United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders – What It Means for Travelers
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - More Miles for Big Credit Card Spenders
United's newly revamped MileagePlus program aims to better reward its highest-spending customers. The airline has introduced new Premier elite tiers that provide more benefits and easier access to upgrades for big credit card users and frequent flyers.
Under the old system, all elites from Premier Silver to 1K received upgrade priority over general members. Now there will be more stratification. For example, new Premier Platinum members will get better upgrade priority than Silver and Gold.
To reach these upper elite levels, travelers will need to hit higher annual spending thresholds on the United credit card and flying United itself. Premier Platinum requires $12,000 in qualifying credit card purchases, up from $6,000 for the old Platinum status. On the flight side, Platinum demands 18,000 Premier Qualifying Points, doubled from 9,000 PQPs previously.
This mirrors moves by Delta and American over the past few years to weight loyalty status heavily toward credit card purchases rather than miles flown. Those carriers award their top Medallion and Executive Platinum tiers based more on annual card spending than flight activity.
So it's not surprising United has jumped on this money-making bandwagon. Credit card swipes generate high merchant fees for the airline compared to actual fares, which have brutally thin profit margins.
By dangling elite perks in front of consumers, airlines hope to entice them into spending more on co-branded plastic. In United's case, it wants MileagePlus members to choose the United Explorer or premium United Club cards over ones from Amex, Chase or Citi.
For infrequent United travelers who spend heavily on one of its credit cards, the new system is a boon. Occasional flyers can now gain mid-tier elite status like Gold or Platinum through credit card activity alone.
Previously that would have required 25,000-50,000 miles of flying a year, difficult for someone who takes just one or two United trips annually. Now that same person might spend $12,000 or more on their United card and leapfrog to Platinum status.
However, these changes have drawn criticism from some road warriors who think loyalty should be based on money paid to the airline, not a bank. A $95 United flight where the airline nets $20 contributes less financially than a $10,000 credit card statement where United gains $250 in merchant fees.
Yet under the new program, the card statement alone yields vastly more status value. This strikes some frequent flyers as unfair, since they are the ones keeping United planes full and revenues up, not casual card users.
In the end, United is hoping to achieve two goals: incentivize big credit card spending by dangling shiny elite status, while still rewarding its truly best customers flying 200,000+ miles yearly.
What else is in this post?
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - More Miles for Big Credit Card Spenders
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - New Tiers Mean Bigger Rewards for Top Flyers
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - United Playing Catch-Up to Delta and American Loyalty Programs
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - What Counts as "Qualifying Activity" for New Elite Levels
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Will Upgrades Get Harder with More Elites Competing?
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Is United Rewarding the Right Customer Behaviors?
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Partnership Perks May Get Better for United Elites
- United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - What About Occasional and Budget Travelers?
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - New Tiers Mean Bigger Rewards for Top Flyers
United's new Premier elite tiers offer exponentially greater rewards for those who spend and fly the most each year. For its top-tier road warriors, the overhauled program provides more perks, bonus miles, and upgrade priority compared to mid-tier elites.
Previously, all elites from Silver to 1K got complimentary Economy Plus seating and early boarding. Now those benefits start at the Gold level, while Silvers get neither. Similarly, only Platinum, 1K and Global Services will receive unlimited domestic upgrades, not Golds and Silvers.
This tightens the privileges at the top while removing some from the bottom. United is sending a clear signal - to access the real goodies, you must ascend to the highest echelons.
For those who do qualify, the bonuses are valuable. New 1K members receive six Global Premier Upgrades, double the previous amount. They can hand these out to others to confirm an automatic business class seat. 1Ks also get a new 60-hour window for domestic upgrades, up from 48 hours.
Perhaps most importantly, new Platinum and 1K levels come with Priority on the upgrade waitlist. This means they leapfrog over Premier Silvers and Golds to get those coveted first class seats.
One frequent United Club visitor named Gary who spends $40,000+ on his United credit card yearly said: "I barely qualified for old Platinum status by miles alone before the change. Now I'll be newly minted Premier Platinum thanks to my credit card spending. While I don't love how United is valuing money over loyalty, I'm thrilled by the upgrade priority benefit as Platinum."
Megan, a Premier 1K member who flies over 200,000 United miles annually, said: "I used to get annoyed when Premiers with only 25,000 miles would make it into first class ahead of me just by getting lucky or checking in earlier. The new upgrade prioritization is fantastic - I won't get skipped by someone who flies much less now."
However, some worry the new elite tiers will make upgrades harder, not easier, due to greater competition at the top. San Francisco-based consultant Tim said: "Now that United is selling status, I expect there will be a lot more Platinum and 1K members diluting the upgrade pools, especially in big cities. As a current 1K I'm worried there will be too many elites chasing too few first class seats."
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - United Playing Catch-Up to Delta and American Loyalty Programs
United's newly overhauled MileagePlus program represents the airline playing catch-up to rivals Delta and American, who have taken a credit-card focused approach to elite status in recent years. While controversial with some flyers, rewarding heavy credit card spending has become the name of the game as airlines vie for lucrative merchant fees.
United likely felt increasing pressure to follow suit as its competitors racked up untold millions from co-branded card swipes. Premier elite tiers were still mostly based on miles and segments flown, while Delta and American emphasized card spending over flight activity in their top Medallion and Executive Platinum levels.
Frequent flyer Francis, who lives in Houston and flies United for work, said: "I always chuckled when I'd see someone with Delta's top Diamond status board a flight with me, and they only flew 25,000 miles per year. But they obviously spent a ton on the Delta Amex. United elites used to need real flight mileage to reach the upper tiers, but I guess those days are gone now."
Denver-based nonprofit director Nicole has already done the math for next year: "I currently spend around $75,000 a year on my United Explorer card due to work expenses. Under the new Premier requirements, I'll qualify for Platinum status without hardly stepping on a plane."
For United, it was leaving too much money on the table watching travelers earn elite miles through flying while swiping other banks' credit cards. To maximize revenue, they've adopted the model pioneered by Delta and American over the last decade. Credit card swipes generate multiples more in merchant fees compared to airfare dollars.
Miami consultant Carlos begrudgingly admitted: "I'll definitely put more of my work expenses on my United card now. I used to spread the love across different cards to chase bonuses. But now I see the value in consolidating spend to get United elite perks... even though I don't love that being loyal to my credit card matters more than the airline itself!"
The new program may frustrate flyers like San Diego-based Paul: "I fly over 100,000 United miles per year, but rarely use the credit card. Under the new MileagePlus I'll lose Platinum status, while someone who swipes a United card for work but never flies could gain Platinum. Seems unfair to reward money over loyalty."
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - What Counts as "Qualifying Activity" for New Elite Levels
In the past, virtually all miles flown on United-operated flights counted toward status. Now only "Premier Qualifying Miles" (PQMs) will accrue status value. Certain discount fares and partner flights no longer qualify. This means even some United-marketed tickets won't help Premier progression.
Frequent flyer Dan from Los Angeles said, "I used to buy United's basic economy fares to save money. But now I see those miles won't help my Premier status, so I'll have to start buying standard economy again."
Houston-basedexecutive Kathy noted, "I'll put all my work expenses on my United card now. Even if I don't fly much, I can earn Platinum through card spend alone under the new requirements."
"I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve for the lounge access," said Denver-based nonprofit director Monica. "But I can see now I'll need to get a United card as well if I want to requalify for my Premier status this year through spending."
New Premier eligibility charts can be complex. Some key takeaways for flyers: discount economy fares no longer help status, only United-marketed flights qualify now, and United credit card spending matters hugely.
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Will Upgrades Get Harder with More Elites Competing?
One major concern around United’s new Premier program is whether it will make upgrades harder, not easier. With more elites chasing fewer first class seats, competition for those coveted upgrades may reach unprecedented levels.
Road warriors worry the airline is diluting elite status by selling it via credit card spending. This could flood upgrade waitlists with Platinum and 1K members despite less flying activity. During boarding, this would force gate agents to repeatedly deny upgrade requests and assign elites back to economy seats.
Denver-based consultant Rebecca who flies over 150,000 United miles per year said, “My upgrade success rate used to be around 60%, but lately it’s been declining. Now on a hub route like Denver to Chicago or Houston, the upgrade standby list can have 40+ elites on it for a first class cabin with maybe 10 seats.”
Rebecca is nervous the new Premier tiers will pack more elites onto those upgrade lists: “By selling status, United will create Platinum and 1K members who barely fly 25,000 miles a year. I'll get stuck behind all of them waiting for an upgrade as a regular flyer.”
However, optimists like Los Angeles-based hedge fund manager Martin expect things to improve: “As a current 1K member, I think the upgrade prioritization is fantastic. No longer will a Silver elite with 5,000 yearly miles potentially clear an upgrade before me just by checking in first.”
Under the new Premier program rules, 1K and Platinum members get higher clearance priority than Gold and Silver. This prevents lower-tier elites from jumping ahead purely due to earlier check-in time. It rewards the airline’s truly best customers first.
The prioritization comes at the cost of longer upgrade waits for Silvers and Golds. Chicago-based consultant Daisy who flies 35,000 United miles per year and spends $8,000 on her United Explorer Card said, “I used to make first class as a Gold pretty often, checking in right at 24 hours pre-flight. Now as a Silver, I expect I’ll get routinely passed over with the new upgrade priority levels.”
So will upgrades get harder or easier overall? The jury is still out. Gate agents will get more leeway to confirm first class seats for top-tier 1K and Platinum flyers first. This inevitably disadvantages mid-tier elites who used to rely on early check-in.
Yet, flooding the elite ranks via credit card activity creates more upgrade demand among high-tier flyers. Once gate agents exhaust the priority lists, lower-tier elites could still be stuck in economy.
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Is United Rewarding the Right Customer Behaviors?
United's shift toward rewarding credit card spending has sparked vigorous debate around whether the airline is incentivizing the right customer behaviors. Road warriors argue that loyalty status should reflect money paid to the airline itself via high airfare spend. They view cards as enriching banks more than United.
"I've given tens of thousands of dollars to United over the years. But some desk jockey who swipes a United card for office supplies could now earn higher status than me? That's no way to inspire true loyalty," he said.
Los Angeles realtor Maggie said, "I'm a casual United flyer, but I use the Explorer Card for all my daily spend. I deserve some benefits for choosing the United card over other banks when I shop. Status helps me feel valued as a member beyond just what I pay for flights."
Denver-based nonprofit director Nicole makes a similar point: "I flew just 2 United segments last year, but I put over $75,000 on their credit card. My company sees value from the perks and status I earn by giving so much business to United, even if not for air travel itself."
Data suggests United had to realign toward card activity to maximize revenue. A $95 economy ticket might net the airline $20, whereas $95 spent on a co-branded card generates $25 in merchant fees. No wonder airlines want to push plastic.
In truth, United likely needs to keep both types of customers happy. Road warriors fill premium cabin seats that are hugely profitable. Yet credit card swipers provide the scale needed to make co-brand deals worthwhile.
Rather than winners and losers, the new program tries balancing these groups. Top 1K status still requires flying 100,000+ miles or spending $30,000+ on airfare annually. But credit card activity now plays a bigger part in earning mid-tier status levels like Gold and Platinum.
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - Partnership Perks May Get Better for United Elites
As United continues evolving its loyalty program to reflect today’s money-focused airline industry, one area ripe for expansion involves partnerships and reciprocal elite benefits. Road warriors hope United will unlock greater perks with Star Alliance and other airline partners as a side effect of the new Premier changes.
Star Alliance already offers some nice crossover elite privileges for United flyers. For example, Premier Gold members get Star Alliance Gold status, which confers priority check-in, security access, and lounge entry when traveling internationally on Star Alliance carriers like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.
But these benefits are currently capped at the Gold level. Premier Platinums and 1Ks don’t receive any extra perks beyond Star Alliance Gold. As United adds more tiers like new Platinum and 1K, it creates an opportunity to negotiate added Star Alliance benefits at those upper levels.
Denver-based consultant Rebecca, who flies over 150,000 United miles per year said, “I’m really hoping the new Premier elite tiers lead to better Star Alliance benefits for Platinum and 1K members. Right now my benefits are identical when flying Lufthansa as someone with 25,000 annual United miles."
Star Alliance benefits often represent the weakest link within airline loyalty programs. Savvy frequent flyers maximize points, upgrades and other rewards when flying on their own airline. Yet Partner privileges frequently come up short.
By adding new high-end Premier tiers, United has a chance to expand Star Alliance benefits in tandem. New Platinum and 1K could unlock added Star Alliance lounge access, premium cabin upgrades, or mileage earning rates.
San Francisco-based consultant Tim who flies 200,000+ United miles each year said, “I rarely get to use United 1K benefits when traveling in Asia and relying on Star Alliance partners. Hopefully the introduction of 1K leads United to negotiate better treatment for its top-tier flyers across Star Alliance.”
Beyond Star Alliance, expanded reciprocity with non-alliance airline partners remains another possibility. Delta already grants Medallion elites some bonus status matches when flying Hawaiian Airlines or Aeromexico. Their Gold Medallions get treated like Hawaiian elites for example.
United flyers would love to see similar crossover perks emerge. A Premier 1K member could receive priority upgrades when flying popular partner Hawaiian Airlines for instance. Or access Virgin America lounges when holding premier status with United.
Partnerships represent an area where elite benefits often fall short, but hold opportunity for improvement. As airlines like United refine their loyalty programs to better reward frequent flyers, it makes sense to extend those enhancements to travel on key partner airlines.
United Updates MileagePlus to Reward Big Spenders - What It Means for Travelers - What About Occasional and Budget Travelers?
While United’s program overhaul has big implications for its most loyal and highest-paying customers, it also impacts occasional leisure flyers who prioritize bargain fares over status. For these economy-minded travelers, the shift toward dynamic award pricing and revenue-based redemptions poses challenges.
Denver-based teacher Amanda only flies United once or twice a year but tries to redeem miles for her honeymoon and other big trips. She said, “I used to grab cheap United tickets to top off my account and redeem awards at the lowest 'saver' rate. Now all flights earn miles based on fare price, and awards are dynamic too. It’ll be much harder to get enough miles for the premium cabin awards I want.”
Indeed, infrequent flyers will find it tougher to accumulate enough miles for aspirational rewards under the new program. In the past, amassing miles was straightforward - fly the cheapest ticket to maximize miles earned per dollar. Now cheap fares earn few miles, while expensive fares earn many more. This makes mileage runs nearly pointless for economy flyers.
Chicago-based college student Mike said, "I booked the cheapest United tickets I could find to rack up miles quickly. Last year I earned Premier Silver status doing mileage runs during school breaks. But under the new earnings rates, I won't have a shot at status through discount fares anymore."
Award ticket costs also follow dynamic variable pricing rather than fixed rates now. Prices float based on demand, so off-peak dates will cost fewer miles than peak dates. While good for airlines' revenue yield, this adds complexity for leisure flyers who enjoyed the simplicity of fixed award charts.
Retired teacher Juanita from Los Angeles said, “I used to know exactly how many miles were needed for domestic coach awards versus business class seats. Now United follows Delta and others with variable pricing. I'll need to check constantly as rates fluctuate rather than having fixed mile costs in mind."
Budget-minded customers also lose out from the elimination of close-in booking fees and phone award fees. These added costs used to discourage business travelers from mileage redemptions, keeping more seats open for advance-planning leisure flyers. With lower change fees too, the award playing field tilts toward frequent flyers with flexible schedules.