A big change to United’s MileagePlus program: spending requirements

Just recently, United announced a significant change to their frequent-flier elite status program, United MileagePlus. Although these changes may not impact those who either accumulate miles by flying once in a while or those who have a co-branded United credit card from Chase, it does affect those who want to obtain elite status on United, potentially affecting your ability to secure First Class upgrades, earn significant amounts of bonus miles, and receive “special” treatment.

Previously, obtaining frequent-flier status was relatively easy – fly 25,000, 50,000, 75,000 or 100,000 miles (or 30, 60, 90, or 120 individual flight segments) to obtain silver, gold, platinum, or “1K” status. And although for some even that seems monumental, given that one flight to London from the US west coast can earn you 10,000 or so miles, just two and a half trips to Europe can earn you Silver status. Or, for something a little more reasonable, Silver means you need to fly roughly 5 flights from San Diego to Washington, DC over the course of a year.

But that just changed.

Following Delta’s lead, United implemented a new catch for earning status, which makes it  more of a pain to earn and maintain frequent flier “elite” status. Now, the above is still true, but there are minimum spending requirements involved in obtaining status too, to the tune of $2500, $5000, $7500 or $10,000 per year to achieve Silver, Gold, Platinum, or 1K, respectively.

For those who fly often coast-to-coast like a few friends of mine, this is no big deal. One friend of mine easily flies to the East Coast from San Diego two or three times each month for work – and with average fares probably ranging around $450 round-trip, that’s 60,000 miles earned and $16,200 spent.

The nice thing, though, is that those with a United co-branded credit card from Chase can exempt you from the spend requirement, as long as you spend $25,000 (on anything, not just on travel) on the card over the course of the year – except when it comes to the über-elite Premier 1K level.

That said, the United card is far from my favorite card – the benefits of having one of their cards is generally not worth either the annual fee or having it in the first place. For instance, the basic MileagePlus Explorer Card gets you a checked bag, “priority” boarding, two points per dollar spent on United, two passes to a United Club and no foreign transaction fees (nice if you travel internationally).

If you’re in it for the miles like I am, their card also awards you 30,000 miles when you spend $1,000 on anything in the first three months (worth up to a domestic round-trip flight), and up to another 15,000 miles if you jump through hoops.

But is it worth it? When you have other bonus programs out there that offer up to 60,000 points (like the Chase Bold and Ink Plus) that are transferrable into United with some pretty stellar additional bonuses for spending money at certain categories of stores, you have the potential to earn a lot more for your buck after that 30,000 bonus points has been fulfilled – not including the fact that you can get a pretty awesome bonus.

So, let’s wrap these changes up:

In addition to flying 25k, 50k, 75k, or 100k, you also have to spend $2500, $5000, $7500, or $10,000 a year to qualify, unless you spend $25,000 on a United-branded credit card (except for 1K, United’s second-to-top tier). It doesn’t appear to matter who pays for the tickets, just as long as the spending is all done with your United MileagePlus number attached to the ticket.

This probably won’t affect you if you’re simply collecting United miles, but it may impact you if you fly United frequently and have come to expect something out of it.