My Experience Hitting United Million Miler Without Elite Status
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When I first signed up for a United Mileage Plus account. I filled out a piece of paper at the gate before flying to Buenos Aires to study abroad in the summer of 2003. 15 years and 996,370 flight miles later, I found myself on the cusp of the prestigious United Million Miler status and the accompanying lifetime Premier Gold status. This was especially notable for me, since I’ve been without airline status the past few years.
TPG editor Zach Honig hit the milestone last year with much fanfare. TPG Lounge member Sten Svendsen joined the club in June and also received a great reception. Notably, they were both elites and traveling in a premium cabin. I was very curious how their experience would compare to mine flying economy as a non-elite.
I should clarify that while United rewards their million mile flyers relatively generously, the flight to cross one million miles technically doesn’t mean anything. Any associated benefits with the status don’t kick in until the flight credits to your profile, just like with any annual flight status. Still, with the rarity of this event, any recognition would have been nice, and I tried my best to give United an opportunity to do so.
I wanted my million mile flight to meet two criteria: 1) Originate from a United hub, and 2) Be a long-haul flight. If I was going to get recognition, either before takeoff or in flight, these were my best chances. I had an uncharacteristically accurate picture of what my next six months of travel would look like, so I laid out my United revenue flights for the summer and calculated I could cross the threshold flying from Newark to Zurich.
However, I made a booking mistake that ended up costing me a Polaris experience. I rarely pay for long-haul flights, so to attain the revenue flights needed to cross the threshold, I used Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a great deal that showed up on Scott’s Cheap Flights. However, in the Chase UR portal, I didn’t recognize that despite being a United-operated flight, the ticket was actually issued by Swiss Air Lines. I’ll explain later why this was a problem.
When my final sub-million flight posted a week before my million mile flight, I contacted United on Twitter. I didn’t outwardly ask for anything, but I wanted to make them aware and give them an opportunity to show recognition. Initially, their response looked promising.
At this point, I only planned to show up to the airport and notify the gate agents as well of my milestone. When I shared the news of my upcoming milestone with the TPG team, Zach Honig had bigger ideas. As a Premier 1K elite flyer with United, he very generously offered one of his personal Global Premier Upgrades. I was flattered, but the booking class on this super cheap ticket was K — deeply-discounted economy — so despite upgrade space availability, I wouldn’t be able to upgrade it.
Finally, a 1K agent contacted by Zach agreed to shift my booking class from K to upgradeable W, and I started to get excited about Polaris and CLASSIFIED as I almost never fly premium. Those visions suddenly vanished when she discovered my ticket was issued by Swiss Air Lines, and there was nothing she could do. I don’t even remember doing it, but I had messed up months before when I selected the Swiss-issued flights in the Chase UR portal — probably to save about 5,000 points.
At the Airport
I tried to forget about my almost-Polaris experience (if you want to hear from a Polaris first-timer, TPG‘s Samantha Rosen has you covered) and headed to the airport to see if I could find some generosity there. I only had carry-on luggage, so I headed straight for the gate.
At this point, I was still seated in regular economy, so I told the gate agent this was my million-mile flight and hoped for some recognition. She didn’t seem very impressed, so I very nicely asked if she could give me a better seat — perhaps economy plus or exit row — and she said she’d have to charge for it. I stood by as she looked at the seat map, then she seemed to relax a bit and crack a smile as she printed out a new boarding pass. She had given me an exit row seat, 28A, for free.
I then checked the cost of the opposite window on the seat map, and this upgrade was worth $153.
I wasn’t shy about my milestone once again as I boarded the aircraft. I showed the agent welcoming passengers my lifetime flight miles count, and he seemed impressed and said he’d notify the captain. When I took my exit row seat and another flight attendant ask if I was willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency, I followed up my yes by saying this was my million-mile flight.
Word got around to the crew, and they all congratulated me and seemed happy for me. Not quite happy enough to invite me up to one of the three empty seats in business class, but the kind of excitement you’d show when your neighbor’s kid tells you his team won the soccer league championship. The attitude was a mild, yet sincere, “good for you.”
I had a long chat on take off with the flight attendant across from me about my years flying United as an IT consultant and some of the highlights of my million miles flown.
When another passenger jumped across the aisle into the empty exit row seat next to me, another flight attendant invited me to move to the empty exit row on the opposite side.
Other than that, the flight was pretty standard, although the flight attendants were a bit more friendly and attentive to me personally than normal. I don’t think there was ever an announcement by the captain, unless I slept through it, and there was no signing of my boarding pass or thank you cards or cakes or some of the other recognition that I’ve read about. So I signed my own boarding pass.
Still, I enjoyed my extra legroom and the empty seat next to me, and got a few hours’ sleep after a standard meal. When I arrived in Zurich, I got a few more congratulations from the crew as I deplaned, but the greatest satisfaction came from knowing I now had United Premier Gold and Star Alliance Gold status. Forever.
After some extended time traveling across Europe and the USA, I returned home to my Million Miler welcome packet.
I especially like the “1 Million Miler” logo on the Premier Gold card, and I wish the enclosed luggage tag had it too. The display card was made of paper, but it had a hefty, inch-thick plastic case secured together by magnets – like something you’d see on a Honus Wagner baseball card.
Overall, I’m very pleased with how United handled my million mile flight. Again, they didn’t owe me anything on this flight. My notifications and subtle requests for recognition did not have to be answered. But in the end, I did get a free upgrade to an exit row seat, and lots of genuine congratulations. And if I hadn’t screwed up my booking, I could have even basked in Polaris.
Advice for Your Million-Mile Flight
It seems if you are a Premier member and/or in premium cabin, United is more likely to recognize your upcoming milestone. Still, if your flight is coming up, don’t be afraid to reach out on Twitter and let them know beforehand. Try to cross the threshold on a longer, more significant flight, so there is more time for recognition or to enjoy even a minor upgrade. Be excited about it. Tell the crew and fellow passengers. Don’t be shy. You’ll only get this chance once. And make sure your ticket is actually issued by United.
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