United’s changes mean how much you spend will matter more than how much you fly.

By Eric Rosen
October 25, 2019
Courtesy of United Airlines

United recently announced major changes to its MileagePlus frequent flier program. Like earning award miles with United (the kind you redeem for free travel), achieving elite status will be based primarily on how much you spend on airfare each year rather than how far you fly.

The changes will go into effect next year, which makes it that much more important to understand what exactly they mean for you as you plot out your travel strategy for 2020.

Premier Status: the Basics

United’s frequent flier program is called MileagePlus. Members earn between 5-11 award miles per dollar spent on airfare. These miles are the type that can be redeemed for free tickets.

Travelers who fly United and its partners a lot each year and spend a certain amount on airfare can also qualify for elite, or “Premier,” status. This is where most of the changes United unveiled will go into effect.

Right now, MileagePlus members can achieve different levels of Premier elite status by meeting two metrics each calendar year. The first is hitting certain minimum spending requirements on airfare ranging from $3,000-$15,000 depending on the status tier.

The second metric is based on either the distance of their flights or the number of flight segments (a takeoff and a landing) they complete each calendar year. So you can hit status either by taking dozens of flights or flying tens of thousands of miles and spending a certain amount on airfare.

To make things more complicated, tickets in different fare classes earn different numbers of Premier-qualifying Miles (PQMs) and Premier-qualifying Segments (PQSs).

Basic economy tickets earn 50% PQMs of the distance flown or 0.5 PQSs per flight. Most economy fares earn 100% PQMs based on the distance of a flight and 1 PQS. Full-fare economy tickets earn 150% PQMs and 1.5 PQSs. Discounted business-class tickets earn 200% PQMs and 1.5 PQSs, and full-fare business-class tickets earn 300% PQMs and 1.5 PQSs. Premier-qualifying Dollars (PQDs) are simply based on the airfare (but not taxes and other fees) for a ticket.

So as you can see, expensive tickets are weighted (slightly) toward earning more Premier-qualifying activity, whether miles flown or flight segments.

Flights on United’s Star Alliance and other partner airlines like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines generally earn PQMs and PQSs in varying amounts, but only earn PQDs if you purchase your ticket through United and it has a United ticket number. Scratch this one up as one of the more Byzantine elements of elite status and airline partnerships.

To qualify in 2019 for United Premier status in 2020, here are the requirements for each level:

For Premier Silver, you’ve got to fly 25,000 PQMs or 30 PQSs and spend $3,000 PQDs.

For Premier Gold, you must fly 50,000 PQMs or 60 PQSs and spend $6,000 PQDs.

To hit Premier Platinum, the numbers are 75,000 PQMs or 90 PQSs and spend $9,000 PQDs.

Finally, for top-tier Premier 1K, you must fly 100,000 PQMs or 120 PQSs and spend $15,000 PQDs.

That’s a lot of figures, but for folks who actually spend a significant amount of time and money on United flights each year, the formula is fairly straightforward.

It is also still possible to earn at least a low- or mid-level of elite status by taking a few strategic, inexpensive long-haul flights that rack up a lot of Premier-qualifying miles without laying out too much cash.

That’s because MileagePlus members with a United co-branded credit card like the United Explorer or United Club Card from Chase can avoid the spending requirements for every status up to and including Premier Platinum by making $25,000 or more on purchases each calendar year.

The Changes: Spending Over Flying

Starting in 2020, the airline has announced that fliers will earn Premier status in a totally different way. Get ready for more acronyms – instead of PQMs, PQSs and PQDs fliers are going to earn PQFs and PQPs.

PQFs are Premier-qualifying Flights, and PQPs are Premier-qualifying Points. Here’s what those mean.

For every flight segment, which means one takeoff and landing, members will earn one Premier-qualifying Flight credit. Essentially, these are the new Premier-qualifying Segments. Most paid fares except for Basic Economy will earn one PQF per segment flown, regardless of the cabin class.

Fliers will also earn one Premier-qualifying Point for every U.S. dollar spent on airfare (excluding taxes and fees). This basically equates to Premier-qualifying Dollars under the current system. This earning rates will not vary based on the fare class of a ticket, so business-class tickets will not net you more PQPs per dollar than a Basic Economy fare.

In addition to airfare, fliers will earn Premier-qualifying Points for Preferred and Economy Plus seating assignment fees (what you have to pay to get those aisle or window seats in economy) as well as on paid upgrades and upgrade award co-pays.

In order to take home Premier Elite status next year, MileagePlus members will have to earn either a certain number of Premier-qualifying Points outright, meaning they have to hit set spending levels, or by racking up a combination of Premier-qualifying Points and Premier-qualifying Flights, which translates to a mix of flight activity and spending. Here are the requirements for each Premier tier:

Premier Silver will require earning either 12 PQFs and 4,000 PQPs, or 5,000 PQPs only.

Premier Gold will take 24 PQFs and 8,000 PQPs, or just 10,000 PQPs on their own.

Premier Platinum will be reached with 36 PQFs and 12,000 PQPs, or 15,000 PQPs alone.

Finally, Premier 1K will require 54 PQFs and 18,000 PQPs, or a whopping 24,000 PQPs.

That means to hit top-tier status with United, fliers will be required to spend between $18,000-$24,000 with the airline each year. Even basic Premier Silver status will require either spending $4,000 and boarding 12 flights, or spending $5,000 overall.

These changes basically mean that how far you fly on United will have no bearing on earning elite status. So say goodbye to great earning opportunities, otherwise known as mileage runs, by taking cheap long-haul flights on the airline or its partners.

Not only that, but United will also be removing the Premier-qualifying Dollar waiver for meeting co-branded credit card spending, which means fliers will actually have to spend money on airfare and other flight-related purchases rather than having an alternative through everyday spending. United Explorer and United Club Cardholders will still be able to earn 500 PQPs for making $12,000 in purchases each calendar year up to 1,000 PQPs total (i.e. $24,000). So this is a huge devaluation to this particular credit card benefit since spending doesn’t even get you close to hitting the elite requirements.

One major positive development to mention, though: flights ticketed by United’s Star Alliance and other partner airlines will also earn PQPs and PQFs starting next year. This should make achieving elite status easier for some fliers whose travel activity is not solely concentrated on United.

MileagePlus members will earn PQPs equivalent to the award miles earned on a partner flight divided by five or six depending on the specific carrier. This sounds complicated — and it is.

But basically it means that you might be able to earn a significant number of PQPs on inexpensive long-haul flights. You will have to pay special attention to the earning rates on the particular partner airlines you intend to fly, the fare class of your ticket, and the distance of your flight in order to figure out how much you will end up earning.

What Do These Changes Mean?

These changes boil down to the fact that “mileage, or distance flown, will no longer factor into qualification for Premier status,” according to United. Instead, the airline is attempting to monetize Premier qualification as much as possible and reward spending over actual flying, much in the same way it has done so for how fliers earn award miles.

United has said that they expect these changes to result in more customers qualifying for the lower levels of elite status, but fewer at the highest levels. Is that any wonder when the spending requirements for the upper echelons are going to be so much higher and credit card spending will have little to no bearing on meeting them?

What Can You Do?

Even if you are not a huge spender or super frequent flier, you are not out of options just yet.

First, consider partner flights as an alternative to flying United. Because Premier-qualifying Points earned on partners will be based on the distance of flights, you might end up earning more by flying a carrier like Avianca or SWISS than on United itself. Just double check the earning rates for your airfare before committing to a ticket.

Second, think outside the U.S. If most of your travel does take place on United and its Star Alliance partners, you could consider just going for status with one of those other international airlines instead by crediting your flight activity to them rather than United. By hitting Star Alliance Gold status (the equivalent of United Premier Gold) with another carrier like Air Canada or Turkish Airlines, you will still enjoy elite benefits like priority check-in and boarding and free checked bags when flying United, plus you’ll even have access to United lounges when flying domestically.

Finally, although United is removing the spending waiver its co-branded credit cardholders now enjoy, carrying a United credit card can still confer elite-like perks.

The United Explorer card, for instance, lets you check a bag for yourself and a companion on your reservation for free, as well as boarding ahead of most economy passengers. The United Club card not only grants access to United Clubs, but it also comes with checked bag and boarding benefits.

So if you think you might miss out on elite status thanks to these new requirements, a United credit card might be just the key to continuing to enjoy some of the benefits of the Premier program without going through the whole rigmarole.

While United’s recently announced changes are confusing and complicated, what they mean for most fliers is that you will have to spend more money on airfare than ever before to enjoy elite status with the airline’s Premier program. There are good alternatives, though, including joining one of its partner airlines’ frequent flier programs, carrying a co-branded credit card, and strategizing your flights to meet the new requirements in creative ways.

Now we just need to wait and see if other major airlines like American and Delta will change their own elite-status programs to match United’s moves.

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