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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?
Today, I’m continuing my update of last year’s series that identifies just how well each of the major carriers reward their loyal flyers. As in previous iterations, I’ll evaluate the most important benefits provided at each level of elite status and attempt to put a specific value to each. After starting with the American Airlines AAdvantage program and the Delta SkyMiles program, I’ll now move on to the third major legacy carrier and analyze the United MileagePlus program.
As I noted in my earlier posts, this series is not meant to replace or detract from the airline elite status analysis I completed in fall 2017. That analysis looked not only at the value of the various perks offered to elite members but also the importance of those perks to travelers. In addition, it didn’t go into details for the individual airlines, instead offering a comparison across the major airlines here in the US. Today’s analysis (and the entries that follow) will do just that.
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 25,000 miles you fly 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. For the sake of the airline portion of the series, I’m making the following assumptions:
- You earn 20% more Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) than the minimum required for the given status level.
- You spend an average of 12.5 cents per PQM.
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. Those who travel exclusively in the US may spend less than 12.5 cents per mile, while those who travel in paid first or business class internationally likely spend significantly more. You also may qualify on segments rather than miles, and you may have heavier travel in certain parts of the year.
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 1.4 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 ($930)
The lowest tier in United’s program is Premier Silver status, which normally requires 25,000 PQMs or 30 Premier-qualifying segments plus $3,000 Premier-Qualfying Dollars (PQDs). For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 30,000 PQMs at a cost of 12.5 cents per mile (so a total spend of $3,750).
- 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. I’ll thus value them similarly.
- 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 ($105): 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 $3,750 in spending, this equates to 7,500 additional miles, worth $105.
- 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
- Booking an award ticket less than 21 days before departure: $50 instead of $75
- 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.
United Premier Gold ($2,615)
The second tier in United’s program is Premier Gold status, which normally requires 50,000 PQMs or 60 Premier-qualifying segments plus $6,000 PQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 60,000 PQMs at a cost of 12.5 cents per mile (so a total spend of $7,500).
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus/preferred seats ($350): 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 $350.
- 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 ($315): Under United’s revenue-based accrual scheme, Premier Golds will earn 8 miles per dollar spent (3 more than non-status flyers). With $7,500 of spending, that’ll give you 22,500 extra miles, worth $315.
- 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 ($150): You’ll also enjoy a few discounts on award ticket fees as a Premier Gold traveler, all of which are slightly more valuable than those 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
- Booking an award ticket less than 21 days before departure: $25 instead of $75
- 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 US). This means that you could be on a Lufthansa flight within Germany and get into a Senator Lounge or a United flight from the US to the Caribbean and get into a United Club. This is a nice step up from comparable status tiers on American and Delta, which both require you to be traveling internationally (American even requires this to be long-haul international to access Admirals Clubs).
- Marriott Gold Status ($100): A final 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.
United Premier Platinum ($4,505)
The third tier in the MileagePlus program is Premier Platinum status, which normally requires 75,000 PQMs or 90 Premier-qualifying segments plus $9,000 PQDs. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 90,000 PQMs at a cost of 12.5 cents per mile (so a total spend of $11,250).
- 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.
- Regional Premier Upgrades ($250): In addition to the complimentary upgrades, you’ll also earn 2 Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) upon qualifying for Platinum status. These can also be applied to the same flights eligible for complimentary upgrades but give you a higher priority, and they also extend to United’s premium transcontinental services and longer flights to Hawaii. In addition, they can be transferred to a friend or family member, even when you aren’t traveling together. You will need R 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. While these can be much more valuable on longer flights like Newark (EWR) to Honolulu (HNL), I’ll peg them at $125 apiece.
- Mileage bonus ($630): Premier Platinum members will earn 9 miles per dollar spent, a bonus of 4 miles over the earning rate for regular members. $11,250 in spending gets you 45,000 miles, worth $630.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($325): 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 ($300): Same benefit, utilized four 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 ($250): 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
- Booking an award ticket less than 21 days before departure: $0 instead of $75
- 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.
United Premier 1K ($8,560)
The final tier in the MileagePlus program is Premier 1K status, which normally requires 100,000 PQMs or 120 Premier-qualifying segments plus $15,000 PQDs (note that this requirement was raised effective in 2019). For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 120,000 PQMs at a cost of 12.5 cents per mile (so a total spend of $15,000).
- 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.
- Regional Premier Upgrades ($500): As mentioned above, you’ll earn two RPUs when you qualify for Premier Platinum status, and then you’ll earn another two when you qualify for Premier 1K (starting in 2019, you’ll no longer earn additional RPUs for more travel). If you’re a 1K with 120,000 PQMs, you’ll thus earn four RPUs, and I’ll keep them valued at $125 apiece.
- Global Premier Upgrades ($2,100): Premier 1Ks will also earn six Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) after qualifying and can then earn another one for every additional 25,000 PQMs or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments in a calendar year. These can be used to upgrade any United flight for you or a friend/family member, though some deeply discounted fare classes to certain regions aren’t eligible. Even though they are transferable, I’ll peg these at $350 apiece due to the fare class restriction on long-haul flights.
- Mileage bonus ($1,260): Premier 1K members will earn 11 miles per dollar spent, 6 miles more than regular members. By spending $15,000, you’ll take home 108,000 miles, worth $1,260.
- Priority check-in, security, boarding and baggage handling ($525): 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 ($200): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Waived baggage fee ($375): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Same-day flight changes ($375): Same benefit, utilized five 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
- Booking an award ticket less than 21 days before departure: $0 instead of $75
- 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.
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 25,000-mile mark and 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 PQM, as follows:
- United Premier Silver: $930 / 30,000 PQMs = 3.1 cents per PQM
- United Premier Gold: $2,615 / 60,000 PQMs = 4.36 cents per PQM
- United Premier Platinum: $4,505 / 90,000 PQMs = 5.01 cents per PQM
- United Premier 1K: $8,560 / 120,000 PQMs = 7.13 cents per PQM
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 PQMs you expect to fly in 2019, and the spreadsheet will update with the corresponding value. This also includes the additional GPUs you’d receive by reaching additional thresholds of 25,000 PQMs.
For example, you’ll see that I have pre-loaded 60,000 PQMs. At this rate, you’d get no benefits from the first 25,000 PQMs, then enjoy Premier Silver benefits for the next 25,000 PQMs (at a rate of 3.1 cents per PQM), and then enjoy Premier Gold benefits for the final 10,000 PQMs (at a rate of 4.36 cents per PQM). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 60,000 PQMs in 2019, you’d be able to get $1,210.83 worth of perks from the United MileagePlus program.
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 2018, it’s valid through January 31, 2020, and if you qualify in 2019, your status will last until January 31, 2021. 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 co-branded 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 United Club passes, while the United MileagePlus Club Card provides a complimentary United Club membership in addition to two free checked bag fees and no close-in award booking 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 this year and have United on your short-list, I hope this post has given you some great information to help come to a final decision!
Feature photo courtesy United
With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
- Earn 35,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $2,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months.
- Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. restaurants. Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1X).
- Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
- Earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with The Gold Card at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack, and Ruth's Chris Steak House. This is an annual savings of up to $120. Enrollment required.
- $100 Airline Fee Credit: up to $100 in statement credits per calendar year for incidental fees at one selected qualifying airline.
- Choose to carry a balance with interest on eligible charges of $100 or more.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- Annual Fee is $250.
- Terms apply.
- See Rates & Fees