My Experience With United Silver Elite Status

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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!

 

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Comments

  1. I too have been “enjoying” Silver status this year. I travel mostly for fun, so this year was a big year in that I racked up (or rather will in a couple of weeks) United Gold.

    Next year I had enough travel planned to get silver again for 2014, but decided against it. Instead I have assigned many of my travel miles to Aegean and as of the end of March will be Aegean gold. As long as it lasts this will get me united club access domestically & internationally when I’m flying star alliance. My Amex platinum card covers pretty much any other situation. *G also gets you premier access. Also, as part of the experiment I did a USAirways challenge to silver. I have have a few USAirways flights to typical locations for me to see if USAirways silver gets better upgrades than United silver (where I’ve gotten precisely zero all year).

    As far as I can see the only disadvantage of not having United status, if you have *G with another airline, is that you absolutely have to pay for E+ seats. And you don’t have the upgrade fairy tail waved in front of your face. Not as big a deal for someone single like myself, and certainly cheaper than flying one’s way to gold…

  2. At the risk of being hazed by all of the experienced flyers, (Yes-I’m new at this), I have a question. When I looked at redeeming points for my family, I did not see an option to pay one ticket with points and the other with cash. I am hesitant to book two different itineraries with a toddler because I want to make sure we sit together. So how did you do that with C? Thanks in advance!

  3. A rule change this year: no elite status unless you fly four times on United/Copa. I have more than 25k miles, but all of them on foreign airlines and they won’t give me the elite status. Pretty ridiculous considering it’s an alliance.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am going to hit Sliver for the first time (first status ever) this weekend and though it is the bottom of the barrel I am excited to have ANY status for the first time.

    Now to get to gold next year…. 🙂

  5. I’m in the same position you are and am hedging about doing some sort of run to hit the next elite level on UA. I also find the mileage run forums on FlyerTalk completely intimidating. What factors are you looking at to determine wheter it’s worth while? Any recommendations for info on available runs?

  6. Rob, that is a better path to elite status if you don’t need E+ seats and don’t care about the elite #, and fairy tale upgrades. 😉 Sounds like you and I have the same Silver upgrade percentage!
    KC, there is no option specifically to do that. I just book two different tickets. I have even booked one through US on miles and bought mine on UA. There is a little risk since you are on different reservations, but in the end I know I won’t be separated from my toddler so I accepted the risk of a little extra hassle.
    Sam, true. That is not an issue for me, but I know it is for some. It is waived if you have the Pres Plus or Club Card, but that may or may not help in your situation.
    Chris, it absolutely is exciting – don’t let any jaded top tier elites tell you otherwise. 😉 Woohoo Silver!
    Liz, my situation is a bit different given that my availability is very limited to be away from home any more than necessary. I also want to at least enjoy where I am going a little. So, I do watch the MR forum, but also just get a good sale to somewhere i wouldn’t mind checking out for a day when my schedule allows. My CPM (cents per mile) is higher as a result, but it works better for me personally. That’s why I call them quasi-mileage runs. 😉

    • @Mommypoints – indeed. Prior to March 3rd I was actually getting upgrades, both on United and Continental. After the merger – nada. One thing that has occurred to me is that this was the “year of the merger” and a lot of people were unhappy. There was certainly lots of noise about people leaving United “in droves”. I suspect that next year the situation may well be different vis-a-vis upgrades, as some fraction of “status” flyers will have lost their status or changed favorite airlines. I suppose I’ll see what my United Gold status gets me 🙂

      I do hate to “waste” PQM though. I have a couple of United flights with miles uncommitted. Since I’m not targeting United status for 2014 I feel like they’re wasted going to my Mileage Plus account….

  7. nice info.,

    Question., so I just got my Platinum status for the status/challenge match with Delta. I was only looking forward to Premier Access and our free E+ seating (I know low standard, lol) for our international trip. But what is this complimentary upgrades/fairy tale upgrades?

    But I doubt they would offer any type of complimentary upgrades for us.. since I’m traveling with two little kids (2yrs and 4yrs)

    • @Tommy: You might get upgraded for any domestic legs of your trip; if your kids are on the same reservation you’d either all get upgraded or none of you (I believe).

      I call them “fairy tale” upgrades because they are nominally a benefit of premier status, but practically it always seems that everyone on the plane is ahead of me in the upgrade queue.

  8. I’m with you, Rob – I don’t fly enough to get United status, so I’m focusing my flying on Aegean, so that when I do fly, I’ll have enough to get free bags and lounge access. The argument could be made that I could do enough buyups on 16k miles of flying to get 25k…but I think I’d rather have free baggage and airline access than E+ upgrades.

    Though that being said, E+ is so nice…

  9. @KC One option is to book one way for both people with miles and one way for both people with cash. On domestic tickets there is usually no discount for booking roundtrip, so as long as there is award space for two people, this is a way to split the cost and keep both of you on the same reservation.

  10. I just got home from a mileage run last night and will be silver…first time I have ever had elite status. I was very close this year from leisure travel I had already done so it was worth it to me to pick up one more cheap flight for the status. The free premium economy and 25% extra miles I get next year will more than equal what I paid for the mileage run.

  11. I find lower or mid tier United status to be difficult to justify. Outside of Star Gold and E+, Not much value miles wise because they only give you 50 bonus at gold level. With AA Platinum level, I get MCE (E+) and 100% bonus miles. That kills UA gold

    Upgrades were difficult on UA as well even as a Plat. I was batting 35% on upgrades.

    UA miles were the only reason I flew UA. Since I get more miles by flying less, I went with AA

  12. I’ve had silver status with United for the last two years, but I’ll only have 22k PQMs by the end of 2012 so I’m back to having no status for 2013. To console myself, I just picked up the MileagePlus Explorer card so at least I’ll have somewhat prioritized boarding and free luggage. I will definitely miss the free E+ seating since I expect more a few Dulles->LAX runs next year.

  13. @scottrick – while true, that will not help her get any status. Her and the little one will get some PQM but no one will get silver.

  14. The list of highlights was useful. Getting through security faster would be a big plus.

    I’ve got mixed feelings about the elite phone hotline. Definitely a nice benefit. But it’s sad that good phone support isn’t the default for every customer.

    Question: Does elite status on United also mean you get to be elite on the other Star Alliance airlines?

  15. what a perfect timing for this post. I did my very first mileage run to Denver last weekend ( yes, it was purely a mileage run, no ‘pot’tery barn incidents involved)

    I have already planned a trip to Vegas long time ago and realized I am falling a few miles short of Silver status. That is why I planned a very short 2000 miles run SDF->DEN->SDF.

  16. After many years of 1P, a drop in work travel led me to silver status this year, and I will lose all status in 2013. If I had concentrated all my flying on United I could have kept Silver, but decided not to because-

    1) As an SFO-based flyer, the price difference between United and its peers has gotten to the point where it’s not competitive for this mostly-out-of-pocket traveler. On my set of flights, I estimate I saved ~$1000 by booking the cheapest flights and not flying United. Yes, sometimes that meant taking a connection, but again – when you’re out-of-pocket you find yourself more flexible with time.

    2) SDC/Standby fee of $75 for Silvers. This was the second deal-breaker for me, honestly. Like Mommypoints I value flexibility in traveling and when United made this change it led to more $$ out of my pocket or extra hours wasted at the airport.

    3) I strongly believe that United miles are the most valuable out there, so even without elite status I would probably still pay a (small) premium to fly United. That said, with the Chase Sapphire card I’ve been able to really rack up points that I’ve turned into United miles, so my decrease in United flying hasn’t really impacted my ability to redeem United points.

    Unfortunately for me as long as I’m mostly an out-of-pocket traveler I can’t justify the increased cost of flying United for what I think are mostly marginal silver benefits.

    But given United’s dominance at SFO, I’m sure they care much more about squeezing $$ out of price-insensitive business travelers anyway (I know plenty…).

  17. You should usually book the *other* person with points and yourself with cash so you don’t miss out on the miles.

    In any case they’re never going to let the toddler sit on their own so the worst case is a bit of a kerfuffle at the gate as the GA has to move people around at the last minute. I wouldn’t worry about it.

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