliance Silver status, including priority check-in, extra baggage allowances, priority security/immigration (where available) and priority boarding. However, the most valuable perk is lounge access, which is included when you’re ticketed on any Star Alliance flight (the lone exception is traveling on domestic United flights, where you won’t have access to United Clubs but will be able to get into Star Alliance lounges in the U.S.). This means that you could get into a Senator Lounge on a Lufthansa flight within Germany, a United Club on a United flight from the U.S. to the Caribbean or a Turkish lounge on a United-operated domestic flight. This is a nice step up from comparable status tiers on American and Delta.
- Marriott Gold Status ($100): Another benefit offered to Premier Gold members is Gold status with Marriott Bonvoy thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership that was launched back in 2013. Unfortunately, this isn’t equivalent to the Gold Elite status you previously enjoyed with the legacy Marriott program, but it still includes perks like bonus points and upgrades to preferred rooms after you link your United and Marriott accounts. The true value of this benefit depends on how frequently you stay at Marriott properties, so I’ll assume a conservative $100, though feel free to adjust this if you have more frequent Marriott stays.
- Hertz benefits ($20): Like Premier Silver flyers, Gold members will enjoy Hertz Five Star status plus the same 500 additional bonus miles compared to a non-statusholder. With the additional travel, I’ll double the value of this perk to $20.
United Premier Platinum ($4,740)
The third tier in the MileagePlus program is Premier Platinum status, which now requires at least 36 PQFs plus 12,000 PQPs or just 15,000 PQPs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 14,400 PQPs (so a total spend of $14,400) plus taking at least 36 PQFs to ensure you satisfy the hybrid qualification criteria.
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus/preferred seats ($500): Premier Platinums can also access Economy Plus and preferred seats at booking, and this extends to up to 8 companions on the same reservation.
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades ($1,100): You’ll also enjoy complimentary upgrades to first class as a Platinum member, and these will begin clearing 3 days before departure. Given the additional flying and higher likelihood of clearing, I’m bumping this to $1,100.
- 40 PlusPoints ($400): Another big change that was announced in 2019 was the shift from upgrade certificates to PlusPoints for higher-tier Premier members. Instead of two Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) for reaching Platinum status, you’ll now earn 40 PlusPoints (existing certificates were converted to PlusPoints in December). In the past, RPUs were restricted to the same flights eligible for complimentary upgrades, United’s premium transcontinental services and longer flights to Hawaii. However, PlusPoints are more flexible, as you can use them on long-haul international flights. The 40 you earn as a Platinum member are enough for a one-way upgrade from most economy fares to United Polaris. In addition, you can use PlusPoints to upgrade a friend or family member, even when you aren’t traveling together. You will need PZ inventory on your flight for your upgrade to clear at the time of request; you can enable United’s expert mode to see fare class information in your search results. Given the additional flexibility of PlusPoints compared to the RPUs that were previously issued to Platinum members, I’ll peg these at $400.
- Mileage bonus ($750): Premier Platinum members will earn 9 miles per dollar spent, a bonus of 4 miles over the earning rate for regular members. $14,400 in spending gets you 57,600 miles, worth $748.80.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($375): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($150): Same benefit, more frequent utilization and more knowledgeable agents.
- Waived baggage fee ($325): Premier Platinum members can check three bags of 70 pounds each for free when traveling in economy on United, though most flyers probably won’t utilize the full extent of this benefit.
- Same-day flight changes ($225): Same benefit, utilized three times per year.
- Award travel benefits ($200): As a Premier Platinum member, you’ll have access to the same award travel perks listed above for Silvers and Golds, but you’ll also see greater availability for United Saver awards in premium cabins as well.
- Fee discounts/waivers ($200): The same award ticket fees are discounted or waived for Platinum members:
- Changing or canceling an award ticket more than 60 days before departure: $0 instead of $75
- Changing or canceling an award ticket 60 or fewer days before departure: $50 instead of $125
- Phone service charge waiver ($25): In addition to the discounted or waived fees above, you’ll also avoid the $25 direct ticketing charge when making a reservation over the phone, though I’ve frequently been able to get this waived without elite status when I wasn’t able to book a ticket online. I’ll assume that you utilize this once per year.
- Star Alliance Gold status ($300): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Marriott Gold Status ($150): Platinum members will also be able to link their United and Marriott accounts to earn Gold status with Marriott Bonvoy, but again this value depends on how frequently you stay at these brands. I’ll bump this slightly due to the additional travel required to earn Premier Platinum status.
- Hertz benefits ($40): As a Platinum traveler, you’ll enjoy automatic President’s Circle status in the Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program and enjoy 750 additional miles over a non-status flyer. As a result, I’ll double the value of these perks compared to Premier Gold.
United Premier 1K ($9,985)
The final tier in the MileagePlus program is Premier 1K status, which now requires at least 54 PQFs plus 18,000 PQPs or just 24,000 PQPs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 21,600 PQPs (so a total spend of $21,600) plus taking at least 54 PQFs to ensure you satisfy the hybrid qualification criteria.
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus/preferred seats ($600): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary Premier Upgrades ($1,500): Premier 1K members enjoy the highest upgrade priority (aside from Global Services travelers, who are likely traveling in paid first class anyway) and will begin clearing into first class as early as four days before departure.
- PlusPoints ($3,500): With United’s shift away from upgrade certificates, Premier 1K members will now earn 280 PlusPoints when qualifying for status. You’d also take home 40 for reaching Premier Platinum, and for every additional 3,000 PQPs, you’ll enjoy another 20 Plus Points. As a result, a Premier 1K member with the above travel activity (21,600 PQPs and 54+ PQFs) will have a total of 340 PlusPoints. This would be worth $3,400 based on the above valuation for Platinums, but I’ll add an additional $100 thanks to the newly-added Skip Waitlist feature.
- Mileage bonus ($1,685): Premier 1K members will earn 11 miles per dollar spent, 6 miles more than regular members. By spending $21,600, you’ll take home 129,600 miles, worth $1,684.80.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($500): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary snack and drink in economy ($50): Back in 2016, United announced that Premier 1K and Global Services travelers would enjoy a free drink and snack item if they don’t score the upgrade to first class. You’d hope to utilize this benefit infrequently, but it’s nice to have if you’re stuck in coach!
- Priority phone line ($250): Same benefit, more frequent utilization and more knowledgeable agents.
- Waived baggage fee ($375): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Same-day flight changes ($300): Same benefit, utilized four times per year.
- Award travel benefits ($200)
- Fee discounts/waivers ($300): The same award ticket fees are discounted or waived for 1K members:
- Changing or canceling an award ticket more than 60 days before departure: $0 instead of $75
- Changing or canceling an award ticket 60 or fewer days before departure: $0 instead of $125
- Phone service charge waiver ($25)
- Star Alliance Gold status ($350): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Marriott Gold Status ($200): Same benefit, slightly more frequent utilization.
- Hertz Benefits ($50): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Complimentary CLEAR membership ($100): In mid-2019, United announced a new partnership with CLEAR, the popular expedited security program that’s now expanded to more than 30 airports and 20 event venues across the U.S. Membership normally costs $179 per year, but non-status United members will pay $119. The yearly price for United credit cardholders and lower-tier elites drops to $109, but Premier 1K travelers can enjoy a complimentary membership. Given that this is currently available at all of United’s U.S. hubs, I’ll peg this near face value.
What if I’m starting from scratch?
As I mentioned at the outset, these numbers are based on the benefits you’d enjoy by spending a full year with the given status. However, if you’re starting from scratch, the calculations become a bit more complicated, since you won’t start to enjoy any benefits until you hit the PQF/PQP requirements to earn Premier Silver status. To help modify the analysis for those individuals, I’ve taken the above valuations and converted them to a value per PQP, as follows:
- United Premier Silver: $960 / 4,800 PQPs = 19.4 cents per PQP
- United Premier Gold: $2,645 / 9,600 PQPs = 27.55 cents per PQP
- United Premier Platinum: $4,740 / 14,400 PQPs = 32.9 cents per PQP
- United Premier 1K: $9,985 / 21,600 PQPs = 46.2 cents per PQP
I then created an Excel spreadsheet that uses these numbers to calculate how much value you’d get from the different levels of United elite status given a certain amount of flying. All you need to do is change the number in cell A2 to represent the number of PQPs you expect to fly in 2020, and the spreadsheet will update with the corresponding value. This also includes the additional PlusPoints you’d receive by reaching additional thresholds of 3,000 PQPs.
For example, you’ll see that I have pre-loaded 11,000 PQPs. At this rate, you’d get no benefits from the first 4,000 PQPs, then enjoy Premier Silver benefits for the next 4,000 PQps (at a rate of 19.4 cents per PQP), and then enjoy Premier Gold benefits for the final 3,000 PQPs (at a rate of 27.55 cents per PQP). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 11,000 PQPs in 2020, you’d be able to get $1,601.56 worth of perks from the United MileagePlus program.
Related: Consider jump-starting your travel in 2020 with an airline elite status match or challenge.
As always, feel free to adjust the numbers above for each tier (loaded into the “Base Data” tab of the spreadsheet) based on your own personal valuation.
Is it worth it?
So given these values, is it worth pursuing elite status (or the next tier of elite status) with United? Just like with any analysis we undertake here at TPG, there isn’t an easy answer to this, as it depends entirely on your individual situation. However, here are a few over-arching questions that can help you arrive at a decision:
- How much will you travel in the future? If you earned United elite status in 2010, it’s valid through Jan. 31, 2021, and if you qualify in 2020, your status will last until January 31, 2022. It’s critical to think about how much you’ll be traveling in the future. If you push hard to earn Premier 1K, for example, the valuable perks outlined above only apply when you actually travel.
- What’s the incremental value of one tier over another? Many of you may wind up within striking distance of the next tier, so be sure to consider whether the benefits are worth pushing for it. There’s no sense in going out of your way for perks that don’t matter to you.
- How well does United’s route map match your typical travel patterns? Pursuing elite status with an airline that you can’t feasibly fly on a regular basis is a fool’s errand. Be sure to consider United’s service from your home airport(s) and how easy it is to get to your desired destination.
- How sensitive are you to price and convenience? There are many trade-offs in this hobby, and one of the most common is deciding whether to use your preferred airline or hotel chain when it’s not the most convenient or cheapest. Would you book a one-stop United flight if Alaska had a cheaper nonstop option? If the answer is no, it may not be worth going out of your way to earn United elite status (or any elite status, for that matter).
- Could you enjoy elite-like perks with a credit card? The final consideration involves travel rewards credit cards. Many airline cobranded cards offer perks to cardholders than can mirror what you’d enjoy as an elite member. For example, the United Explorer Card includes a free checked bag, priority boarding and two, one-time United Club passes, while the United Club Infinite Card provides a complimentary United Club membership in addition to two free checked bag fees (among other perks). If you can pay a flat annual fee for one of these cards and gain access to perks that matter to you without going out of your way to earn elite status, that may be a good plan.
These questions are also not easy to answer, as there are many different factors that come into play with each of them. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate your own situation as you determine if United elite status is for you!
As a former road warrior, I’ve held elite status on several carriers and have experienced first-hand how the perks can make the travel experience less stressful and (dare I say?) even enjoyable. That being said, every traveler has his/her own set of benefits that make it worthwhile to pursue elite status. If you’re in the market for a new preferred carrier in 2020 and have United on your short list, I hope this post has given you some great information to help come to a final decision.
This is The Points Guy’s permanent page about United Airlines elite status, so you can bookmark it and check back regularly for the latest information. Keep in mind you may see some reader comments referring to outdated information below.
Feature photo courtesy of United Airlines.
The United Explorer card recently got some enhancements like 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants and on hotel stays and a Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check Fee credit (up to $100). The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
- Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles
- $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
- Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓™ Fee Credit
- 25% back on United inflight purchases
- Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
- Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
- Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases