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Why United’s increased status thresholds might not be as bad as they seem

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Travel demand is roaring back to 2019 levels, and airlines are making adjustments to their loyalty programs that reflect this reality.

Last month, Delta Air Lines became the first major U.S. carrier to raise the thresholds required for elite status. Southwest Airlines also joined the party in late October by raising the bar to earn a Companion Pass.

Just this week, United Airlines shared perhaps the broadest update yet in response to growing travel demand. The Chicago-based carrier is bringing back the Premier requirements it first unveiled in 2019, which, according to one track, require flyers to spend at least $24,000 each year to earn top-tier status.

As the new year rolls around, earning elite status is going to get considerably harder, especially with United.

And while United’s adjustments may have you wondering whether it’s worth chasing Premier status next year, I’m personally not as concerned about the changes just yet. Here’s why.

Award tickets count toward status

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United announced that it would join Delta in awarding elite qualifying progress for award tickets.

When this feature launches on Jan. 1, 2023, you’ll be able to earn Premier qualifying points and Premier qualifying flights for award travel. The earning rate is 1 PQP for every 100 MileagePlus miles redeemed, and 1 PQF for each flight taken.

Note that these perks are limited to flights operated by United and United Express, and must be redeemed directly with the carrier’s MileagePlus program to be eligible for Premier accrual.

In the past, I’ve historically needed to end the year with a few paid United tickets to close the gap to Premier status. But now, I’ll no longer need to be as worried about trading off between redeeming points and paying for my ticket.

Going forward, I’ll try to redeem points when I find a compelling value, knowing that these mileage redemptions will help me on my way to status. It also makes MileagePlus miles a bit more valuable to me, so I’ll definitely be crunching the numbers more closely on award redemptions next year.

This feature will undoubtedly help some Premier members close the gap to status, and I imagine that for many members, this perk alone will help soften the blow of the increased requirements.

Credit cards are more important than ever

Along with the ability to earn elite status on award tickets, United is also making it more lucrative to spend on your cobranded credit card.

For 2023, United is doubling the maximum number of PQPs you can earn from the United Quest Card and the United Club Infinite Card. These thresholds are going from 3,000 to 6,000 PQPs and from 4,000 to 8,000 PQPs, respectively. (You’ll continue to earn 500 PQPs for every $12,000 spent on these cards, up to the increased PQP limit.)

Personally, I’m not going to shift my spending to a United card early next year. I’ll wait and see how my flight activity tracks over the first few months of 2023, and I’ll then assess whether it’s worth moving some expenses from other lucrative points-earning credit cards to a United card.

But, simply knowing that I could get a big Premier boost from spending on a United credit card gives me a bit more reassurance that, despite the higher requirements, United status may actually be within reach.

Just note that the PQPs earned from cobranded spending will not count toward the PQP-only track for Premier 1K.

Status perks have been diluted

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from United’s announcement is that the airline wants to right-size the elite population.

“We wanted to ensure that we were getting a program that did a really good job of balancing the ability to access status with the number of members that achieve each tier with the benefits that we can give to members once they achieve that tier,” said Luc Bondar, United’s president of the MileagePlus program, in an exclusive interview with TPG.

Throughout the pandemic, lower thresholds, lucrative promotions and blanket extensions have bloated United’s elite ranks, perhaps more than any other U.S. carrier.

With so many elite members, it’s been hard for me (and the TPG team) to take advantage of Premier perks, especially the complimentary upgrade program.

The larger-than-normal elite pool has led to plenty of 70-person-long upgrade lists, even on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which have historically been quieter travel days with better odds of scoring an upgrade.

This is exacerbated by the dramatic rise in travel demand, which means that there are simply fewer premium seats available for upgrading.

The famous saying goes, “When everyone is an elite flyer, no one is.” And as a Premier 1K throughout the pandemic, I’ve definitely felt this way on plenty of United flights this year

The same can be said for the TPG team — we recently compiled a list of our upgrade tips because many of us have felt that it’s been harder than ever to score a fancy seat on United.

So yes, the Premier thresholds are going up, but at the same time, it should help rebalance the elite tiers. Even though it’ll be harder to earn status, the program will (hopefully) once again be able to consistently deliver the benefits that come with each tier.

Set a high bar, and adjust accordingly

United seems to be charting a smart strategy for next year.

At the moment, travel demand is at unprecedented levels, and the airline is doing well financially. Given the current upward trajectory, it makes sense for United to reintroduce the 2019 requirements that it never actually implemented due to the onset of the pandemic.

But there are considerable head winds facing the industry at the moment. While they haven’t necessarily slowed down travel’s recovery, it’s very possible that the macroeconomic landscape and rising inflation will soon have a lasting effect on the travel industry.

If travel demand were to once again retract — whether that’s due to a new coronavirus variant, or some outside economic factor — United can always add promotions and make adjustments to the thresholds in the new year.

That’s exactly what it’s done over the past two years, and if necessary, there’s no reason to think that it couldn’t be done again. From extending status to lowering the thresholds to offering multiple limited-time promotions, the MileagePlus team worked to meet members where they were the past two years.

And that’s seemingly the sentiment going into the next year as well. While the plan is for the new changes to stick, there’s always a possibility that United might need to make another adjustment next year.

After all, United seemingly already realized that it might need to help elite members requalify with the higher requirements. The airline is giving existing Premier members a head start on requalifying for status next year with a PQP deposit that’ll be processed in early January.

The bonus amounts range between 500 PQPs for Silvers and 2,500 PQPs for 1Ks. While the amounts aren’t massive, something is certainly better than nothing.

Bottom line

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

United has brought back the status thresholds it first unveiled in 2019. Given the trajectory of the travel recovery, the move makes sense. Demand is off the charts, and airlines are making money once again.

While significantly increased thresholds may make it harder to earn Premier status, the move isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems.

For one, award tickets will now count toward Premier qualification, which should definitely make it easier to close the gap to earning status. Additionally, credit card spending will be more important than ever to help hit your status ambitions.

Plus, a head start bonus will give existing elite members a little bit of a boost at the beginning of next year.

But, perhaps just as important, the increased goal posts should also make it easier for United to deliver a more elevated elite experience across the board. The elite pool will likely be smaller, and the stratification across the four published tiers is also bound to shift.

Of course, your unique travel pattern will largely dictate how you feel about these changes, but overall, I’d say they’re not nearly as bad as they might seem on paper.