Most valued = biggest spenders.

There are so many terms in travel which are misplaced, or at least are now. Like frequent flyer miles, many of which can be attained without ever leaving the house, just by spending, and elite frequent flyers, which can now simply be people who spend a lot, rather than fly a lot – at least with United.

United Airlines now offers the most sweeping and divergent path for its loyalty program than others have in decades, and the main takeaway is one thing: “show me the money”. That’s right: how you move through their frequent flyer tiers have nothing to do with how far you go, or even how often, just how much you spend…

United Airlines Mileage Plus New Premier Qualification Criterion

How many miles do you need to become a top tier flyer with United Airlines now? No one knows, because they’re no longer considered. But if you spend $24k in a (normal) year, you can guarantee it.

United’s new MileagePlus program is now entirely focused on “PQP’s” – or Premium Qualifying Points – which equate to 1 US Dollar spent. It’s how much you spend that matters when it comes to earning elite status benefits, and that’s pretty much it.

The only other criterion, which helps lower how much you need to spend, is how many flights you take. These are called “PQF’s” – or Premier Qualifying Flights. You can earn your elite status purely on spend, or with slightly less spend and a high number of “PQF’s”. Annoyingly, PQF’s won’t count if you book basic economy.

1 PQP = 1 USD spent on flights.

1 PQF = 1 Flight Segment flown.

Got it?

No flying knowledge required or distances are needed to figure out where you rank in United’s loyalty program. All the targets are spending targets, not how far you fly, or how often even really.

Update: during covid-19, United has updated the number of qualifying points needed to earn or keep status. All information on what United is doing to help protect member statuses can be found here.

All you need to achieve Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum or 1K status with United is to spend enough money, and if you don’t spend quite enough, you can earn it via a combination of a minimum number of flights, and a slightly lower number of spend.

A Premier Qualifying Flight “PQF” is a single flight, aka one take off and landing. so a direct round trip would get you 2 PQF, and a round trip with a connection each way would net you “4” PQF’s.

The only other rule: you need at least four flights on United planes for your status to count. This is defined as United “metal”, where you fly on a United Airlines operated flight, with United crews, aircraft, etc. The new United Premier Elite qualification breaks down like this…

How Many PQP and PQF You Need For United Premier Status

New United Premier Silver 2020 Qualification Needs

2020: 12 PQF and 4,000 PQP or 5,000 PQP

New United Premier Gold 2020 Qualification Needs

2020: 24 PQF and 8,000 PQP or 10,000 PQP

New United Premier Platinum 2020 Qualification Needs

2020: 36 PQF and 12,000 PQP or 15,000 PQP

New United Premier 1K 2020 Qualification Needs

2020: 54 PQF and 18,000 PQP or 24,000 PQP

All your interactions with United, like seat purchases, upgrade co-pays and everything else will still count toward PQP spend, which is better than nothing.

Ok, That Makes Sense For Taking United Flights, But How Will United Premier Qualifying Points Be Credited For Star Alliance Flights?

Unfortunately, not in a good way for those who travel in premium cabins on other airlines, but perhaps ok for those who fly long distances in discount economy. United will now credit “PQP” points for Star Alliance flights based purely on an annoying math equation – 1/5th the United Miles you’d earned on Lufthansa, Air Canada, ANA or Copa or 1/6th the miles earned on every other Star Alliance, which you can calculate using WhereToCredit.com and GCmap.com.

The new Star Alliance PQP calculation is the flight distance divided by 5 or 6, depending on United’s relationship with the airline. So, a 5,000 mile flight on a Star Alliance partner could bring you out much lower, or just slightly ahead of earning on United flights.  That’s a shame if you spend $6k, and end up with 1/6th of that PQP, just for booking onto another airline.

It’s clear United wants members on their own “metal”.

What About Earning United MileagePlus Miles, Has That Changed With The New Changes?

No. Despite all the moves and shakes in how you earn elite Premier status with United, how you earn miles has stayed exactly the same. All members earn between 5-11 miles per dollar spent, depending on where they rank within the program.

United has recently moved to more dynamic ways of pricing awards – which translates to “the prices will vary everyday” – rather than a set price and it’s either available or it’s not, but that’s the only real new(ish) piece of information.

United Mileage Plus Officially Says” Show Me The Money”

Airlines have tiptoed around turning their relationships with flyers into something purely transactional for years, but United just did it. People like to believe that there’s a relationship, or greater meaning to their flying loyalty, and for this reason, many airlines kept a system where how much you actually flew with your “butt in a seat” still mattered most.

If you were flying somewhere far, you wanted to feel like it mattered more.

But then airlines began adding revenue requirements, where you had to spend a certain amount to climb the ladder, still leaving the miles as the main criteria, to let people romanticise the relationship, and envision themselves as a frequent flyer based on their actual and frequent flying.

In the end, it was just that – a romantic idea. United has now plainly said that you can be a top tier flyer purely by flying just two round trips on an extremely expensive ticket, and then you can enjoy all the same sorts of perks that someone who grinds around the globe on cheap tickets all year gets, just squeaking through the finish line after a year of hard earned loyalty.

Premier Status Benefit Perks

Each level of United Premier Elite Status comes with different perks, and depending on travel habits, they can help justify loyalty. Star Alliance Gold, which also entitles flyers to a big list of benefits is also included with Premier Status earned starting from Gold.

Benefits include complimentary checked bags, lounge access and even confirmable upgrades which can transform an international economy ticket into business class. United recently also moved upgrades to be based on PlusPoints, which give all elite members more flexibility with how they’d like to use upgrades, such as earning one international upgrade, or 4 domestic upgrades.

With PlusPoints, you see how many ‘Points’ are required for a specific flight, then can cash in your PlusPoints for the upgrade, rather than being stuck with certificates you can’t, or don’t want to use.

United Takes Emotional Connection Out Of Loyalty

Emotion is out, transaction is in, and United must now live with the double edged sword this creates. United recently improved its upgrade system for elite Platinum and 1K travellers, but for many who already fly in business class most of the time – these upgrades weren’t that big of a deal. Who cares about earning status if you enjoy the same facilities and cabins anyway?

And if that’s the case, then just pick whichever airline is cheapest, not the one you have a long and romanticised relationship with. Do you see what door United just opened?

The very customers they are pandering to with this move (big spenders), are the very customers who don’t care about loyalty perks, because big spenders get big benefits based on the ticket they buy which already have the bells and whistles, not by sticking with an airline, even when it’s not easy to…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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19 Comments

  1. Gil,

    A couple of corrections:

    Typo, should be “Premier 1K”

    “New United Premier Platinum 2020 Qualification Needs
    2020: 54 PQF and 18,000 PQP or 24,000 PQP”

    And, a correction/distinction:
    Earning on Partners is *still* based on fare class, not just distance –

    From UA’s info page on these changes (https://mileageplusupdates.com/mileageplus/english/qualification/):
    “Your PQP will be equal to award miles* earned divided by 5 if you’re flying on a preferred partner; for other MileagePlus partner airlines, it will be award miles earned divided by 6.
    … *The number of award miles you’ll earn is equal to the base award miles plus your fare class bonus award miles, if eligible. Premier bonus miles earned are not included in this calculation and are not eligible for Premier qualifying points accrual.”

    So a super-cheap economy fare on a partner might get only 25% of distance flown in award miles. Take that 25% and further divide by 5 to net PQP’s.

  2. Unfortunately you’re completely correct. This has Scott Kirby’s fingerprints all over it. Now, United expects your loyalty while for them, it’s Hey Big Spender… Everyone else doesn’t matter.

  3. So, being a Hawaii resident/business person. My miles are no longer considered…
    It seems the best strategy for me will be to fly United through 2020. If I see I’m not able to make 1K for 2021, I should shift over to the Delta or American status to keep the same lineage of priority… Not convenient, but seems to be best strategy.

  4. Hmmm.
    As a UK resident who flies a fair amount to and via the USA this has still screwed me as half my mileage comes from LH/LX flights to Asia.
    Just booked Business from LHR to LIR and get a measly 1221 PQP and 2 PQF each way.
    Are UA expecting me to do 10-12 transatlantic flights to get 1K????
    That’s crazy.
    Perhaps they are happy to ditch us Rest of the Worlders and suck up to US residents, but where does their profit come from? I thought is was premium passengers???

    As noted above…..if you don’t make it – walk.
    As much as I think UA are the best of the US bunch, I fear I need to switch swiftly to LH/LX, or maybe even AC, whilst I still have 1K and see how close to top elite I can get by flying their metal.
    And LH/LX still offer First which is very good and at competitive prices in A.

    Graham

  5. Yes that is it from my aspect…
    I have maintained Platinum for the last few years (and 1K one year) in addition to my AA EXP based mainly on credit card spend rather than purchasing expensive tickets…

    I have no intention of directing $25k spending towards my United card when I can get far better value in terms of rewards on my Chase Sapphire or American Express Platinum cards..

    Will be interesting to see how a sudden plummeting of spend of their cards affects the Chase/United partnership..

    Adios United in 2020!

    1. My Status Tracker screen says:
      Premier Qualifying Dollars (U.S. residents only)
      PQD not required because your address is outside the U.S.

      As the PQDs are shown anyway… it feels like flushing PQDs down the… drain as they did not convert them to PQM or PQF

      United completely missed the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Schmvck (it does have more power in Yiddish)

  6. I tried to book a mileage plus ticket for my wife from Phoenix to Buenos Aires through Houston. The same flight last year at about the same time was 60,000 pts round trip. This year however it’s 240,000. A 400% increase. There are lower redemption fares but instead of 14 hours, it’s now over 34 hours travel time. I don’t know how they can justify this. I have been a flying with United for over 10 yrs and have had a Mileage Plus Explorer business card where I spend at least $7,000/month and this is how they repay me.
    I’m seriously wondering if their card and frequent flier program is worth it.

  7. So let me under stand this…. I am 1K the past 5 years and will 115,,000 miles and at 88 segments a year with a PQD of around $15K and in the future this will be Platinum??? I do not search by profit to United. I search by cost and time like everybody else….somebody please tell me I am misunderstanding the new program ..

  8. One correlation you make that I don’t fully agree with is that “big spenders” also tend to buy business class. I think there are MANY out there like me that have spend around $20k purely on economy…. and I’ve had some years where I’m ever so close to 100k miles but miss…. Which of course pisses me off. I’m going to be more of a shoe-in now, so a happy camper here.

  9. United keeps tightening the screws of corporate greed on it’s most loyal customers for the sake of profits and satisfying shareholders, and brands each yearly change as an “improvement.” I’ve been studying the most recent overhaul of changes for weeks now making sense of the new program. I’ve been searching for theoretical future flights (planning out my 2020 travel) on united.com and I hardly see the point (or most importantly, value) in the cost of being loyal anymore, and a shame considering my account goes back to the Continental days. Now putting serious consideration in to draining my award miles, while starting fresh with a different carrier.
    Too bad.

  10. Thanks for highlighting this Gilbert. I am a Premier 1K with United and usually fly 150,000 miles a year, most of it ultra-longhaul in economy until recently. Most of my spend is personal not business. Due to COVID, my flying has reduced somewhat but I am buying more first class and business class tickets than before. I’m also wondering whether it’s just better to be a free agent instead of chasing status.

  11. Exactly the conclusion I came to. Why remain faithful to UA (I was 1K and Platinum status for a about 8 years now)? Sometimes I was even paying more for my tickets than I would have paid with competition just to stick to the program. From now on I concluded that it was better to go for the cheapest business class tickets instead and will have the same perks. Too bad. I will miss UA….

    UA loyalty program was becoming way too complicated anyway. I wish one program would get back to the basics. One mile flown, one point earned….

  12. The conclusion of your article hit the nail on the head. I have been a mileage plus member from the inception of the program. I fly from SFO to London at least four times a year – direct flights and with the new program it is almost impossible to keep my elite status. Also fly to Seattle on United even though there are much better options for that flight…just do it to get my segments and dollars and I barely make elite. Agree with the poster above, might start draining my account and look another loyalty program where I have some possibility of hitting elite status.

    1. Ann, Thank you! I think in the pre-pandemic world when people somewhat had blinders on (good experience, why change?) United was willing to bet that just paying attention to people who spend the most was a good gamble. Now, I’d argue not so much. People have more eyes open to the varying levels of experience, and if United wants to make it about choice and product (nice seats), it’s got a ways to go.

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