Paying Cash to Earn Elite Status — Reader Success Story

Dec 28, 2018

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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Meghan, who opted not to use miles for a flight over Thanksgiving:

I was booking a last-minute trip from San Francisco (SFO) to Newark (EWR) over Thanksgiving, and found United award flights with a schedule I liked for 50,000 miles round-trip. Right before I booked, however, I checked my progress toward United MileagePlus status and noticed I was just $166 Premier Qualifying Dollars short of requalifying for Silver status for 2019.

I already have a few domestic United flights planned next year on which I’ll have to check a bag, so having Silver status will save me $30 each way. I also appreciate boarding with Group 2 so I can find room on the plane for my carry-on, and I’ve been bumped up to Economy Plus a few times (which I hope will continue next year).

Lastly, I’ll be booking a few intra-Asia flights on Star Alliance airlines during an international trip next year, and I’ll be happy to have priority standby in a crunch. I did some calculations and determined it was more advantageous to book with cash and earn the status than to use miles for the flight. When you’re booking travel late in the year and deciding how to pay, take elite status qualification into consideration!

For many award travelers, the end of the calendar year is a race to qualify for elite status, but it’s not a race you should run impulsively. Before you take a mileage run or buy a block of elite qualifying miles, it’s worth asking yourself whether the cost and effort is justified. If you travel infrequently or you still have a lot of elite credits to earn, then the answer is probably no. But if you’re close to the threshold and confident your benefits will be useful, then you should explore your options.

Meghan avoided getting caught up in the idea of elite status and instead made a practical assessment of the value she expected to get from it. Unless her ticket was exorbitantly expensive, I’d argue she was better off paying cash anyway (just in terms of maximizing her redemption value), but the bonus of earning Premier Silver status made the decision even easier. If your own assessment is indecisive, keep in mind that you can also get benefits like free checked bags and priority boarding if you have a cobranded airline credit card.

If you’re aiming for elite status, planning early in the year will help you avoid scrambling to meet requirements later. Examine your travel plans to get a sense of how close you’ll be to qualifying, and make sure you account for how elite credits are awarded — for example, taxes paid don’t count as elite-qualifying dollars. Once you have a reasonable estimate, you can look for opportunities to boost your earnings as needed.

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Meghan a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes, or to contribute to our new award redemption series. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured image courtesy of The Points Guy.

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