Elite Status Series: United MileagePlus Unique Benefits and Features

Dec 30, 2013

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So far in our Elite Status Series, we’ve covered American, Delta and Southwest. TPG contributor Jason Steele has taken us through the basics of United Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K status, and for today’s final post, he discusses some of the other unique features and benefits of the MileagePlus program.

United MileagePlus Premier

Throughout this series, I detailed the qualifications and benefits of United’s four published elite levels of its MileagePlus elite status program, Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum, and 1K. Today, I want to examine some of the unique features common to this program including other ways to earn elite-qualifying miles, MileagePlus credit cards, special elite levels beyond the Premier program, and the United RewardsPlus partnership with Marriott.

Other ways to earn Premier-qualifying miles

Every airline’s elite-qualifying miles are the most difficult miles to earn, and the Premier-qualifying miles (PQM) in the MileagePlus program are not an exception. These miles are so-called “butt in seat” miles because they typically represent actual miles flown; you can’t even earn them on paid tickets that are not flown. Since modern airliners only travel at around 500 miles per hour, it can take approximately 200 hours – more than 8 days – in the air to earn 100,000 PQM necessary to achieve Premier 1K status!

Thankfully, United does offer a few alternative ways to pad your PQM balance. The easiest way to earn PQMs on the ground is with the United MileagePlus Presidential Plus card from Chase, which is no longer offered to new applicants. Nevertheless, existing cardholders receive 1,000 Flex PQM per $5,000 spent. The interesting thing is that you can apply these Flex PQMs to your account in the calendar year earned, or in any of the three following calendar years. This can be a great way to insure against missing out on the next level of Premier status, or retaining Premier status in a year when you don’t travel as much.

Just be sure not to attempt to earn Premier 1K status by using these Flex PQM miles from this credit card. Flex PQMs only count towards Silver, Gold, or Platinum status. In fact, they don’t even count in part towards 1K status.

Additionally, travelers can earn PQMs by opting for the Premier Accelerator option when purchasing a ticket. Customers are frequently presented with the option to purchase base miles, or PQMs when before they complete a ticket purchase on United’s web site. Sadly, these PQMs can cost upwards of 20 cents each! As TPG concluded, this option is rarely worth the expense.

MileagePlus members should always be on the lookout for the occasional event or promotion that offers a PQM bonus. While there are no active offers at the time of this writing, past opportunities to earn PQMs have included Star MegaDos, charity auctions, and promotions for flying specific routes.

Finally, don’t think about using these alternate methods by themselves to earn Premier status. United requires travelers to fly a minimum of four paid segments on United, United Express or Copa Airlines to earn any Premier level.

MileagePlus credit cards

United partners with Chase to offer a range of co-branded credit cards. By themselves, these credit cards can confer many of the benefits of elite status, yet they still offer additional benefits to those who are also Premier members.

For example, holding any United MileagePlus credit card offers access to any unsold seat on any United flight, but at the “standard” mileage rate, which is double the “saver” rate. So while it’s more expensive in terms of mileage, at least you have the certainty of being able to book.

1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card. This is one of the best entry-level airline cards out there. The current sign-up bonus is 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in 3 months when you sign up for this card in a Chase branch. Otherwise earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. When you add an authorized user to your account you will earn 5,000 miles and you can earn another 10,000 miles if you spend $25,000 within a calendar year.

Cardholders earn 2X miles per $1 on United and 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases. They also receive their first checked bag free for themselves and one other traveling companion. Normally, travelers without elite status pay $25 per bag, each way. Cardholders are sent two United Club day passes each year and receive priority boarding, but only after elites.

As a premium Chase card and a Visa Signature card, customers have access to the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection and Visa Signature Hotels. When booking hotel stays through this program guests receive complimentary daily breakfast for two, room upgrade, if available, early check-in and late check-out, whenever available, and an additional special benefit, unique to each property.

Other benefits include trip cancellation, trip delay, and lost luggage reimbursement coverage. In addition, this card offers primary rental car insurance. Finally, cardholders receive 10,000 bonus miles each calendar year when they spend at least $25,000 on their card. There is a $95 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year, and it no longer levies foreign transaction fees.

2. United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card. This card offers largely the same features and benefits of the personal card, with one exception. Business cardholders receive double miles for each dollar spent at restaurants, gas stations, and office supply stores. Like the personal card, there is a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees. The current public offer is just 30,000 miles when you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months, though as with the personal card, you might be able score a better deal by applying directly at a Chase branch.

3. United MileagePlus Club Card. This is United’s premium MileagePlus credit card. Its big draw is the United Club membership which normally costs $500 per year before any Premier elite discounts of $25 -$100 depending on your status level. This benefit is made even more valuable by the fact that other cards which offer membership in the Lounge Club and Priority Pass programs, such as the American Express Platinum and Chase Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards, do not have access to United Club lounges.

Cardholders earn 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases and 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases. Like Explorer cardholders, United opens up every unsold seat for awards at the “Saver” level, but Club cardholders also receive a waiver from close-in award booking fees that can cost up to $75 depending on your status level.

United Club cardholders receive primary rental card coverage as well as trip cancellation, trip interruption, lost luggage, and baggage delay coverage. Other benefits include extended warranty protection, purchase protection, return protection, and price protection coverage.

Cardholders who have not yet earned Premier status immediately receive Premier Access travel services which includes priority check-in, security screening (where available), boarding, and baggage handling. Cardholders and one companion receive first and second checked baggage for free.

In addition to the benefits with United, cardholders can join Avis First and receive Platinum status in the Hyatt Gold Passport program. There is a $395 annual fee for this card, and no foreign transaction fees. Finally, existing United Club members can have the remainder of their United Club membership reimbursed when they receive this card.

4. United MileagePlus Club Business Card. There does not appear to be any significant difference between the business and personal versions of this card.

Global Services

You may have heard United gate agents inviting Global Services members on board a flight, and United’s website makes continuous references to its Global Services program, but never really defines it. Global Services is a largely unpublished fifth status tier offered by invitation only to select customers based on the revenue they generated in the previous year. So this status is offered to those who are already 1K Premiers that often purchase first, business, and full-fare economy tickets rather than discounted economy fares.

Benefits include upgrade priority over all other elites and admission to the First Class lounges. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Global Services members were being invited to exclusive events and shuttled to connecting flights in Mercedes as well.

Million Miler program

In contrast to the semi-secret Global Services program, United’s Million Miler program is well documented. Lifetime flight miles include those earned with the United MileagePlus program as well as previous balances with Continental’s OnePass and TravelBank programs, and even Eastern Airlines original frequent flier program (remember them?).

Those with one million lifetime flight receive lifetime Premier Gold status, two million miles receives lifetime Premier Platinum, three million Premier 1K, and four million receives Global Services status. for These benefits also apply to a spouse or significant other, but are non-transferable.

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United RewardsPlus partnership with Marriott

Just like Delta and Starwood teamed up to offer Crossover benefits, United introduced its RewardsPlus partnership in July. United Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, Premier 1K and Global Services (everyone except Premier Silver) can register for complimentary Marriott Rewards Gold Elite status and benefits. TPG offered the full details in this post.

This status offer hotel guests lounge access and breakfast at select Marriott locations, room upgrades, complimentary Internet access, priority late check-out, and a 25% bonus points. MileagePlus members can convert their miles to Marriott rewards points on a 1:1 basis, up to 50,000 points a year, which is a 20% discount. In this way Marriott is hoping to win the business of United’s mid-tier elites and better.

At the same time, those who are Marriott Platinum elites, those with 75 or more qualifying stays in a calendar year, can receive United Premier Silver. So essentially, United is trying to offer entry level status to only to high value travelers who stay at Marriott hotels and likely have status on other carriers.

Eligible Premier elites can register here.

Like many aspects of this giant airline, the MileagePlus Premier program can be a challenge to navigate, but it has its own unique rewards. I hope this series has helped shed some light on the features and benefits of this program, and that even those who already hold status learned something new.

What are your experiences with United MileagePlus elite status? Are there any other unique aspects that you can share with us?

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