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United extends elite perks, makes it easier to earn status in 2021

Nov. 12, 2020
8 min read
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At the end of 2019, United Airlines announced big changes to how elite members qualify for MileagePlus Premier status, increasing spending requirements across the board. And then coronavirus hit.

In response to the pandemic, and the reduced flying that followed, the airline extended current status levels for another year — through January 2022 — and reduced requirements for anyone hoping to hit a new tier based on their (limited) travels in 2020.

The airline also added a new promotion for customers with a co-branded credit card, doubling the number of Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) travelers can earn with consumer and small business cards, such as the United Explorer Card, and quadrupling the number of PQPs elites can earn with consumer and small business Club cards, such as the United Club Infinite Card.

It hasn't been all good news for MileagePlus members, however. While United has permanently eliminated change fees for certain flights, the carrier has made award miles considerably less valuable in many cases — most recently when redeeming for partner flights.

While Delta has yet to detail its plans for next year — aside from a plan to roll over some credits accrued in 2020 — American Airlines recently shared its 2021 elite requirements, and now United is detailing status requirements for anyone hoping to reach an elite tier next year.

That's not all, though — the airline is also extending some benefits, and making it easier to qualify for top-tier Premier 1K status with credit card spend. Let's dig in to see what's being extended, and how you can earn status in 2021, valid through January 2023.

Reduced United 2021 elite requirements

First, let's dig into earning requirements. United awards status levels based on either a combination of Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQFs), or a higher number of PQPs, for would-be elites who don't meet the flight segment threshold.

Flyers earn one PQP for each eligible dollar spent on tickets issued by United, or based on distance and fare class for tickets issued by partners, as detailed in this post. Travelers earn one PQF for each eligible flight segment flown.

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Requirements have dropped by roughly 25% for the 2021 qualification year, though they've been adjusted slightly more or slightly less in some cases, so they're a bit easier to follow. Here's how it breaks down:

Elite tierStandard requirements2021 requirements
Silver4,000 PQP/12 PQF or 5,000 PQP3,000 PQP/8 PQF or 3,500 PQP
Gold8,000 PQP/24 PQF or 10,000 PQP6,000 PQP/16 PQF or 7,000 PQP
Platinum12,000 PQP/36 PQF or 15,000 PQP9,000 PQP/24 PQF or 10,000 PQP
Premier 1K18,000 PQP/54 PQF or 24,000 PQP13,500 PQP/36 PQF or 15,000 PQP

Automatic PQPs for current elites

In addition to the reduced requirements outlined above, United is rewarding customers who currently hold elite status, automatically depositing 25% of the PQP-only requirement for 2021.

If you hold United Premier status at the end of 2020, you'll receive a PQP deposit automatically by Feb. 1, 2021. The amount you should expect to receive breaks down as follows:

  • Silver: 875
  • Gold: 1,750
  • Platinum: 2,500
  • Premier 1K: 3,750

Based on the PQP deposit amounts listed above, 2020 Premier 1K members will technically kick off the 2021 qualification year with enough credit to earn Silver status. However, it's important to note that United requires that elites fly a minimum of four segments on United or United Express in order to qualify for status, so unless you're qualifying as part of the airline's Marriott partnership, you will need to step foot on a plane.

Bonus PQPs for Q1 2021 travel

Even with reduced requirements and automatic PQP deposits, elite status may remain out of reach of many flyers who wouldn't have had any trouble meeting their goal in a pre-pandemic travel environment. Fortunately, there's another option to bring elite status within reach.

During the first quarter of 2021, from Jan. 1 through March 31, MileagePlus members can earn bonus PQPs on their first three United or United Express PQP-earning trips.

Elite members can earn a 100% PQP bonus, with a minimum of 300 bonus PQPs and a maximum of 1,500 bonus PQPs per trip. Non-elites can earn a 50% bonus, with a minimum of 150 bonus PQPs and a maximum of 1,000 bonus PQPs per trip.

The bonus could be especially lucrative for elite members traveling on deeply discounted tickets, which seem to be plentiful at the moment. For example, a $49 one-way flight from Newark (EWR) to Boston (BOS) could earn 38 PQPs, based on the pre-tax fare, plus a 300 PQP bonus. After three one-way trips, a 2020 elite could walk away with 114 standard PQPs, plus a 900 PQP bonus — that's over 1,000 Premier Qualifying Points for under 150 bucks.

At the same time, big spenders will have to keep that cap in mind — they'll max out at 4,500 bonus PQPs earned as part of United's Q1 promo.

United extending PlusPoints

Elites can use PlusPoints to confirm an upgrade in advance. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

In my opinion, PlusPoints are by far the most valuable perk of Platinum and Premier 1K status, giving elites an opportunity to lock in upgrades at booking, or prioritize a waitlisted upgrade for domestic, regional and long-haul international flights.

In April, United announced that all outstanding PlusPoints would be extended by six months, making points set to expire at the end of January 2021 valid through July 31 of next year.

Now, the airline is tacking on an additional six months — previously extended PlusPoints issued based on 2019 travels will expire at the end of January 2022, while PlusPoints issued based on 2020 travels will remain valid through July 2022.

More upgrades, more PlusPoints

For 2021, it'll be easier for Premier 1K members to earn additional incremental PlusPoints. After earning 1K status and 15,000 PQPs, United's top elites will accrue an additional 20 PlusPoints for every 2,000 PQPs, compared with the current 3,000 PQP requirement.

Earn PQPs with credit cards

While United travelers can accrue PQPs based on their spend with most of the airline's co-branded credit cards, such as the United Explorer Card and the United Club Infinite Card, only select discontinued cards earned PQPs that could be used to qualify for top-tier Premier 1K.

For 2021, most current cards can help members qualify for 1K as well — you'll no longer be limited to Premier Platinum. Members can earn 500 PQPs for each $12,000 spent with current co-branded cards that carry an annual fee, up to a maximum of 1,000 PQPs. Legacy cardmembers may be eligible to earn up to 10,000 PQPs, depending on their card.

Note that PlusPoints earned with credit cards will only count toward the PQP + PQF requirement of 13,500 PQPs plus 36 individual flights.

Bottom line

Based on the airline's qualification adjustments, United is clearly expecting — or at least hoping — that many business travelers will be able to return to the skies in 2021.

Reduced thresholds, an automatic PQP deposit and up to 100% PQP bonus on the first three flights between next January and March will certainly help close the gap, but it remains unclear whether it'll be possible or practical for travelers to book enough United flights to qualify for the status level they hope to achieve next year, even if reaching the top tier was never an issue before.

In a call to discuss today's qualification adjustments, United's President of MileagePlus and VP of Marketing and Loyalty, Luc Bondar, explained that the airline may choose to add more promotions later in the year, depending on how customers respond.

"As the year progresses, if we need to launch additional promos to help members get there, of course we'll do that," Bondar said. "We want to make sure that our Premier members who want to be Premier again have the means to do that."

We're all hoping for a strong travel industry recovery in 2021. As for whether or not that will materialize? We'll just have to wait and see.

Featured image by Photo by Zach Honig/TPG
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.