Reader Question: Go for Gold with United or Aegean?

Stephen wrote in with a question on how best to credit his remaining flights this year AND which credit card he should use for some big upcoming purchases:

I saw another article today from Gary about Agean airlines and “lifetime” star alliance gold. I first heard about it from you earlier this year and each time I see something it makes me stop and think if this works for me. Having said that I wanted to get your opinion on my situation.

I just hit United silver this week and also have the chase united mileage plus card (got a $100 statement credit for the next year so free again). I have a flight from Boston (discount economy) to Norfolk on US Airways and a full Y fare from Norfolk to Naples on United scheduled for the rest of the year. Even if I credited those flights to United I expect to be about 10k eqm short for united gold. I may have other travel for work but I believe that last 10k will be difficult.

I was thinking about crediting those flights to A3 [Aegean] to work towards Star Gold. I would still expect to be 10k short of gold at the end of the year but the status miles do not reset at the end of the calendar year which would give me more time.

I see the biggest benefit to Star Gold as being the lounge access at this point and I do not expect to be able to requalify united silver next year.

I also am looking into the United Club card for the 1.5 miles per dollar spend since I am expecting to make some very large purchases over the next year.

I guess my final point is that it feels like I am duplicating some effort here. So between that and my thoughts on Star Gold what do you think?

Elite status with United or Aegean?

Stephen’s main concern appears to be getting access to the United Club since he’s outlined two approaches to getting there, but he also wants some of the benefits that come with being an elite traveler. His strategy was overlapping significantly in some places. If he applied for the United Club card, he’d be paying $300 ($395 minus a $95 credit) for lounge access. But if he already had Star Gold access from an international partner like Aegean, he wouldn’t need the card and would effectively pay $300 just to get the 50% bonus points on his predicted spend. So first we have to tackle whether he should aim for status with United or Aegean.

There are three factors working against Stephen:

  1. Premier Silver status with United’s MileagePlus isn’t a great deal to start.
  2. He already has many of those same benefits as a United Explorer cardholder. (see chart below)
  3. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to requalify for Premier Silver next year, so it definitely doesn’t sound like aiming for Premier Gold is worthwhile, even if Stephen could make it happen with a mileage run or two.

Here’s a chart showing my evidence for Point 2. As you can see, there isn’t a lot that Premier Silver elites get that Explorer credit card holders do not. The few distinctions, like access to EconomyPlus and upgrades, have been diluted (by limiting access until check-in) or just aren’t huge losses (even Premier 1Ks are having trouble with upgrades on some routes).

chart of perks by status

Instead, Stephen’s plan to go for Gold status with Aegean is superior, especially given his desire to get lounge access. Aegean allows you to earn Gold status by flying 16,000 miles in any 365-day period after earning Blue status. Blue status requires only 4,000 miles, but this threshold is lowered if you get the 1,000 bonus miles as a new member. That’s 19,000 miles total. And then once you get Gold status, you only need to credit one flight every three years to maintain it.

The biggest risk as Gary pointed out is that Aegean could change the terms at any point so that his status is harder to maintain (that is, they might require him to earn 20K miles every year). The second risk is that he’ll be crediting his flights to Aegean, where he might find them more difficult to redeem for awards. Always check out the earning and award charts for any airline before crediting flights to their program, as you might find big restrictions on redeeming them and also lower earning rates on deep discount fares. All US Airways flights credit at 100-150%, and the full Y fare on United Stephen has planned will credit at 150% (some discount UA fares earn 50%).

The final risk is that he won’t be able to earn Complimentary Premier Upgrades or EconomyPlus seating since these are benefits only for United’s own elites, although access to the elite check-in and things like an extra baggage allowance are still benefits of Star Gold status.

What about elite security lines? I’ve read mixed messages on that. It’s not explicitly stated on United’s site or the Star Alliance site, but I think you might have a good shot. Just flash your Aegean Star Gold card. This is also stated benefit of the United Club card (part of the Priority Access package) but not the United Explorer card.

Given that Stephen expects to be an infrequent traveler, not able to requalify for Silver, the inability to get better seats or upgrades is a non-issue in my opinion. He can always pay extra for the upgrade on important flights. And I expect the elite security lines to be a non-issue or an infrequent one at that.

Choosing a credit card for large purchases

So let’s now address Stephen’s second question. The United Club Visa Signature is a good choice for large purchases that don’t fit any other category AND when you don’t expect to meet certain spending thresholds that earn you bonus points or a companion pass from other cards. If you are already going to have lounge access as an Aegean Gold member, I don’t think it’s worth paying the $300-395 card fee just to get 1.5 points per dollar.

Instead, consider a card like the British Airways Visa Signature You’ll get 1.25 points on all purchases (2.5 points on and a single-use companion pass after you spend $30,000 in one calendar year (I admit I don’t know how large these purchases are that Stephen mentions). The companion pass is good for paid and award tickets in any cabin, so the points you earn from the card are stretched twice as far.

Stephen could also just apply for lots of cards and split his purchases across them to meet the various minimum spend requirements. Sometimes the better cards (like AmEx Gold, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Bold) have very high requirements of $3,000 to $10,000. But this is also a hassle for some people and isn’t feasible if you have only one or two very large purchases.

I later learned Stephen would prefer to keep things simple, and that he already has the SPG AmEx. I like the idea of using the SPG AmEx because I think 1 Starpoint is roughly equal to 1.5 United miles, and they’re especially useful for Cash+Points awards. Hotel awards also tend to have fewer restrictions than flights.

I have several current credit card offers listed on my blog if you check out “Credit Cards” in the top navigation menu. There’s a drop down menu that breaks them out into airlines, hotels, etc. Feel free to look these over and ask me if  you think any other cards look like good fits for your spending plans. (Note: Only cards offered by Capital One provide me any referral fees. Everything else is there entirely for your convenience.)

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  • Wandering Aramean

    I disagree with the analysis here, but probably for a different reason than you might expect. If he’s not going to be flying enough to get Silver next year anyways then there’s not really value in going for United Gold, Aegean Gold or even the CC-based lounge access.

    With the rather infrequent travel expected I’d put the points where they will do the most good for award travel rather than focusing on status; the benefits are really only useful if you’re actually flying. Splitting the points between A3 and UA lowers their value in both accounts.

    • Scottrick

      WA has a very good point. Splitting balances is one reason I haven’t tried this trick yet.

      But some infrequent travelers don’t believe their points are worth much anyway. If Stephen is an infrequent traveler and doesn’t have a lot of UA miles, adding to that collection might not matter as much as having lounge access for the few times he does fly, and that access will be easy to maintain for at least the next three years.

  • schmerj

    Thanks for this post! I’m in a somewhat similar position – I just reached UA Silver this summer, but already have the MP Club card (so lounge access isn’t an issue until next fall). Since I live in Europe, I need Gold to have a shot at an upgrade on international flights…which is mostly what I’m after.
    My dilemma: I have some travel coming up before the end of the year and am considering using some of my UA miles and 2for1 LifeMiles to book some C seats (1 flight on Qatar)! But this would definitely mean no Gold for me in 2012. Should I hang on to my miles a bit longer and go for gold through paid coach tickets, or burn a good portion of my miles for great seats and focus on gold next year (I travel quite a bit).
    Thanks for any advice in advance!

    • Scottrick

      I always say don’t bother with mileage runs to earn elite status unless you think you can retain it. This is sort of a mileage run question, since you’re debating whether you should pay for a flight you don’t have to (you have enough miles). But you might be able to redeem them more easily once you have Gold status and can get some fees waived, etc. It ultimately comes down to which you value more, the status and the accumulated miles or having extra cash you didn’t spend.

      • schmerj

        Hi, thanks so much for the advice, although it’s not a mileage run that I’m considering (sorry that my post wasn’t clear). I have two long-haul flights coming up (1 in October, the other in December). If I just bought normal tickets and collected miles, it would be enough for me to attain UA MP gold. But I’m honestly tempted to use a bunch of my UA miles to fly one of those trips on Qatar Airways in business – something we soon won’t be able to do with UA miles.

        So I guess my question is: What would I really gain from gold? My UA Club card takes care of lounge access, so it’s mostly about upgrades on international flights. Would my chances be that much better with gold status vs. silver with credit card?

        • Scottrick

          You can’t get free upgrades on international flights (except for a few limited routes) unless you have a Global Premier Upgrade certificate, which you don’t get as a Premier Gold.

          As a UA Club card holder you already get most of the benefits you would get as a Premier Gold, so I say don’t bother. And I know it isn’t a mileage run question, but it is still the same type of question: Do I spend money to get status, or do I use miles I already have? In this case, you’re not going to get much if you obtain status, but you will probably gain a lot by saving money and booking award flights.

  • Rasputin

    Scott, can you please elaborate on ‘upgrade on paid ticket’ and ‘upgrade on award ticket’ piece of your side by side comparison table?

    • Scottrick

      Elite passengers with United’s own program are eligible for complimentary domestic upgrades on United flights. These are processed in a hierarchy that depends on fare paid, elite status, and whether an upgrade certificate (available to top elites) has been redeemed. Generally award tickets do not get upgraded even if you are elite.

      People who hold a UA Explorer or UA Club credit card ARE eligible for upgrades on award tickets. These upgrades are only for passengers who are also elites, and they are processed after everyone else in the same elite level who has a paid ticket. So a 1K on an award ticket who holds one of these cards will get upgraded after all 1Ks on paid tickets but before Platinums on paid tickets. As you can imagine, there are a lot of groups jockeying for an upgrade before the Silver elites, and if you are a Silver with a credit card, the likelihood of getting an upgrade on your award ticket is even lower since you’re at the bottom of the list.

      • Ian Yen Lee

        Hi, I’ve been trying to understand this because I’ve called United regarding this award upgrade UA Explorer situation and they told me it’s not possible to upgrade on an Award ticket. Do I have to pay with my UA Explorer card or merely possess it? I am aiming for 1K this year and I was hoping its got some major benefits for award travel.

        • Scottrick

          Merely possess it. And it has to be your FF number on the reservation. For example, I have booked award flights for family, with my FF number on the itinerary (since the miles were from my account) and they have been upgraded. This is because I hold a UA Club Visa, even though I used a different card to pay the taxes and fees. I believe the same rule applies for the UA Explorer Visa, which is why I mentioned it here, but I am not as certain since I don’t haver personal experience. That might explain the agent’s disagreement.

          Another possibility is that he or she thought you were talking about paying for an upgrade or using additional miles to upgrade. This is not possible. It only adds you to the complimentary premier upgrade queue for qualifying domestic flights (e.g., not those on p.s. routes to/from JFK or to Hawaii from the East Coast).

  • Steve Kalman

    excellent post. I’m in a similar step-down situation. I retired earlier this year and United will step me down to silver in a few months.

    Based on comments elsewhere on BoardingArea, I asked Turkish Airlines for a status match, which they granted. That’s 2 years of gold and includes lounge access. I also opened an Aegean account and am crediting miles towards that.

    I’ll probably travel enough in 2 years to qualify for their lifetime gold (assuming they don’t change the rules) so I’ll get lounge, shorter lines and enough boarding priority to still have overhead space.

    I’ll buy E+, and Amex will pay for most of it ($200 incidentals airlines credits).

    Mileage will continue to come from credit card bonuses.

    All in all, the things I’ve learned here will make the 10-15K or so flying I’ll do now (vacation and visiting grandkids) far more tolerable.

    • Scottrick

      This is a great example of why it’s worth taking a moment to understand WHAT you want to get out of elite status. Sometimes you can achieve the same things without being a road warrior. Redeeming your miles from Aegean or Turkish accounts will take a little more effort, but it’s still do-able.

  • brad

    I haven’t seen this addressed and I think it might change this guy’s view – star gold lounge access is only on international flights. If he’s not planning to bounce around the world when he’s got the status, there’s zero value to putting miles into a3.

    • Scottrick

      Star Gold status obtained from an American carrier (US Airways or United Airlines) is useless for American lounges unless traveling on an international itinerary. You’re correct on that part. But Star Gold status obtained from a foreign carrier DOES qualify for lounge access in the US even if you’re an American traveling a fully domestic itinerary.

  • JulianPscheid

    Really good post. I was wondering as well which program’s status to go for, until I realized that hopefully all my travel moving forward is premium class award travel (yay CC churns), so status wouldn’t make a difference in the end. So my focus is to keep racking up miles in the program where I can redeem them easiest (united).