What It’s Like to be a United 1K Premier Elite Traveler

Please note this site has financial relationships with American Express and this post may contain affiliate links. Read my Advertiser Disclosure policy here to learn more about my partners.

Airline elite status is something you get by virtue of having lots of required paid travel, by setting a goal and flying a bunch, or often it is something that requires a combination of the two.  Elite status doesn’t really make sense if you didn’t have a bunch of paid travel to begin with, but most of us don’t just naturally travel enough to have upper tier elite status with an airline without setting it as a goal and tracking the progress throughout the year.

A few years ago my own travel picked up to a level where elite status was within reach on Continental, now United Airlines.  I went through the ranks first with Silver Status (bottom tier elite), then Gold (mid tier elite), then Platinum (upper mid tier elite), and for the last year I have had top tier 1K status.

For those curious by the strange name, 1K stands for 100 1,000’s or something like that.  In other words, earning it required me to fly 100,000 elite qualifying miles in 2013.  That is roughly four laps around the globe, and doesn’t count any award travel of flights on other non-Star Alliance airlines.

One hundred thousand miles is an awful lot of flying, more than I personally like in a year given my family life at home.  If you have nothing better to do with time and money on nights and weekends than criss-cross the globe to rack up miles and return home a bit dazed, then it can be fun to travel that much, but that isn’t my preference or reality.  This year I will barely hit 75,000 elite qualifying miles, and return to the Platinum level for 2015 with United (and even that took some mileage running).  I’m 100% okay with that status level, especially given the increased revenue requirements kicking in next year.

The pedestal I had top tier 1K status on in my mind didn’t live up to the reality.  It was nice, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t magical.  It wasn’t special.  It wasn’t that much different than Platinum.  I was still just another cog in the airline system, albeit one that probably went into interactions with higher expectations.  Just as I have done with all of the other status levels, here are the highlights and low-lights of 1K status based on my experiences over the past year.

Highlights of United 1K Status:

  • Up to 8 E+ (extra legroom) seats at the time of booking for those on your reservation.  This is a huge benefit that came through 100% of the time for my family.   This perk saved us money since we would frequently purchase E+ seats if we didn’t get them as a perk thanks to my tall husband and my squirmy kid.  E+ seats are often at least $40 or so per person on longer flights, so this has been a big savings, and availability of E+ seats together at booking is often fantastic unless you are booking at the last moment, but even then it’s better than the rest of coach.  1K and Platinum levels get 8 E+ seats at the time of booking, which is a big improvement over Silver and Gold status where you can only have up to one complimentary E+ companion, and with Silver status it is only valid at check-in.

20131216-145325.jpg

  • Six Global Premier Upgrades.  Premier 1K members get six GPU’s each year that can be used to upgrade paid travel around the world into one cabin higher.  This sounds amazing, and it can be if it works in your favor.  Being able to buy a coach ticket to Europe or beyond and then apply a GPU and have your reservation become one that is in a lie-flat bed is pretty great.  You have to purchase at least a W fare class or higher, and availability isn’t great.  More on that in the low-lights, but when this benefit works, it is pretty fantastic.   You can use these not just for yourself, but for anyone, so they are very simple to share with family members.

  • Four Regional Premier Upgrades.  Premier 1K elite members are given four regional premier upgrades that you can use to upgrade one cabin on paid fares on domestic flights, as well as those to Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, and other “close-in” destinations.  There has to be “R” space available to confirm the upgrade, and I have had overall decent luck when requesting the upgrade well in advance.  You can typically do this online, and can use them for your flights or a friend or family member’s flights.  Regional upgrades are how we secured business class seats to Hawaii the last couple of years, so I think that regional upgrades do have some very real value.  That said, they don’t always clear, and if you are flying on primarily regional jets then they have a diminished value.  Still, these really improved the flight experience for us several times over the last year, especially when we land ourselves on an internationally configured plane on a domestic route.
20131216-145650.jpg

Regional upgrades can potentially get you in a lie-flat bed!

  • No last minute award booking fees or award change fees.  Award tickets become your playground when you have Platinum or 1K status as you are exempt from all award ticket related fees that I can think of.  You can redeposit miles, change flights, book flights at the last minute, and more all without incurring a fee.  This fee-freedom applies for tickets booked not only for yourself, but for anyone when using miles from your account.  I have enjoyed being able to make speculative bookings that I may or may not need without having to think long and hard about whether it is worth a fee to cancel or change later on.
  • Fee Free Same Day Flight Changes.  In addition to freedom from fees on award tickets, as a Platinum or 1K member you also have the ability to do unlimited “Same Day Flight Changes” for free on paid flights.  This means on your United flights, you can change to flights up to 24 hours before or after your scheduled flight potentially for free.  You can even change the routing, as long as the origin and destination are the same.  This means that if you booked a very inexpensive flight at an off-peak time that required connections to save money, but the “same day” you may be able to change to the non-stop flight at the time you really wanted for no additional charge.  There has to be space available in your fare class, but I have had decent luck when trying to switch to the flight I want – especially at exactly 24 hours from the flight I want, or within just a couple of hours from that flight.  This has worked a little less successfully for me this year than the previous years, but it is still pretty good.  You can do this not just for your flights, but everyone on your reservation.  This perk has saved me and my family literally hundreds of dollars this year and allowed us to get home (or to our destination) faster.
  • 100% mileage bonus on paid tickets.  Compared to some other airlines, United is a bit stingy on the redeemable mile bonuses they give to elite members at the lower levels, but getting a 100% bonus on redeemable miles is quite nice.  What this means is that if I book a flight that normally earns 2,000 United redeemable miles (which are different than elite qualifying miles), then due to my status I am actually earning 4,000 miles to use for future award travel.  Considering I flew 75,000 paid miles on United this year, this perk amounts to about 75,000 bonus redeemable miles that are conservatively worth at least $1100, so that is another actual real and tangible benefit to 1K elite status.
  • Compensation for Global Entry and $60 credit for MileagePlus card holders.  I haven’t used the Global Entry benefit since I already have Global Entry, but United will pay the $100 fee for a Platinum or 1K member to apply for Global Entry.  I did get the $60 credit for having a United co-branded credit card, which was appreciated.
  • No phone service fee and dedicated 1K line.  1K and Platinum members do not have to pay the $25 fee for booking over the phone.  I rarely book over the phone anyway, but it is still nice to not be subjected to a fee when you need to do so.  There is also theoretically a 1K line, though when I called it was usually just answered by the Premier Desk and the service wasn’t any different than I would randomly get before having 1K status.  Still, being able to get someone on the phone pretty quickly is very handy.
  • Priority boarding, free checked bags, Star Gold Status, improved award availability, and priority security screening.  These perks of having 1K status all mean something, but most are available even with lower tier status, and priority security doesn’t mean near as much as it used to for me and my family because of Pre-Check.  Priority boarding with Group 1 does help when we are traveling and want ourselves and our carry-on bags settled.  However, even that isn’t as important anymore since our almost-five-year-old doesn’t fly in a car seat at this point, so we don’t need as much time to get it down the aisle and installed.  I’m glad I have these perks, but, for the most part, they aren’t unique to 1K status.
  • Upgrade percentages.  I don’t have a spreadsheet where I meticulously track each upgrade I do or do not get on United.  I don’t care enough, and simply don’t have the time for that, so I can’t give an exact percentage of how often I was upgraded as a 1K elite.  However, I can approximate that I got complimentary upgrades to first class on eligible flights about half the time.  That is dramatically better than when I was a Silver or Gold elite, but not much different than the Platinum level.  Keep in mind that I live at a United hub, and those flights are often harder to upgrade due to more elites.  I also am often traveling with a companion, so that will further hurt my upgrade chances (more on that in a moment).  I was upgraded almost all the time on flights where you would guess upgrades are likely such as on off-peak travel days like Saturday mornings and to destinations that are typically leisure-0riented (fewer elite business travelers).  I was also sometimes upgraded on flights that are typically harder to get, such as flights to another hub and during busier travel days, but sometimes I was still number 37 on an upgrade wait-list a mile long as a 1K.  Getting upgraded close to half the time isn’t bad, but I do not think my percentage as a 1K was any better than as a Platinum.  I generally either easily cleared days in advance, or still wasn’t even close to clearing.
IMG_0922.JPG

Kids like bigger seats, too!

Low-lights of United 1K Premier Status:

  • Upgrade when traveling with companions.  United allows complimentary space available upgrades for the elite traveler plus one companion, but they sure don’t make the process simple.  When you are on the same reservation as a companion, and check-in for your flight at 24 hours out, you will be asked if you want to be split from your companion and both placed on the upgrade list.  If you split the reservations and are placed on the upgrade list you may both be upgraded, but you may not be.  Additionally, you will be on a separate reservation from your companion and now some of your elite benefits like free same day changes won’t automatically apply to that other reservation.  If you decide not to split the reservation to be placed on the upgrade list, then you and your companion simply aren’t placed on the upgrade list at all.  It really is bananas and has been this way for years!  What I do is simply not check-in until just a little before the flight (1-2 hours).  This way you still could be auto-upgraded with your companion, the same way you can be up to 96 hours in advance as a 1K.  If the upgrade doesn’t happen that way, I just usually pass on it all together, especially when traveling with my daughter as I do not want my reservation split from hers.
  • Global Premier Upgrades are hard to use.  While it is great that 1K members get six Global Premier Upgrades to use annually, they come with some serious strings attached.  First, you cannot use them on Z, P, S, T, L, K G, and N fare classes, which are typically the lower cost fare buckets.  This means to purchase an eligible W fare class or higher, you are spending more money.  How much more can vary, but W is often at least a couple hundred dollars more to Europe.  That would be okay by itself, but the larger issue is that there also has to not only be an upgraded seat available, but it has to be in the elusive R fare class dedicated just for upgrade space.  R space is elusive and pretty rare to secure in advance on BusinessFirst routes.  It can be done if you have luck, date, and routing flexibility, but it isn’t easy.  So, you often have to pay more to purchase a higher fare class just to have the chance for R space to open up and your GPU to clear in the future.  In other words, you have to pay the ante and gamble.
  • It’s a lot of flying without a lot of additional benefits over Platinum.  The biggest downside to 1K status was simply that it wasn’t much better than Platinum status.  For me the last 25,000 miles needed to get to 1K over Platinum was a lot, and something that wouldn’t just happen naturally most years.  It felt like a lot more flying with one airline without a whole bunch of additional benefits.  Now with the revenue component that will require $12,000 in premier qualifying dollars to be spent annually with United to get 1K, as opposed to Platinum where the revenue component can be waived with $25,000 annually on the co-branded Chase card, that difference to get to 1K will feel even more painful for some.  If they got rid of the fare class requirement to use GPUs, or if R space availability improved, that would probably help somewhat since the GPUs are the main perk of 1K status over Platinum.

Overall Experience:

I had a good year as a United 1K traveler in terms of elite benefits.  I avoided thousands of dollars in change fees, booking fees, E+ seat fees, and more.  This is real savings, as I did spend a good amount on some of those fees before having status, and would have continued to do so.  I was able to change dozens of flights via “same day change” to get home to my family as quickly as possible.  I earned 75,000 more redeemable miles worth at least $1,100 thanks to a 100% redeemable mile bonus.  I received ten total RPUs and GPUs and was able to use those upgrades for Hawaii, Alaska, and even Europe.  We were upgraded on roughly half of my flights via complimentary upgrades.  I generally had very prompt and helpful customer service over the phone via the elite line.  United is not a perfect airline, and they do not have a perfect elite system, but my experience at the highest elite level was overall very good.

All together in business class on the way to Hawaii

All together in business class on the way to Hawaii

However, just because the experience was good doesn’t mean it was something I can’t live without.  It would be a little bit of shock to drop back to having no elite status at all at this point (though anything can happen in the coming years, so no big deal if it comes to that), but just going back a notch to Platinum probably will be barely noticeable.  I’m glad I got a year at the 1K level, and I put the GPUs to good use while I had them, but I think the Platinum level will be much more attainable going forward.

 

Comments

  1. I’m similar to you but I was a Premier Platinum member with Continental a few years before 2011. Back then I recall it was the highest elite status and having it was great! I’m based in NYC and almost always got upgrades on all my CO flights. I loved Continental back then.

    After the merger with United, the highest elite status became 1K (which confused me as to what it meant) and there was this other mysterious level called Global Services. I’d say I got upgrades 60%-70% of the time as a 1K out of EWR. :/

    I agree with you that Platinum seems to be the sweet spot in the Mileageplus program. Even when I fly other star alliance airlines, the check-in agents recognize premier plat more often than 1K (most are like, what is 1K?) Being a Plat is totally ok and if I were still loyal to UA, I’d go for Plat too.

  2. My experience was similar to yours this year with 1K. I am a little short on PQD this year, but even with that small gap I am not going to do even a short mileage run to close it…I’ll go back to Platinum. The whole GPU thing is a joke…I don’t want to role the dice buying a more expensive ticket to fly somewhere for 10+ hours that may or may not get upgraded. Heck, I’d rather get a couple less GPUs and have them eligible to use without restrictions like AA SWUs. When you get a 1K agent agent on the 1K line, they are generally awesome…but that rarely happens anymore unless you hang up and call back a half dozen times.

    I don’t really play the credit card points game, so I don’t expect to have an influx of points…well, ever again. I’m seriously considering a switch to Delta next year if their status match program looks good. They fly where I want to fly and they run a good operation. While the skymiles program is generally accepted to be crappy, I’d rather have a better chance for a better experience en route with the revenue tickets I fly on more often than not.

  3. I’m dropping from 1K to silver, as for a mostly domestic traveler the benefits are just not there anymore. But I will be Southwest Companion pass from Jan next year. This constant take with no give from United is a bit like boiling a frog, and this one is finally jumping. I admit I like a first class seat with warm nuts and cold beer on a Thursday commute home, so kicking the addiction is difficult. If they threw in something like lounge access with that $12K spend I could maybe justify sticking with it.

  4. I am with Nick on this one. I am dropping from 1K to Silver and having no regrets. Sorry but their mileage earning changes for 2015 are embarrassing and I have not received “exceptional” service as a 1K. I’d rather use miles from CC spend than to actually earn them anymore by flying. I am all about low-cost now…

  5. Exactly the same..dropping from 1K to silver and happily experiencing a near 100% upgrade rate on AA as an exec plat ex SFO. Best move i made. i realize AA will go down the rabbit hole most likely 2016, so i don’t think they will fall as far down as UA. I was clearing less than 40% of my upgrades ex SFO on UA as a 1K. I have 800,000 lifetime, so i hate that i have to start over with AA, but Ua has made it clear at this point, they don’t want my business so i will take it to someone who does.

  6. Thanks to a long gone promo, I had Lifetime Plat status on CO and was given lifetime 1K status on UA (we don’t get the upgrade certs, though).

    You’ve described the benefits quite well and, honestly, for the amount of flying you have to do now to earn this status, the benefits are meager. The biggest change in recent years is UA’s desire to SELL the first class upgrades to the highest bidder (what some folks call the TOD system), which results in far fewer complimentary upgrades for high elites. And when you do get the upgrades, the service up front isn’t particularly special.

    Interesting, I can compare my experience with flying US, where I have no status, but have an Citi Executive AA card where I get free lounge access, and a US World MasterCard where I get zone 2 boarding. These cards are basically free, when you count the free mileage their sign up bonuses provide. Honestly, for most domestic trips, they provide almost as much comfort and convenience as my UA 1K status! (Heck, the UA 1K doesn’t even get you into their lounges for domestic flying — I have to use the Turkish Airlines loyalty card trick for that one).

    Bottomline, with all changes coming to the MileagePlus program (like decreased mileage earning and increased spending requirement for status) almost NO ONE should make earning high elite status on UA a priority. The meager benefits simply don’t justify the enormous effort required.

  7. We are like a bunch of rats scurrying away from UA to AA, Southwest, Delta, anyonebutUnited. It’s sad, but so interesting. Living North of Houston, nothing else makes sense for us, so I’m glad to be at Platinum next year, but we’ll see what the future holds for years beyond.

    It is time that United stopped cutting, for sure. Today I flew as a 1K from IAH – LAX and tried to use RPU months in advance. It never cleared. It’s great when it works, but with top tier status, flying mid-week, and using instrument, planes are still full enough you end up at the back.

  8. @Mommypoints. Basically you got TOD-eed, that kind of upgrade used to be a certainty, especially using a RPU. I think what they are doing now is that they know they can sell seats as upgrades and they don’t release these for complementary or instrument upgrades until they have attempted to sell them to everyone checking in.

  9. I agree that for many frequent business travelers Platinum is probably the “sweet spot”. I’m lifetime MM gold, and that’s my “sweet spot”. I now fly solo or as a couple, and mostly for leisure. Gold offers free checked bags, E+, international lounge access, free same day confirmed/standby, additional award availability, and reduced award change/cancel fees. Free award change/cancel fees would be “nice to have” (I leverage those heavily on Southwest), but not enough to make an extra effort to qualify for Platinum.

  10. Unless you are hub captive 1K is a waste of time. I am DEN based and moved to AA and don’t get played by United’s transactional loyalty. By that I mean United will sell upgrades at low cost out from under their elites, when CPUs do happen its based highly on fare class so when you take that family vacation on cheaper tickets you’ll never get upgraded and in 2015 award miles by fare paid. What a joke! United shouldn’t get you business unless you are in SFO or IAH.
    Ironic that Summer wrote this right before another deval.

  11. Been a 1K for almost 20 straight years and am a 2 million miler. I got upgraded less than 50% of the time this year (used to be 90%). Also Gold Medallion and 1 million miler with Delta. With their new spend requirements to attain elite status and to earn miles I will reduce flying both airlines tremendously. My guess is Jet Blue, Virgin America, and mostly American will greatly benefit from United and Delta’s changes!
    patstravelreviews.com

  12. Kinda stuck with UA due to AC being part of Star Alliance as I live 5 months of the year in Canada. While AA has WestJet, I am not a great fan of Westjet. Have Gold and have a shot at platinum this year. Can’t figure how one could get 1K unless one lives on an airplane…. Heck the flying I will do to get Platinum will be bad enough!

  13. Thanks for the great, informative article. I just got 1k status in Sept. 2015 – -and was wondering if I could use the GPUs. I wanted to take a 2nd trip to Australia, and get a business upgrade on the Dreamliner (which I find very comfortable — especially in the bulkhead seats which have a larger “cubby hole” for your feet). The GPUs are there, but they are scant, and I spent 2-3 hours on United’s site trying to find one… for about year out from now. I found it! So I’m traveling from DEN to SYD (via LAX and SFO) in early Sept. 2016. A $2000 coach seat, but with a confirmed GPU upgrade to business on the Dreamliner (which would cost $9000+).

    But, like you said in the article, and as others have commented, I’m not impressed with the true availability of GPUs. It might appear you have to plan a trip on the very outskirts of the 300 or so days when reservations become available… and even then the pickings were scarce. And on a 15 hour flight, I’m not going to gamble paying a non-refundable $2000 coach seat, and be put on a “waiting list.” for a GPU upgrade. In fact, most of the R buckets also had zero anyway.

    While this time I scored, the premier 1k GPUs seem to be a promise with little benefit for achieving 1k status.

  14. UA 1k- Million Miler, decided to increase business in 2015 with Delta. Now at Platinum Medallion and have been upgraded on approx 75% of flights, and always on time or early arrival! Enjoy the great snacks & free drinks, when in Comfort +, and Starbucks in the morning.

    Watching United & hopeful, but don’t expect any real effort to get former 1k customers back. Tomorrow morning UA flight is still in wait list category, using a GPU ( lost all 6 last year & and probably again this year). Delta mileage program is not great, but they are reliable, have a team spirit, and the older planes are ok for domestic travel. Using Hawaiian for the Islands & Star Alliance partners for Europe & Asia!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *