It’s the homestretch of 2023, my work trips for the year are just about over, and for the first time in ages, I’m not doing anything in November or December to try and requalify for airline elite status.
No last-minute mileage runs (which were always kind of a bad idea), no routing flights in a way to earn extra segments, no shifting all my spending to my airline cobranded credit card, no buying up to first class to earn more qualifying points on existing flights, no squeezing in more trips “for fun,” nothing. I’m just letting it go.
Related: Is airline elite status worth it?
Airline status requirements are really high now
Let’s start with the main reason I’m walking away from top-tier airline status without a fight: The requirements to earn status have just gotten too high.
I’ve been a United Airlines Premier 1K for the last several years, and last year, United announced increased requirements to earn status in 2023. I immediately knew right then and there my time near the top of the boarding gate food chain was probably over.
When I requalified for 1K status in 2022, the requirements were 36 flight segments plus 13,500 Premier qualifying points. That’s still a lot of flying, but it was about what I do in a year if I stay pretty busy and ensure United gets virtually all of my business.
But now, just a year later, the requirements are significantly higher. For example, you need 54 individual flights (defined as a takeoff and landing) and need to spend about $18,000 with United (excluding taxes, fees, etc.) to earn 1K. That’s about a 33% increase in one year in spending and a 50% increase in the number of required flights.
As I write this in early November 2023, I’m sitting at 41 segments with United and just over 13,000 PQPs. Last year, I’d be almost to 1K status with that amount of travel and would unquestionably ensure I closed the gap to earn a few hundred more PQPs with credit card spending or an extra trip. However, that hurdle to get not only 13 more flights but about $5,000 more in spending with the airline this year for the same status tier I’ve had is just a bridge way, way too far.
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Top-tier airline status is now only for (really) heavy spenders
Not too long ago, airline status was awarded based on how far you flew, not how much you spent. But that all changed in the last decade.
In fact, in 2019, I wrote an article titled, “Is this the end of the runway for frequent flyer programs as we know them?” And while the pandemic slowed some of what United was trying to implement at that time shortly after the article was written, the answer to that question is yes.
I will likely end the year over 80% of the way there naturally on segments for 1K and could have realistically gotten that total higher throughout the year. But I’m way off on the spending side of the requirements. Even $13,000-plus spent with the airline this year isn’t close to unlocking 1K status.
I travel a lot, but what I don’t do is travel a lot in paid first or business class or on lots of pricier international flights. Most of my flights are from Houston to New York, Orlando or similar, with a few farther-flung trips mixed in over the course of a year, and that’s just not enough.
Top-tier airline status is now almost exclusively for the really heavy spenders. With United, you need to spend $18,000-plus in a year (along with meeting other requirements), and with Delta next year, you’ll need a staggering 28,000 Medallion Qualification Dollars (down some from the 35,000 they originally announced).
While I travel for work (and fun) a good amount, it’s not on those pricey international, business-class or last-minute fares that would make it realistic to hit top-tier status.
You’re sometimes better off buying what you want when you want it
Finally, I’m not walking away from airline status completely. I’ll still have United’s Premier Platinum status, which comes with many of the same perks. The main differences are a lower priority on the upgrade list and earning significantly fewer PlusPoints that can be used to secure upgrades on paid flights.
I did have a really big win with PlusPoints this year when I got them to clear to and from London. However, on the whole, it was often hard to clear into first class as a 1K, even when using PlusPoints throughout a lot of this year. United, like other airlines, often sells discounted first-class upgrades in the realm of $150 to $300 on the domestic routes I fly to get some extra cash rather than “giving away” the upgrade.
Let’s say I take the power back in my hands and pay to upgrade six times next year at $250 a pop. That’s still just an additional $1,500 spent to lock in the upgrades I want when I want them, and that’s a lot less than trying to close the gap to 1K status this year.
I’ve said many times since the coming changes to earning elite status were announced last year that I would probably not qualify for top-tier elite status again this year, and I think most of my friends in the travel world didn’t believe me. They thought I’d do something bizarre to hang on or end up with more travel and spending than I thought.
But sometimes, you have to admit when you’re priced out of the market and just pick up and move on. There are certainly bigger things going on in the world than worrying for too long about losing top-tier airline elite status, so I’ll settle back into more of the middle of the pack and hope I’m not pushed out of that neighborhood too soon.
If you’re now also facing the decision of adding to your end-of-year travel schedule or just moving on and entering a new phase of your airline elite status journey, you’re not alone. If you make the same choice I did, I’ll see you a little further in the boarding process and a few rows back on the plane.
But of course, if you aren’t ready for that change of seating address, here are last-minute strategies for earning airline elite status … and a handy guide to leveraging the elite status you have right now with airline status matches.