5 things I’m most excited about from United’s status extension announcement

Apr 6, 2020

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This weekend, hours after Delta’s Sunday morning announcement that current Medallion status would be valid through 2021, United confirmed its own status extension, along with additional COVID-19 policy adjustments, in an email from MileagePlus program head Luc Bondar.

In short, it’s all good news, but there are a number of developments I wanted to highlight specifically, since many TPG readers continue to reach out with questions.

1. You’ll keep your current tier through 2021

This is, of course, the most significant development, and something elites have been eager to see since their travel plans began being impacted earlier this year. Anyone holding status in a published tier, from Silver through Premier 1K, will have their current status extended through Jan. 31, 2022 — giving elites an entire extra year.

United’s biggest spenders, members of the carrier’s invite-only Global Services tier, have not yet received word of an extension, though I imagine the airline will ultimately do whatever it can to keep those customers happy, too.

2. Reduced requirements for new status

For some travelers, this next adjustment will have an even bigger impact. If you are still able to travel a reasonable amount in 2020, it’ll be far easier than expected to reach a new tier. In line with what I had anticipated, United has cut all requirements by at least 50%. For example, rather than traveling on 54 flights and spending $18,000 with the airline to earn Premier 1K this year, frequent flyers will reach that tier after $9,000, plus 26 flights.

It could even be worthwhile for current Premier 1K members to earn status again, depending on how much they’ve already flown — I’m about $3,000 (and 10 flights) shy right now, and if I’m able to fly enough later this year, reaching 1K again would mean earning an additional 320 PlusPoints, valid through Jan. 31, 2022. Worst case, I’ll still have 1K status from the extension, and PlusPoints expiring next July.

3. More opportunities to redeem PlusPoints

About those PlusPoints — last year, United rolled out its new upgrade currency, which elites can use to book economy or Premium Plus and confirm an upgrade in a higher cabin. Now, as part of this announcement, the airline is extending expiration by six months; PlusPoints due to expire on Jan. 31, 2021 will be valid through Jul. 31, instead.

Elites can redeem PlusPoints to upgrade from economy to United Polaris business class. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
Elites can redeem PlusPoints to upgrade from economy to United Polaris business class. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Additionally, as Bondar explained, “Last year we introduced Skip Waitlist as a benefit to 1K members, giving you more opportunities to confirm an upgrade request at the time of booking. This benefit will now be available for the rest of 2020 in a significantly expanded selection of long-haul international regions and will have expanded availability in 2021 as well.”

That sounds great, on the surface, but from my previous test, Skip Waitlist requires an astronomical 140 PlusPoints per person each way, to move from economy to business class. Additionally, once confirmed, customers who voluntarily change their flight won’t receive a PlusPoints refund. Given the anticipated decline in business and leisure travel, it’ll likely be far easier to clear upgrades than before, so travelers may not even need to use this option.

For example, I’m seeing plenty of standard upgrade availability on a number of flights where I never would have imagined being able to clear an upgrade in advance before. Take Auckland (AKL) to San Francisco (SFO): elites booking during New Zealand’s peak January travel period can pay $561 for an economy seat and confirm an upgrade to Polaris business class for just 40 PlusPoints right now.

I was actually expecting United to go a bit further, and extend the expiration of PlusPoints to match its status extension — through Jan. 31, 2022. For now, points expire at the end of July, but I imagine that date could be pushed out if customers end up unable to travel for an extended period of time.

4. Travel certificates now valid for 24 months

If a U.S. airline cancels a flight, the carrier is obligated to issue a refund to the original form of payment, if that’s what a customer requests. Still, several airlines around the world, including United, have insisted on issuing travel vouchers, instead of a refund. If United didn’t operate your flight, and you didn’t cancel voluntarily, you should still be able to push for a refund. But if you’re stuck with a travel voucher, there’s some good news on that front, too.

As Bondar explained, “If your travel plans have been disrupted, and you have an electronic travel certificate from us for the value of your ticket, you now have two years from the date it was issued to book a new flight, as well as up to an additional 11 months to travel. This includes all currently valid and all new electronic travel certificates issued on or after April 1, 2020.”

So, any customers with a valid voucher now have an additional 12 months to book travel. And, since vouchers can be redeemed for travel scheduled after the expiration date, customers now have almost three years to travel on a voucher issued today.

For example, if you cancel travel and receive an electronic travel certificate today, April 6, 2020, you can redeem that certificate by April 6, 2022, for any United or United Express flights available to book at that time — most likely for travel as late as early March 2023. Of course, travelers would still prefer to have cash. But if a full refund isn’t an option, at least this adjustment gives you significantly more flexibility.

5. Status will be easier to earn in 2021

Bondar added his note with a promise for next year, saying: “Finally, we’ll be making it easier to earn status in 2021 for the 2022 program year. We recognize that getting back to travel will occur at a different pace for different members. Keep an eye out for changes we will make to help you earn status in 2021 for 2022, as we’ll share details later this year.”

It’s not yet clear how qualification requirements will change — I think that’ll depend entirely on how the situation shakes out this year — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 2020 criteria carry over to next year as well, for a 50% reduction across the board.

Bottom line

Hopefully, these adjustments will help ease some key concerns among MileagePlus members. Ideally, United would have allowed 2020 credits to roll over to 2021, as Delta is offering its Medallion members, though that could be an option later, especially if we’re unable to safely travel later this year. I’m thankful for an automatic extension of my Premier 1K status, though, and I hope United extends the same courtesy to its valuable Global Services members very soon.

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