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United's best kept elite status secret: How to earn PQP faster with partner flights

Feb. 16, 2022
13 min read
Lufthansa planes at the gate in Frankfurt Airport
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If everything goes to plan, I will requalify for United's top-tier Premier 1K elite status this year by spending less than $7,500 on air travel. This is in large part thanks to the ability to accrue generous amounts of Premier qualifying points on United's Star Alliance partners.

It is a far cry from the $13,500 normally needed to requalify for Premier 1K on United tickets, which is difficult for all but the most frequent United flyers to earn in a single calendar year.

In my opinion, the ability to earn generous amounts of PQPs on partner flights is the best-kept secret in the friendly skies — and it isn't as hard as you might think. MileagePlus members can earn PQPs with any Star Alliance member, and they're accrued based on fare class and flight distance. As a refresher, United flights earn PQPs based on how much you spend.

In turn, this means a $1,000 long-haul business-class ticket with Lufthansa could accrue 1,500 PQPs, depending on how long the fight is.

Let's take a closer look at earning PQPs on partner flights and how it could make earning United elite status a lot cheaper.

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Some background

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Like many carriers, United has removed a member’s distance flown from its annual requirements for earning elite status. Nowadays, the carrier largely awards elite status to members with high annual spending — at least when you earn status on United's own flights.

When I first qualified for Premier 1K nearly a decade ago, Premier qualifying dollars were the currency used to assess a member’s spending. A member could earn 1 PQD per $1 spent on United flights, less some taxes and fees. This was in addition to earning a set number of Premier qualifying miles (PQM) and Premier qualifying segments (PQS).

Then, in 2019, United did away with PQMs, PQSs and PQDs and replaced them with Premier qualifying flights and Premier qualifying points. PQPs are almost identical to PQDs when flying on United flights: $1 spent is equal to 1 PQP. On the other hand, PQFs are segments flown, so one takeoff and landing equals 1 PQF.

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But as discussed, partner flights still earn PQPs based on the distance of the flight, while PQFs are earned per segment. Don't worry — we'll discuss how this works in the next section.

You qualify for status by earning a set number of combined PQPs and PQFs, or a higher PQP threshold. For Premier 1K status, you can qualify with 36 PQFs and 13,500 PQPs, or 15,000 PQPs. Regardless, you need to fly at least four segments on United to earn any United status tier, so you can't earn status from partner flights alone.

Related: Why you probably shouldn’t buy up for United status

The basics of earning United elite status with partners

Air Canada's business class is one of the best partner PQP-earning opportunities. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

With United’s Star Alliance partners, you earn PQPs based on three factors: the length of your flight, the fare class and the airline that operates your flight.

The base mileage is relatively simple as it's calculated by the distance you fly. As a general rule of thumb, the farther you fly, the more PQPs you’ll earn. However, different fare classes earn different amounts of miles. Discounted economy flights might earn less than the total distance of the flight, while business-class tickets might earn more than the total distance.

Keep in mind that the cost of your partner ticket is not directly linked to your final PQP accrual. This means if you find a full-fare economy ticket from New York-JFK to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA), on one day for $1,500 and another day for $5,000, it will earn the same amount of redeemable United miles and PQPs. In turn, this is advantageous for low-cost, long-haul partner award flights.

Let's take a closer look at how you calculate the number of PQPs you earn on partner flights.

1. Calculate your redeemable miles first

The base miles that you earn are separate from the total redeemable MileagePlus miles that you earn on a flight. For example, in November, I flew from Orange County, California (SNA), to London (LHR) via Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR), with Air Canada. Here's a look at my earnings:

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

The segment from SNA to YVR was booked in the B fare class while the segment from YVR to LHR was booked in the N fare class. B fares credit at 125% of miles flown while N fares credit at 100% of miles flown.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Without elite status bonuses, I earned 1,382 miles for the first leg, which equals 277 PQPs. Then I earned 4,723 miles on the second leg, for a total of 750 PQPs.

2. Convert base miles to PQPs

So, why are my PQP earnings less than the miles I earned?

You need to divide the miles you earn on a flight (before elite status bonuses) by either five or six. You divide flights on United's preferred partners by five and flights on all other partners by six to find your partner PQP-earning. Unfortunately, there are limits on how many PQPs you can earn per segment, with preferred partner and premium cabin tickets having higher limits.

United’s preferred partners are:

  • Air Canada.
  • Air China.
  • Air Dolomiti.
  • Air New Zealand.
  • All Nippon Airways.
  • Austrian Airlines.
  • Avianca.
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines.
  • Brussels Airlines.
  • Copa Airlines.
  • Edelweiss.
  • Eurowings.
  • Eurowings Discover.
  • Lufthansa.
  • Swiss International Airlines.

With United’s preferred partners, you can earn a maximum of the following on each segment:

  • Economy/premium economy: 750 PQPs.
  • Business/first: 1,500 PQPs.

To calculate your earnings with United’s preferred partners, you divide the total base mileage accrual (based on distance) by five.

United’s standard partners are:

  • Aegean Airlines.
  • Air India.
  • Asiana Airlines.
  • Croatia Airlines.
  • Egyptair.
  • Ethiopian Airlines.
  • EVA Air.
  • Juneyao Air.
  • LOT Polish Airlines.
  • Olympic Air.
  • SAS.
  • Shenzhen Airlines.
  • Singapore Airlines.
  • South African Airways.
  • TAP Air Portugal.
  • Thai Airways International.
  • Turkish Airlines.

With United’s standard partners, you can earn a maximum of the following on each segment:

  • Economy/premium economy: 500 PQPs.
  • Business/first: 1,000 PQPs.

Again, to calculate your earnings with United’s standard partners, you divide the total base mileage accrual (based on distance) by six.

Given that flights on preferred partners are calculated by dividing the mileage accrual by five, whereas flights on standard partners are calculated by dividing the mileage accrual by six, standard partner flights are credited at a 20% lower basis across the board. So as a general rule of thumb, it usually makes more sense to stick to United’s preferred partners.

This is the high-level scoop, but you can visit United's premier qualifying credit partners page for more information.

3. Booking your ticket

This is an easy one to forget and can make a massive difference in how many PQPs you earn.

If you book a ticket with United (either on united.com, over the phone with United or in a United ticket office), the ticket number will begin with 016, and you will earn PQPs and redeemable miles based on the cost of the ticket.

If you want to earn partner PQPs based on the distance flown, you must book a partner-operated ticket directly with the operating carrier. You may be able to book with an online travel agency, but there's a chance it will be operated by United if it's processed as a codeshare booking.

Generally, I try and book directly on the partner carrier's website to ensure my flight is actually ticketed by that partner. That said, pricing can vary depending on where you book, so make sure to cross-compare with OTAs to find the best price.

Related: 30 ways to earn miles with the United MileagePlus program

Example United partner bookings

(Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy)

Now that you know how to calculate the number of PQPs you'll earn on a partner award ticket, here are some examples of earning PQPs with Star Alliance partners. These were found when writing this story and may no longer be available, but they're here to serve as inspiration for finding your own partner itineraries to maximize PQP-earning.

Economy: Paris with SAS — 2.19 PQPs per dollar

Even though SAS is a standard partner of United, its long-haul flights are some of the most reasonable out there. This round-trip ticket costs $463 and is ticketed in the L fare class (50% accrual basis), so it would earn the following:

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH): 2,727 base miles, 455 PQPs.
  • Copenhagen to Paris (CDG): 312 base miles, 52 PQPs.
  • Paris to Copenhagen: 312 base miles, 52 PQPs.
  • Copenhagen to San Francisco: 2,727 base miles, 455 PQPs.
  • Total: 6,078 base miles and 1,014 PQPs.

Related: Inside the SAS Airbus A350, in all classes

Economy: Hong Kong with Air Canada — 2.96 PQPs per dollar

Air Canada is a preferred partner of United, making it advantageous for PQP-earning. The round-trip ticket costs $594 and is ticketed in the G fare class (50% accrual basis internationally, 25% within Canada), so it earns the following:

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Toronto (YYZ): 608 base miles, 121 PQPs.
  • Toronto to Hong Kong (HKG): 3,896 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum).
  • Hong Kong to Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR): 3,184 base miles, 636 PQPs.
  • Vancouver to Montreal (YUL): 572 base miles, 114 PQPs.
  • Montreal to Fort Lauderdale: 692 base miles, 138 PQPs.
  • Total: 8,952 base miles and 1,759 PQPs.

Related: Passing grade: A review of Air Canada in economy on the 787-9 from Toronto to Dubai

Economy: Athens with Air Canada — 2.88 PQPs per dollar

Again, Air Canada is a United preferred partner. This round-trip multistop ticket costs $595 and is ticketed in the K fare class (50% accrual basis internationally, 25% within Canada), and it earns the following:

  • Honolulu (HNL) to Vancouver (YVR): 1,353 base miles, 270 PQPs.
  • Vancouver to Montreal (YUL): 572 base miles, 114 PQPs.
  • Montreal to Athens, Greece (ATH): 2,365 base miles, 473 PQPs.
  • Athens to Montreal: 2,365 base miles, 473 PQPs.
  • Montreal to Vancouver: 572 base miles, 114 PQPs.
  • Vancouver to Honolulu: 1,353 base miles, 270 PQPs.
  • Total: 8,585 base miles and 1,714 PQPs.

Economy: Peru with Copa — 2.18 PQPs per dollar

Copa is another United preferred partner. This round-trip itinerary, which is ticketed in the A fare class (50% accrual basis), costs $336 and would earn the following:

  • New York-JFK to Panama City (PTY): 1,100 base miles, 220 PQPs.
  • Panama City to Lima, Peru (LIM): 730 base miles, 146 PQPs.
  • Lima to Panama City: 730 base miles, 146 PQPs.
  • Panama City to New York: 1,100 base miles, 220 PQPs.
  • Total: 3,660 base miles and 732 PQPs.

Related: Flight review: Copa Airlines (737-800) economy from Los Angeles to Panama City

Premium economy: Oslo with Lufthansa — 1.95 PQPs per dollar

Lufthansa is a preferred partner of United. This premium economy round-trip ticket costs $1,019 and is booked in the N/Y fare classes (100%/150% accrual basis). It would earn the following:

  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Munich (MUC): 5,990 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum).
  • Munich to Oslo, Norway (OSL): 1,228 base miles, 245 PQPs.
  • Oslo to Munich: 1,228 base miles, 245 PQPs.
  • Munich to Los Angeles: 5,990 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum).
  • Total: 14,436 base miles and 1,990 PQPs.

Related: High comfort, low fare: Lufthansa’s premium economy on the A330

Premium economy: Taiwan with Air Canada and EVA — 1.41 PQPs per dollar

On this itinerary, two different Star Alliance partners connect you from Seattle (SEA) to Taipei (TPE), so we look at earning rates on each airline separately.

The cost of this ticket is $1,285. The Air Canada flights are ticketed in the K/G/N fare class (50%/50%/100% accrual basis), while the EVA flight is ticketed in the H fare class (75% accrual basis):

  • Seattle (SEA) to Vancouver (YVR): 63 base miles, 12 PQPs.
  • Vancouver to Seoul, South Korea (ICN): 5,109 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum).
  • Seoul to Taipei, Taiwan (TPE): 680 base miles, 113 PQPs.
  • Taipei to Tokyo Narita (NRT): 1,017 base miles, 169 PQPs.
  • Tokyo to Vancouver: 4,674 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum).
  • Vancouver to Seattle: 63 base miles, 12 PQPs.
  • Total: 11,606 base miles and 1,806 PQPs.

Business: Athens with Air Canada — 1.92 PQPs per dollar

This round-trip costs $2,284 and is ticketed in the P fare class (150% accrual basis). It would earn:

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Montreal (YUL): 3,808 base miles, 761 PQPs.
  • Montreal to Athens (ATH): 7,131 base miles, 1,426 PQPs.
  • Athens to Montreal: 7,131 base miles, 1,426 PQPs.
  • Montreal to San Francisco: 3,808 base miles, 761 PQPs.
  • Total: 21,878 base miles and 4,374 PQPs.

Related: It’s worth your time: A review of Air Canada business class on the Boeing 777-300ER

Business: Chile with Avianca — 1.87 PQPs per dollar

Avianca is another United preferred partner. This round-trip business-class ticket costs $1,092 and is ticketed in the A fare class (100% accrual basis). It earns:

  • New York-JFK to Bogota, Colombia (BOG): 2,475 base miles, 495 PQPs.
  • Bogota to Santiago, Chile (SCL): 2,630 base miles 526 PQPs.
  • Santiago to Bogota: 2,630 base miles 526 PQPs.
  • Bogota to New York: 2,475 base miles, 495 PQPs.
  • Total: 10,210 base miles and 2,042 PQPs.

Related: Flight review: Avianca (787-8) business class — Bogota to Barcelona

Bottom line

No matter which cabin you travel in, each of these examples lets you earn significantly more than the 1 PQP per dollar you would earn on United- and United Express-operated flights. Even if you're starting from scratch, you can earn a healthy stock of both PQPs and MileagePlus miles on partner flights.

Keep in mind that to qualify for any status level with United, you must fly at least four flights operated by United and/or United Express annually. Regardless, if you know how to maximize United’s PQP partners, you can earn Premier 1K status without having spent $20,000 on United flights.

Featured image by (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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.

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  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
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  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
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  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
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