You want to earn United (or some other airline’s) elite status for real, rather than just approximating it? Hoo boy.
This post is United-centric, but it’s mostly the same elsewhere for other airlines. I’ll note where it’s different.
Ok, brace yourself: On United, there’s award miles, then there’s premier qualifying miles (PQM), and then there’s premier qualifying dollars (PQD), and then there’s premier qualifying segments (PQS). Other airlines have their own names for the same things (Delta: MQM/MQD/MQS, American: EQM/EQD/EQS). You have to understand what these fucking things are in order to earn status, so that when United shows them to you on your MileagePlus overview page, you know how far you are from the glint of Premier Silver (or Gold, or Platinum, or 1K). JetBlue is a different animal for elite status, so they don’t use these terms.
Award miles are just the plain old miles in your MileagePlus account that you can redeem for United travel. Until a couple of years ago, you used to get award miles based on the actual distance you flew on United (or another airline booked as a United ticket). Now you get award miles based on what you paid for the ticket, at 5 miles per base ticket price dollar. You also get award miles when you fly with Premier status (and the higher the level;, the more miles you get); spend on a MileagePlus card; transfer Chase Ultimate Reward points; or consume in specific, magical ways. You can also purchase award miles, but it’s usually a shit deal, even as an “accelerator” offered on your ticket. Award miles are good for free travel, but they do not help you earn status.
Premier qualifying miles (PQM) are completely unrelated and have nothing to do with award miles. They’re how many miles you actually fly, based on distance, not price. You earn PQM when you fly on United, or a Star Alliance partner airline, regardless of which airline you booked the ticket on. You can calculate approximate PQM at MileCalc.com, or look at the details of an itinerary. You can also sometimes purchase PQM as an “accelerator” to a ticket after first purchasing more award miles, but you’re gonna get reamed sideways, so it’s probably only worth doing — maybe — if it’s gonna be your last United flight of the year and it will put you over the top.
Premier qualifying dollars (PQD) are the actual dollars you spent on the ticket price. You earn PQD when you buy a United (but not Star Alliance partner) ticket, whether or not you’re flying a United aircraft.
Premier qualifying segments (PQS) are the number of actual United or Star Alliance flights you fly, including every leg of flights with layovers.
You do not earn any qualifying anything when you redeem award miles for a ticket. You earn dick. You only work your way to United status when you buy a ticket with cash money, or credit card points, and actually fly the route.
Other airlines also let you earn elite miles, elite dollars, or outright status by spending on certain higher-tier credit cards (Delta, American, JetBlue). Sadly, United is not one of them, unless you have the no longer available Chase United Presidential Plus card. I have begged Chase to give me one. They will not. Cocks.
To earn Premier Silver status through the following year, you need to earn, in the year you’re in, both of the following:
- 25,000 premier qualifying miles, or 30 premier qualifying segments
- 3,000 premier qualifying dollars, or $25,000 spent on a Chase United MileagePlus Explorer or Club card
Needless to say, the higher status tiers have higher minimums, and offer nicer niceties, but having any kind of status at all is still a big win.
The easiest route for me is the 25,000 PQM and the $25,000 spent on the United MileagePlus Explorer card, as I like to find the cheapest ticket, so I might not spend $3,000 on United tickets in a year. However, I’m likely to charge $25K in a year on the card by default, because I’m a profligate member of the bourgeoisie.
But the problem with that is then I’m earning 25,000 United miles, rather than the 37,500 minimum Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the same spending with a Freedom Unlimited (and more if I pick my spots with a Sapphire Reserve). The Ultimate Rewards points are more valuable and flexible than the United miles. But I’d rather not be formally on the hook to United for $3K a year to keep status when I can meet that requirement just by living my life.
So I could spend my first $25K a year on my MileagePlus Explorer Card, then switch off to my Chase Freedom Unlimited. I still gotta fly 25,000 actual miles with United or a Star Alliance partner to keep status, but I can at least do that without having to worry about it adding up to $3K. To soften the blow, sort of, I decided to get the pricey Club card, which gets 1.5 points per dollar spent, rather than the 1 dollar on the Explorer card, so I will have earned 37,500 United miles. for that spending, and gets me some of the status benefits without having to wait to earn them. Could be worse.