How to earn United elite status faster with partner flights – The Points Guy

You’re not alone if you’re struggling to earn the Premier qualifying points (PQPs) to requalify for your United Airlines status.

Normally, you earn 1 PQP per base dollar you spend on airfare. So if you’re trying to earn the 24,000 PQPs required using the PQP-only path for Premier 1K status this year, that’s $24,000 in pre-tax airfare on United. Ouch.

But MileagePlus members can earn PQPs with any Star Alliance member, and if they’re issued by the partner airline, you’ll accrue mileage based on the fare class and flight distance instead of the price of your ticket. This means a $1,000 long-haul business-class ticket with Lufthansa could accrue 1,500 PQPs, depending on the flight’s length.

In my opinion, the ability to earn generous amounts of PQPs on partner flights is the best-kept secret in the friendly skies — and it isn’t as hard as you might think.

Let’s look at earning PQPs on partner flights and how it could make earning United elite status much cheaper.

Some background

Lufthansa first class A340-600. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Like many carriers, United has removed a member’s distance flown from its annual requirements for earning elite status. Nowadays, the carrier largely awards elite status to members with high annual spending — at least when you earn status on United’s own flights.

When I first qualified for Premier 1K nearly a decade ago, Premier qualifying dollars were the currency used to assess a member’s spending. A member could earn 1 PQD per $1 spent on United flights, less some taxes and fees. This was in addition to earning a set number of Premier qualifying miles (PQMs) and Premier qualifying segments (PQSs).

Then, in 2019, United did away with PQMs, PQSs and PQDs and replaced them with Premier qualifying flights and Premier qualifying points. PQPs are almost identical to PQDs when flying on United flights: $1 spent equals 1 PQP less some taxes and fees. On the other hand, PQFs are segments flown, so one takeoff and landing equals 1 PQF.

However, partner-marketed flights still earn PQPs based on the distance of the flight, while PQFs are earned per segment. Don’t worry — we’ll discuss how this works in the next section.

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To earn any United Premier status, you must take at least four qualifying segments on United-operated flights. Beyond that, there are two ways to qualify:

  • Earn a specified number of combined PQPs and PQFs.
  • Earn a specified (higher) number of PQPs only.

You can qualify for Premier 1K status with 54 PQFs and 18,000 PQPs or 24,000 PQPs.

Related: Why you probably shouldn’t buy up for United status

The basics of earning United elite status with partners

Air Canada’s business class is one of the best partner PQP-earning opportunities. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

With United’s Star Alliance partners, you earn PQPs based on three factors: the length of your flight, the fare class and the airline that operates your flight.

The base mileage is relatively simple, calculated by the distance you fly. Generally, the farther you fly, the more PQPs you’ll earn. However, different fare classes earn different amounts of miles. Discounted economy flights might earn less than the total distance of the flight, while business-class tickets might earn more than the total distance.

Remember that the cost of your partner ticket is not directly linked to your final PQP accrual. This means if you find a full-fare economy ticket from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA) on one day for $1,500 and another day for $5,000, it will earn the same amount of redeemable United miles and PQPs because the distance doesn’t change.

In other words, this approach is advantageous for low-cost, long-haul partner award flights.

Let’s examine how you calculate the PQPs you earn on partner flights.

1. Calculate your redeemable miles first

The base miles you earn are separate from the total redeemable MileagePlus miles you earn on a flight. For example, a year ago, I flew from Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) via Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) with Air Canada. Here’s a look at my earnings:

UNITED APP

Both segments were booked in the J fare class. J fares credit at 200% of miles flown.

UNITED.COM

Without elite status bonuses, I earned 3,774 miles for the first leg, which equals 1,500 PQPs. Then I earned 2,175 miles on the second leg for 870 PQPs.

2. Convert base miles to PQPs

So, why are my PQP earnings less than the miles I earned?

You must divide the miles you earn on a flight (before elite status bonuses) by either five or six. For United’s preferred partners, you divide the mileage by five. For flights on all other partners, you divide by six. In either case, the ending result is the number of PQPs you earn on the partner-operated flights.

United’s preferred partners are:

  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Edelweiss
  • Eurowings
  • Eurowings Discover
  • Lufthansa
  • Swiss International Airlines
  • Virgin Australia

As noted previously, to calculate your earnings with United’s preferred partners, divide the total base mileage accrual (based on distance) by five.

Meanwhile, United’s standard partners are:

  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air India
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air
  • Juneyao Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Olympic Air
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • TAP Air Portugal
  • Thai Airways International
  • Turkish Airlines

Again, to calculate your earnings with United’s standard partners, divide the total base mileage accrual (based on distance) by six.

Unfortunately, there are limits on how many PQPs you can earn per segment. Preferred partner and premium-cabin tickets have higher limits.

Cabins flownPreferred partnersStandard partners
Economy or premium economy750 PQPs per segment500 PQPs per segment
Business or first class1,500 PQPs per segment1,000 PQPs per segment

Dividing the distance by six instead of five results in PQPs that are 16.67% lower on standard partners than preferred partners, and these flights are also subject to lower maximums. As a result, it usually makes more sense to stick to United’s preferred partners.

This is the high-level scoop, but you can visit United’s premier qualifying credit partners page for more information.

3. Booking your ticket

This is easy to forget and can greatly affect how many PQPs you earn.

If you book a ticket with United (either on United’s website, over the phone with United or in a United ticket office), the ticket number will begin with 016, and you will earn PQPs and redeemable miles based on the ticket cost.

To earn partner PQPs based on the distance flown, you must book a partner-operated ticket directly with the operating carrier. You may be able to book with an online travel agency, but there’s a chance it will be marketed by United if it’s processed as a codeshare booking.

Generally, I book directly on the partner carrier’s website to ensure the partner actually tickets my flight. Pricing can vary depending on where you book, so cross-compare with OTAs or Google Flights to find the best price.

Related: Flights, credit cards and more: How to earn miles with the United MileagePlus program

Example United partner bookings

Now that you know how to calculate the number of PQPs you’ll earn on a partner award ticket, here are some examples of earning PQPs with Star Alliance partners. I found these when writing this story, so they may no longer be available. Still, they’re here to inspire you to find your own partner itineraries to maximize PQP earnings.

Economy: Copenhagen with Air Canada — 1.87 PQPs per dollar

Air Canada is a preferred partner of United, making it advantageous for PQP-earning. The round-trip ticket costs $507 and is ticketed in the K fare class (50% accrual basis internationally, 25% within Canada), so it earns the following:

  • Denver International Airport (DEN) to Toronto: 658 base miles, 132 PQPs
  • Toronto to Copenhagen Airport (CPH): 1,954 base miles, 391 PQPs
  • Copenhagen to Toronto: 1,954 base miles, 391 PQPs
  • Toronto to Denver: 658 base miles, 132 PQPs
  • Total: 5,224 base miles and 946 PQPs

Related: Passing grade: A review of Air Canada in economy on the 787-9 from Toronto to Dubai

Economy: Vietnam with Asiana Airlines — 1.84 PQPs per dollar

Asiana Airlines is a standard partner of United, making it generally less advantageous for PQP-earning. This round-trip ticket costs $784 and is ticketed in the W fare class (50% accrual basis), so it earns the following:

  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Incheon International Airport (ICN): 2,997 base miles, 500 PQPs
  • Seoul to Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN): 1,105 base miles, 221 PQPs
  • Ho Chi Minh City to Seoul: 1,105 miles, 221 PQPs
  • Seoul to Los Angeles: 2,997 base miles, 500 PQPs
  • Total: 8,194 base miles, 1,442 PQPs

Related: Asiana is leaving Star Alliance. These are the carriers I’d like to see join as its replacement

Economy: Ireland with Air Canada — 2.98 PQPs per dollar

Again, Air Canada is a United preferred partner. This round-trip multistop ticket costs $595 and is ticketed in the L (50% accrual basis internationally, 25% within Canada) and W (75% accrual basis) fare classes. Thus, it earns the following:

  • Kahului Airport (OGG) to Vancouver International Airport (YVR): 1,337 base miles, 267 PQPs
  • Vancouver to Toronto: 522 base miles, 104 PQPs
  • Toronto to Dublin Airport (DUB): 1,639 base miles, 328 PQPs
  • Dublin to Toronto: 2,459 base miles, 492 PQPs
  • Toronto to San Francisco International Airport (SFO): 1,695 base miles, 339 PQPs
  • San Francisco to Maui: 1,754 base miles, 351 PQPs
  • Total: 9,396 base miles and 1,871 PQPs

Economy: Brazil with Copa — 1.52 PQPs per dollar

Copa is another United preferred partner. This round-trip itinerary, which is ticketed in the A fare class (25% accrual basis), costs $284 and would earn the following:

  • Miami International Airport (MIA) to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport (PTY): 288 base miles, 58 PQPs
  • Panama City to Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU): 789 base miles, 158 PQPs
  • Sao Paulo to Panama City: 288 base miles, 158 PQPs
  • Panama City to Miami: 789 base miles, 58 PQPs
  • Total: 2,154 base miles and 432 PQPs

Related: Flight review: Copa Airlines (737-800) economy from Los Angeles to Panama City

Premium economy: Thailand with Lufthansa — 1.78 PQPs per dollar

Lufthansa is a preferred partner of United. This premium economy round-trip ticket costs $1,696 and is booked in the N fare classes (100% accrual basis). It would earn the following:

  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) to Munich Airport (MUC): 4,579 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Munich to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK): 5,473 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Bangkok to Munich: 5,473 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Munich to Charlotte: 4,579 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Total: 20,104 base miles and 3,000 PQPs

Related: High comfort, low fare: Lufthansa’s premium economy on the A330

Premium economy: Milan with Air Canada — 2.29 PQPs per dollar

On this mixed-cabin itinerary, the Air Canada flights are ticketed in the B and A fare class (125%/100% accrual basis).

  • San Francisco to Montreal-Trudeau International Airport (YUL): 3,174 base miles, 635 PQPs
  • Montreal to Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP): 3,809 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Milan to Montreal: 3,809 base miles, 750 PQPs (preferred partner maximum)
  • Montreal to San Francisco: 3,174 base miles, 635 PQPs
  • Total: 13,966 base miles and 2,770 PQPs

Business: Athens with Air Canada and Lufthansa — 1.44 PQPs per dollar

This round-trip costs $3,031 and is ticketed in the D fare class (175% accrual basis) on the Air Canada-operated segments and the P fare class (100% accrual basis) on the Lufthansa-operated segments. It would earn:

  • Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) to Vancouver: 4734 base miles, 947 PQPs
  • Vancouver to Frankfurt: 5,025 base miles, 1,005 PQPs
  • Frankfurt to Athens International Airport (ATH): 1,129 base miles, 226 PQPs
  • Athens to Frankfurt: 1,129 base miles, 226 PQPs
  • Frankfurt to Vancouver: 5,025 base miles, 1,005 PQPs
  • Vancouver to Honolulu: 4,734 base miles, 947 PQPs
  • Total: 21,776 base miles and 4,356 PQPs

Related: Reviewing Lufthansa’s newest and best-ever business class on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Business: Mauritius with Swiss, Austrian and South African Airways — 1.1 PQPs per dollar

GOOGLE FLIGHTS

Three Star Alliance carriers operate this round-trip ticket to Mauritius for this final marathon ticket. Even though Swiss sells the ticket with codeshare partner flights, United credits each segment by the operating carrier. The Swiss and Austrian segments are ticketed in the P fare class (preferred partners with a 100% accrual basis), while the South African Airways segment is in the D fare class (standard partner with a 125% accrual basis).

  • JFK to Zurich Airport (ZRH): 3,931 base miles, 786 PQPs
  • Zurich to Vienna Airport (VIE): 376 base miles, 75 PQPs
  • Vienna to Mauritius’s Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport (MRU): 5,360 base miles, 1,072 PQPs
  • Mauritius to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB): 2,385 base miles, 398 PQPs
  • Johannesburg to Zurich: 5,211 base miles, 1,042 PQPs
  • Zurich to JFK: 3,931 base miles, 786 PQPs
  • Total: 21,194 base miles and 4,159 PQPs

Related: Great lounge and service: a review of Swiss Air Lines’ business class on the 777

Bottom line

No matter which cabin you travel in, each example lets you earn more than the 1 PQP per base dollar you would earn on United- and United Express-operated flights. Even starting from scratch, you can earn a healthy stock of PQPs and MileagePlus miles on partner flights.

Remember that to qualify for any status level with United, you must fly at least four flights operated by United and/or United Express annually. Regardless, if you know how to maximize United’s PQP partners, you can earn Premier 1K status without spending $24,000 on United flights.

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