How United credit cards fit into the new MileagePlus program

Oct 21, 2019

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Almost everything you knew about United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer program is changing in late 2019 and into 2020. Whether you’ll like the changes is debatable. For the record, I’m less than thrilled.

The changes will be widespread — from how the airline prices awards (dynamically and without an award chart for United flights beginning Nov. 15), to how you earn elite status (by spending a lot of money, not flying a lot of miles) to how elites earn and use confirmed upgrades (with points, not certificates).

With so many elements of MileagePlus undergoing massive shifts, we wanted to know how United’s cobranded credit cards fit into the next version of MileagePlus. It has been pretty important for someone in the family to have a United credit card in the modern era of MileagePlus, but will that remain a fact as the program enters a new phase?

Here are our findings.

You will still save miles on many awards

In the current, outgoing version of the MileagePlus program, those with a United credit card, such as the United Explorer Card, the United Explorer Business Card and the United Club Card, get access to expanded saver-award availability. Those with United elite status also get access to those saver awards, but if you don’t have elite status, having a United card has been the key to spending fewer miles on many awards.

The information for the United Club Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

For example, on Jan. 3, 2020, if you want to book an award flight from Houston (IAH) to Aspen (ASE), it will cost you 12,500 miles one-way for a saver award, but it’s only available if you have a United credit card or elite status.

Without a card or elite status you are looking at 30,000 miles one-way — a huge difference. Additionally, first class goes from 50k miles with a credit card to not being available at all on miles if you don’t have a card.

What happens in this scenario after United switches to dynamic award pricing on Nov. 15 is a little confusing. Although there won’t be a published award chart for United-operated flights that occur on or after that date, it is fully possible that the concept of saver awards will hang around on some dates and routes. Having a United card will then still save you a hunk of miles by accessing expanded saver-award (XN fare) availability, even if it is no longer called a saver award at some point. In fact, United has confirmed to TPG that it is “not changing inventory access with the removal of the award chart.”

The TPG Points Lab ran the numbers on hundreds of United awards — both pre- and post-Nov. 15 — and found that the award prices for having a United card versus not having a card vary dramatically, as much as 26,000 miles and as little as 1,000 miles. The average savings across the 1,440 award flights tested was 1,834 miles per direction of travel, although nearly half of the dates tested provided at least one discounted option.

Cards help with elite status — barely

Previously, putting $25,000 per year on a card such as the United Explorer Card exempted you from having to meet the Premier Qualifying Dollars (PDQs) spending requirements for elite status through the second-tier Platinum elite level. You still have to meet the usual miles-flown requirements. In 2020, that changed dramatically: Money spent with United and its eligible partners is almost all that matters for elite status so the cards won’t exempt you from that. They can help — a little.

For the first $12,000 in spending on most United cards in a calendar year, members will earn 500 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs), with an opportunity to earn an additional 500 PQPs with an additional $12,000 in spend. This means you earn a max of 1,000 PQPs with $24,000 in annual charges on the card.

As a refresher, in 2020, elite status on United will require anywhere from 4,000 to 24,000 PQDs (aka dollars spent) per year — depending on the status level you desire and whether you also meet a flight segments requirement. However, keep in mind all currently available United credit cards still won’t help you unlock top-tier 1K status. Assuming you want to earn mid-tier Gold status, you’ll need 8,000 to 10,000 PQDs. A whole bunch of spending on the card only helps you with 10–12.5% of that mid-tier status. If that is what gets you over the hump, great. But for most of us, it becomes a “meh” element of the card to put on so much spend for a limited return.

Also know that the four-segment minimum on United flights will no longer be waived for cardholders in 2020.

Related: Airline credit cards that help you earn elite status

(Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)

Waiver on close-in booking fees won’t matter

Having the United Club Card currently exempts the cardholder from the $75 close-in award-booking fee. However, that fee is going extinct for award travel from Nov. 15 onward, so being exempt from that fee will cease to matter.

Cards can still save you money

What hasn’t changed with the United cards are the built-in perks that can save you actual cash on your United travels. Exemption from some checked-bag fees and getting 20% back in the form of a statement credit for eligible onboard United purchases (including Wi-Fi) isn’t said to be changing.

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy.)

Even if one person just checks one bag on two United round-trips per year, that is a savings of $120, which is more than the annual fee of the United Explorer Card.

What about the legacy United/Continental cards?

Those with some legacy cards, such as the United Presidential Plus Card, have had a sweet deal as they could actually earn elite qualifying miles since before the Continental/United merger whereas no currently available card does that. But that’s changing a bit.

The United MileagePlus Select Card and United MileagePlus Platinum Class Visa Card earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 in card spend, up to 3,000 PQP in a calendar year, that can be applied up to 1K.

The United Presidential Plus Card and United Presidential Plus Business Card earn 500 PQP for every $12,000 in card spend, up to 10,000 PQP in a calendar year, that can be applied up to 1K.

To put that into numbers, (a massive) $240,000 spent per calendar year on the United Presidential Plus Card would outright earn you Gold status and get you two-thirds of the way to Platinum status in the 2020 program, so long as you also had four segments flown on United.

United’s site also states that on April 1, 2020, any residual Flex PQM (FPQM) balances will be converted and can be used as Flex PQP (FPQP) going forward at a ratio of 5:1. For example, a balance of 10,000 FPQM would become 2,000 FPQP. Flex balances that are converted can only be applied up to Platinum status.

Bottom line

The dynamics around United credit cards are changing, but the cards aren’t becoming worthless by any stretch — at least as far as we can tell. Based on what we know, they are becoming less helpful in obtaining elite status and avoiding close-in booking fees. However, they continue to be helpful in reducing the cost of United award flights and in potentially saving you money on actual United travel. Nevertheless, we’d love to see some perks added, such as a companion voucher or United airfare discount that could be unlocked with a certain amount of annual spending, as is common with many other airlines’ cobranded cards.

United-branded credit cards can still make sense going forward, but until the card benefits catch up with the new program rules, they are falling behind what some other airline credit cards offer.

Featured image courtesy of United

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