I wrote previously about my surprise status match to United 1K. Despite my previous posts declaring my independence from American, I had trepidations when it came time to actually make the switch. In the comments from readers I was forewarned that United may not be any better and in fact, most 1Ks thought it might be worse. But after a bad experience on American, it was time to give it a go. Status Challenge accepted.
Hub 1Ks Don’t Get Upgraded
Overwhelmingly, readers that commented on my previous post were quite clear – they neither expect nor receive free upgrades from coach to first class. Upgrade percentages were so low (in some cases entirely absent) that I had to check the policy with United to be sure.
Complimentary Premier® Upgrades are space-available, complimentary upgrades on select United- and United Express®-operated flights. They are available to all Premier members, as well as to a companion traveling on the same reservation as the Premier member.
So while complimentary upgrades appear to be possible, 1Ks submitting their own experiences on my previous post suggested that they had become all but unicorns. However, most of them were also reporting results from Newark and San Francisco, a pair of United strongholds (in the case of Newark, perhaps chokehold).
That shouldn’t be as much of an issue for me as I am based in Pittsburgh and should be an improvement over American. US Airways inexplicably had two hubs in the state of Pennsylvania until 2004 and Pittsburgh was one of them. While eventually US Airways (now American) consolidated traffic to the far busier and more lucrative Philadelphia market, a lot of legacy crew and loyal lifelong customers remain in Pittsburgh. This made American upgrades move from automatic to about 70% in my experience, though that’s recently gotten worse with smaller first class cabins.
Since Pittsburgh was never a focus city for United, clearing from Pittsburgh shouldn’t be tough, but if hub upgrades really are that tough, then I will only truly be able to upgrade in one segment on any given ticket because, ultimately, all flights will lead to one of their hubs where I will be just another 1K in the back of the bus.
Regional Premier Upgrades
One advantage of United 1K status is that they also offer Regional Premier Upgrades to their 1Ks which can be attached to a reservation long in advance (Systemwide upgrades for non-international itineraries). These work the same way as stickers and in my opinion are something missing from American Executive Platinum status. If I am to believe our commenters (why wouldn’t I?), these don’t really stick either but as with any sample set, it may not be indicative of the whole.
I hope my luck is better than others simply because of the expanse with which you can use these upgrades. Trans-continental flights with lie flat seats, travel to Hawaii, central America, even flights that get all the way through Micronesia to Guam can in-theory use RPUs.
Am I Valuable to United?
So far, I believe that I am. There was a direct flight from Houston to Pittsburgh that fit a slot I needed. I had a meeting in the Galleria area (30 minutes from IAH in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day 45-60 minutes, maybe…) at 10:30AM. I had a dinner meeting in Pittsburgh at 7:30PM.
I have written before about the Southwest Spirit Effect on pricing and that is still in effect for the market pair, but not for all flights. Specifically, the Spirit effect was not helping my direct, midday United flight.
I booked a domestic $537 seat in coach on United, one-way (not pictured). I would say so far their challenge is paying off for them.
I am also helping them with ancillary revenue. I was waiting for some work trips to confirm and missed out on an airfare to Mumbai for $2200 from Dulles via Newark in business class (P fare). The replacement that fits my schedule and stays close to my budget (would have loved to stayed closer to $2k for this) is Boston-Shanghai via San Francisco for $2900.
As I already lost out on the Mumbai fares (the day I was ready to book it went up after just checking it the night before) I was happy to use FareLock for $6.99 for three days. While American Airlines offers 24-hour holds for free, I didn’t feel like $6.99 was too expensive to give me a little peace of mind and give the Google Flights servers a rest. With AA, I would check back every day and re-hold a reservation if the price was the same or lower – a meaningful fare increase would trigger my purchase decision.
Then, I saw a really good offer for the Mileage Plus credit card form Chase. I don’t sell credit cards for any bank, there is no link in this post, I make no commission from telling you I signed up. I don’t doubt some folks will still comment that I am just getting paid to shill for United and Chase despite making it abundantly clear I am not.
The reason I signed up is because there is a better offer for 1Ks than there is for the general public. My offer was 70,000 Mileage Plus points, and a $50 Statement credit. I also am looking into requirements for re-qualifying for 1K and should I fall short of that aim, may need the $25,000 credit card spend waiver to save me.
So far, this totally free 1K challenge has netted United the following:
- A $537 coach one-way that I might have taken anyway, but given the challenge was a no-brainer. Let’s split the difference and say that there was a $250 incremental benefit to United because of the trial to push me onto that flight instead of trying to make other options work.
- $6.99 3-day Fare Lock
- $8.99 7-day Fare Lock extension (waiting on my Chase card to arrive)
- $2,903 for a business class ticket to Shanghai – 100% incremental revenue for United.
- Unknown credit card bounty for signing up with Chase. I speculate that the credit card companies are paying about $7-10/1,000 miles so this will have generated between $490 and $700 (pure speculation) in upfront revenue for the airline.
In total, I think it would be safe to say that United is coming out ahead on my trial of about $3500 so far.
Is this bald-faced stupidity?
Why would I spend that kind of money?
I am a travel blogger and this is my hobby. I spend money and time on miles, points and trips around the world. This year, my flights on American for leisure purposes were almost all free because of vouchers and the use of AMEX Platinum’s business class redemption bonus of 50% (now 35%).
Without getting too specific, every year my family budgets about $4000 for mileage runs that yield them the benefits and the miles they have grown accustomed to receiving and spending. Even with the United Shanghai flight, I am well under budget. If I include miles received (at fair and normal valuations), I will actually come out financially ahead despite the United 1K status challenge and including my American Airlines farewell tour.
How did it go?
Based on the previous comments, I should not expect upgrades as a 1K, especially out of hubs. I booked an R class ticket which is towards the top of coach, but not the very top in terms of upgrade hierarchy.
Within a few hours of booking I had cleared my first upgrade with United defying all odds. I don’t doubt that the fare class and price of the ticket played a part, but according to the upgrade chart it shouldn’t have been a lock.
Further, I would assume that my route (from a hub city and from an oil and gas play to another on a Monday) would have made the upgrade all the more elusive. Instead, I found my seat assignment (1A) perfect and the upgrade window excellent.
On the Chase side, things didn’t go so smoothly. Dot bomb (united.com as I understand it colloquially to be) offered me the credit card all over the place and throughout the purchase process. Except when it was time to actually purchase the ticket.
I called Chase once I had been approved and they said I could immediately purchase straight from my United.com account, the credit card would already be saved into my file. They were wrong. It cost me another $8.99 to lock the fare until the card was ready and a weekend of me babysitting when the card went active so they could next day me the physical plastic.
All told, my account started with 3,018 miles (thanks to the MPX app for shopping bonuses in-person). At the conclusion of all of these activities I should stand at about 114,000 Mileage Plus miles and a pile of Ultimate Rewards points to top up my balance as needed.
Do you think my upgrade was a rare exception? Did I make the right decision to switch to United?