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For my family, if 2011 was the year of the monster credit card sign-up bonuses, then 2012 was the year that elite status became a huge part of our travel style and goals. I have had some low/mid tier hotel and airline elite status off and on, but in recent years had just been focused on “free” travel, so had not been working toward elite status. I want to state up front that just focusing on “free” travel via miles and points is not a bad strategy at all – in fact, it is probably a better strategy for many, many families. However, I was starting to travel so frequently that I was getting close to decent elite status naturally, and my frequency of travel made elite status that much more important because of the perks it provides. If you travel just once or twice a year, then don’t worry at all about elite status unless it just happens to come as a perk of having a rewards credit card, or is free via some easy promotion. I survived just fine without any airline status for years!
Being a Houston-based flyer, my airline elite focus was naturally on United. I also value their miles very highly, so it was a double win of earning miles I can actually use, and being able to access a huge network of non-stop flights from the Houston hub. Some who go for elite status really focus on milking the most obscure and circuitous routes out of their flights as possible in order to up the number of elite qualifying miles or segments they earn. I added an optional connection on a ticket or two, but I can’t really travel that way on a normal basis. I need to get back to my family as soon as possible when traveling alone. An extra connection can mean the difference of getting home before or after C’s bedtime. When traveling with my family, there is no way I would make the trip longer than necessary. I also think mileage runs (flights taken primarily to earn the elite qualifying miles – usually at a cost of less than about 5 cents a mile) are extremely hard on families. As this post launches I am actually getting ready to go on a quassi-mileage run myself to finish up getting Platinum status (though I am also excited about the destination), and I’m not very happy about it. I have no desire to do these on a regular basis, and don’t encourage others with young children to do them frequently either.
So, I took a different approach to earning the bulk of my miles toward status. Mainly I just made sure that all the paid flights I was on this year were credited to United. That was easy since they were almost all booked through United. Additionally, I raised the bar on when I would redeem miles for my own flights. If possible, I might redeem miles for my daughter’s flights, but then purchase my own seat. I also bought a handful of elite qualifying miles to get me over the hump to Silver this summer. The money I saved on one trip just by not having to purchase E+ seats pretty much made up for the miles I purchased.
I think at the time it cost me about 8-9 cents per elite qualifying mile purchased via the United Award Accelerator option that is presented to you on both paid and award tickets. If you select the “Add Premier Accelerator” option the miles purchased will be elite qualifying…they will also be much more expensive than if they aren’t elite qualifying. Now that I have a higher elite status, and we are at the end of the year, purchasing miles via this route would cost me about 20 cents per mile. Ouch! The lesson there is if you want to purchase elite qualifying miles, do it before November, and do it when your elite status is lower. 8-9 cents per mile is still about double what would be considered a good rate to earn on a mileage run, but there is no other time and costs involved when you buy miles, so my price threshold is higher. Either way, I wouldn’t purchase a bundle of miles at that price, but if you need a few to get you to the next elite tier it can be a good decision.
With my paid flights and purchased miles I hit United Premier Silver status in early July, and I stayed at Silver Status until mid-November when I hit Gold. My trips in the first half of the year had all been domestic, and since I am in the middle of the country, it took a bunch of flights to hit 25,000 paid miles. However, I was super excited when my elite status came through. Here was my experience as a United Premier Silver traveler.
Highlights of Silver Status:
- Free E+ (extra legroom) upgrades at check-in for you and a companion. We had no problem securing E+ seats at check-in. On some routes all that is left at check-in is middles, but given that we typically travel during non-elite heavy (i.e., leisure) times, this was not an issue for us. We would have to purchase the third E+ seat if we were all three traveling since I only got two free ones (at least until my husband hit Silver), but that was way cheaper than buying three. This easily saved $150-$200 roundtrip each time my family traveled.
- Premier Access on your boarding pass. This is huge for me. I’m almost never running ahead of schedule, so massive security lines for morning flights are my nemesis. Once I hit Silver status I was able to go in the elite security line, which at my home airport is almost always shorter than the non-elite line. I can’t put a monetary value on this, but I can tell you it was worth quite a bit to me. Just as an FYI, you can also get this perk via the United Club card.
- Getting to call the elite line for assistance. Earlier this year I spent hours on hold with United to fix different issues. It was terrible. Now when I have to call in I am usually connected to a person either instantly, or at least very quickly. I also seem to get better service and more native English-speaking agents than I did calling the general number. That may or may not matter to you, but it is a difference I have noticed.
- Early boarding. This matters to me because it is easier for me to get on as early as possible to install C’s carseat, and lug her stuff down the aisle. It also helps to secure overhead bin space for my carry-on. The early boarding that comes with the MileagePlus Explorer card was early enough for us, but getting on even earlier via Silver status was a little helpful.
- I earned 25% more miles for revenue flights. If I flew 1,000 miles on a coach ticket that normally would result in me earning 1,000 redeemable MileagePlus miles, then with Silver status I now earned 1,250 redeemable miles. Note that these are just redeemable miles – they don’t help you get to the next elite level any faster.
- It also comes with a free checked bag, but I already got that with my MileagePlus Explorer card, so that wasn’t really that impressive for me.
Low-lights of Silver Status:
- Silver status is the bottom of the barrel for elite status at United. You are behind every other elite flyer, and if you are based at a hub like I am then that means your chance of upgrades is very low. Low tier status with United is also one of the worst low tier elite statuses when you compare to other airlines. However, that didn’t matter to me because no other airline is convenient for my family.
- I received 0 complimentary upgrades as a United Silver flyer. I varied from #3 on the upgrade list to #70, but never cleared. Wish I could say I kept a good record of all my flights and could give details, but I don’t have the time to be that organized. I flew a variety of routes to/from Houston at different times of the day, different days of the week, different sized planes, etc. and never cleared. I’m sure if I stayed Silver long enough it would have happened at some point, but don’t shoot for Silver expecting a basket full of complimentary space available first class upgrades. Most of the time, there will be between 3 and 70 people ahead of you. 😉
- The fees to do same-day changes are not discounted for a Silver member. This is a huge downside for me as I am kind of addicted to same day changes to get home as soon as possible. Some other fees like close-in award booking fees are slightly discounted for Silver members, but I sure do wish the SDC fee was at least reduced for Silvers. I spent hundreds this year on SDC fees (and am quite thankful I am now Gold and can avoid the charges).
All in all having Silver status was much better than not having it. If that is the only status level you can get to, I still think it is worth it if it takes a little extra cash or work to get there. I wouldn’t go crazy trying to earn Silver, but I also wouldn’t fall just short when a little extra push can get you there. When you have a family, your elite status benefits are even more valuable as they can be leveraged for others in the family as well (at times). Silver status with United is limited in terms of how it can be useful to other family members, but at least when you book awards out of your account your family members will also have Premier Access, free checked bags, etc. Being able to get two free E+ seats at check-in also helps some. Silver is not the end all and be all of elite status, but it was a good start.
Soon I will highlight my experiences as a United Gold Premier member, and compare that to my time as a Silver. Onward and upward!