NBC News reported, and Just another Points Traveler shared, that United is once again selling its Premier Access package of frequent flyer benefits to non-elite passengers, starting at the low price of $9 per segment. This isn’t quite old or new — United has sold individual benefits a la carte or as annual subscriptions in the past — but this is a relaunch of sorts since these benefit packages mostly disappeared during the integration of the pre-merger United and Continental passenger service systems.
Some of the perks of Premier Access are worthwhile, but I don’t think buying it from United Airlines on a flight-by-flight basis is the right move for most passengers.
- Premier Access check-in: designated airport check-in lines
- Premier Access security lane: exclusive security lanes
- Premier Access priority boarding: among the first customers to board
- Premier Access priority baggage handling: among the first bags to be delivered
It’s fortunate (maybe?) that these are the same benefits given to elite members, so there will be less opportunity for confusion. Sometimes it seems the credit card holders get everything but one key benefit, causing disappointment. You already get Premier Access for free if you are an elite with United Airlines, Copa Airlines, or if you are a Star Alliance Gold or Silver member. MileagePlus Club and Presidential Plus cardholders also get free Premier Access (these are two credit cards that include access to the United Club with ~$400 annual fee). Finally, anyone seated in a premium cabin gets Premier Access.
So why shouldn’t you buy Premier Access if you don’t already qualify?
Ignore Priority Baggage Handling
First, ignore completely the Premier Access baggage benefit. I’m a Premier 1K, the highest elite status you can earn short of invitation-only Global Services, and I can count on one hand the number of times my bag came out in the first load on the conveyer belt. I wait 10-20 minutes just like everyone else.
$95 Credit Card Beats $9/Segment
Let’s assume you should be copying the behavior of most “successful” frequent flyers. Most flights, I rely on my carryon. I think you should just get United’s MileagePlus Explorer credit card. Pay the $95 annual fee and you can board in Group 2, along with all the other Premier Silver and Premier Gold members. The benefits of the card don’t make sense for someone who already has elite status, but I’m assuming you don’t. If you have four segments in a year (one round-trip with connections) that’s a minimum of $36 saved right there. It becomes $72 if you have one companion, since any number of companions can always board with you.
I still get laughed at when I tell friends that I sometimes check a bag. I don’t do it all the time, but unfortunately I don’t think United will let me put a case of wine in the overhead bin. If you get the Explorer credit card, you also save $50 on checked baggage fees for your round-trip flight, $100 if flying with a companion. Just remember that you have to buy your ticket with the card. Buying Premier Access a la carte doesn’t cover your bag fees, so this is an improvement.
Your shiny new hunk of plastic will get you faster service at check-in, too, when you need to drop off that bag. But most of the time I hope you’ll be carrying on and able to check-in at a kiosk or on your phone. In my experience, there really isn’t much value to priority check-in, and for complicated matters like buying at ticket they still send me off to see someone else.
$10/Year Gets Better Security Screening
Why pay $9 per segment when for only $10 per year you could get even better security screening?
Global Entry costs $100 and lasts five years, giving you expedited service when re-entering the country through customs and immigration. It also gives you faster, less invasive security screening via PreCheck. You can keep your shoes on and your liquids in your bag, among other things.
But not everyone knows that you can also save money by paying just $50 for NEXUS or SENTRI, programs that are exclusive to security agreements with Canada and Mexico, respectively. Anyone is eligible, and you get the same benefits as Global Entry for five years. The only catch is you need to apply at one of the Customs and Border Patrol stations along the border, which doesn’t work so well if you live in the middle of the country. One option is to schedule your interview for when you’re passing through an eligible airport such as Seattle-Tacoma.
Update: Here are links to the participating enrollment centers for NEXUS and SENTRI.