United Airlines offers a product called “Award Accelerator” that most of you have probably come across. This is that little advertisement below your reservation details online, or when you check-in at a kiosk, that asks if you want to pay $120 or $300 or more for some extra miles. Those miles are redeemable miles, the sort that you would use for purchasing an award ticket.
And again, most but perhaps not all of you know that a variation of this product can be used to acquire elite status a bit faster. You can elect to pay more for the “Premier Accelerator” product that earns elite qualifying miles. These don’t contribute toward an award ticket but do help you earn elite status.
Redeemable miles are relatively easy to acquire through travel, compensation, elite bonuses, fare bonuses, promotions, shopping portals and credit cards. It’s the elite miles that are difficult. Though a few promotions and fare bonuses exist, for the most part you must sit in a plane to earn elite status. This is one reason that people like me do mileage runs. You can earn redeemable miles through so many other ways, but this is the easiest way to earn status.
Premier Accelerator: For those who value time over money
For those without the time to do a mileage run, Premier Accelerator might be a solution. But only if you have the money. In order to become eligible for Premier Accelerator, you must have both elite status AND first pay for Award Accelerator. Award Accelerator miles are priced on a sliding scale, but they max out at 3 cents per mile. Premier Accelerator miles (at the time I write this) are 11 cents per mile. That means a combined cost of 14 cents per mile.
When I do a mileage run, I earn two redeemable miles (thanks to existing elite status) and one elite qualifying mile for each mile that I travel. If I pay 4 cents per mile flown for that ticket, then that would be equivalent to paying 1 cent per redeemable mile and 2 cents per elite qualifying mile. Someone with no status starting from scratch would be paying 2 cents each for a redeemable and an elite qualifying mile. I’m pulling these numbers out of the air, but the point is they add up to the 4 cents I pay and they’re much less than the Accelerator programs.
In 2011, I was able to purchase the Premier Accelerator program at a cost of only 7 cents per mile, although the cost crept up over the course of the year. To the best of my knowledge, the Premier Accelerator program has remained fairly expensive throughout 2012, but there is a risk that it could climb in November and December. The Award Accelerator portion has remained flat. Their value doesn’t really change with time, but elite qualifying miles do become more valuable to consumers nearing the end of their qualification period each year. United knows this. (If anything, the price of Premier Accelerator has come down since it was still around 22 CPM a good way into the start of 2012.)
What factors affect the price of miles?
To get some insight into how these prices are set, I took a look at all my existing reservations with United through the end of the year. One thing I noticed is that the cost of a ticket had nothing to do with it. The one exception might be elite status, or perhaps the distinction between award tickets and paid tickets. My mother is booked on an award flight from Medford, is not elite, and was only offered 500 redeemable miles for $15. It’s no more expensive on a cost-per-mile basis, but the number of miles was the fewest.
Instead, the deciding factor is the distance flown. For most flights of a few thousand miles, mostly short- to mid-hauls, you can buy the Award Accelerator for 3 CPM. This dropped to 2.8 CPM for somewhat longer trips but quickly fell further to 2.5 CPM for the longest itineraries. In all cases, Premier Accelerator was 11 CPM.
What if I don’t want to book another flight?
You could add on the Accelerator products to an existing itinerary. But not everyone has that option.
For the truly dedicated, who must requalify for elite status but don’t want to set foot on a plane and have already flown all they want to this year, you can still use Premier Accelerator to buy elite qualifying miles. There’s a neat trick that takes advantage of United’s 24-hour cancellation policy. Simply book a flight, purchase the Award Accelerator and Premier Accelerator products, wait for the miles to post (it’s nearly always instant), and then cancel your flight within 24 hours.
In the past, the number of miles offered through the Accelerator programs was more closely tied to the distance flown. If you were only 1,052 miles shy, you would try to book a flight that was as close as possible to that number. For example, say you found a flight for 1,052 miles exactly. Then you could buy 1,052 redeemable miles, add on the 1,052 elite qualifying miles, and cancel your ticket. I did this myself last year for about 500 miles.
Now it seems United wants to sell larger blocks of miles; it looks like multiples of 4,000. This is not good news, but at least you can plan for that. If you still have travel coming up, plan your routings or your destinations accordingly. Instead of aiming for 100,000 miles, aim for 96,000 or 88,000. Get the picture? That way you won’t pay for more miles than you need.
Premier Accelerator can be a useful product, but it’s not nearly as good as it once was. Did United decide it was giving miles away too cheaply? I have no idea. I actually think the sliding scale, with prices rising throughout the year, made more sense than keeping them unreasonably high throughout. But for those who waited until the last minute, I guess 11 CPM is better than 20.
I’ve had a few people ask me if buying miles this way makes sense. As with all mileage runs and other strategies to earn elite status, only you can determine if the benefits of status are worth the cost. The cost is quite clear. Valuing the benefits is a personal decision based on what you would actually use and how much YOU would be willing to pay for them, not what the airline charges.
I’ll be writing a few other posts the rest of this week with other alternatives for earning elite qualifying miles. However, this one has the most potential for those who still need a significant number. Other strategies are cheaper but do have significant limits.