I first started flying United Airlines “religiously” in 2004 – and haven’t looked back since. There have been ups and downs in the relationship, to be sure, but after a decade of flying United remains my airline of choice even as I recently dropped from Premier 1K to Premier Gold status.
Why I Like United
If I had to rank my top five reasons for flying United, the list would look like this –
- Route Network
- LAX Hub
- Star Alliance
That list really has not changed over the last several years. One day I will share my more nostalgic reasons for flying United – and that is a big factor for me at least – but these are five fundamentals. I will briefly address each.
> Route Network
United has taken me to six continents over the last decade, including trips to SYD, NRT, LOS, FRA, and EZE but United took me back and forth between LAX and PHL for law school nearly every week during my second half of law school.
United took me back and forth between Germany and the U.S. more than three dozen times as I lived, worked, and fell in love there.
United served me well from IAD when I lived there, FRA when I lived there, PHL when I lived there, and has served me well at LAX my entire life. United is also the only carrier serving ZFV, Philadelphia’s 30th St Rail Station, through its Amtrak codeshare. Only a five-minute walk from my apartment and super-cheap fares made this an incredible selling point for me to choose United.
The route network alone cannot save an airline, but it is the most fundamental selling point.
> LAX Hub
LAX is a rag-tag airport that remains a lovely irritant. The newly refreshed Bradley International Terminal is a godsend, finally liberating that terminal from the Third Word, but the rest of the airport…is still in need of some TLC.
Nevertheless, I have grown to love it over the last decade and grown to appreciate many employees too. The hub is too big to recognize most frequent passengers by name – that was the beauty of flying out of BUR when mainline staff was still there – but there are many familiar faces who will at least say “nice to see you again” without any prompting from me or even a greeting from me. I appreciate that.
This list may be incomplete, but over the years I have flown to SAN, PSP, SJC, OAK, SFO, PDX, SEA, YVR, DEN, IAH, ORD, PHL, JFK, EWR, BOS, MCO, MSY, LAS, PHX, LHR, FRA, and SYD all non-stop from LAX and with the exception of FRA and PHL all of those flights are still available today.
The devaluation of MileagePlus was huge last year – it made flying on United much less attractive and as a revenue-based earning scheme comes into effect on 01 March 2015, it is no longer possible to “game the system” in the sense of taking mileage runs or even circuitous routings in order to earn valuable miles: 1K status cannot be obtained for $5K/year anymore. Then again, I have not taken a real mileage run in years: the trips to Germany and from coast to coast more than satisfied my 1K requirement.
But MileagePlus is about more than miles…it is about status too, and by strategically choosing flights and aircraft type, I rarely found myself in the back of the plane. That did not stop nail-biting-down-to-the-wire-sweaty-palm waits for upgrades (I do suffer from Upgrade Phobia) and United’s opaque system for selling upgrades cheaply when elites were waiting to be upgraded rubbed me the wrong way.
And even so, MileagePlus remained a valuable asset. Paired with Chase Ultimate Rewards, destinations all over the world opened up thanks to Star Alliance redemptions options and I have been fortunate to travel in the premium cabins of most Star Alliance members using my United miles. The lack of change, close-in booking or cancellation fees allowed me total flexibility in my travel plans (cf. Delta’s 72-hour no cancellation rule applying even to Diamond Medallion members).
> Star Alliance
As I mentioned above, Star Alliance is a central reason why I remained loyal to United and why I went out of my way to always fly Star Alliance. Though growing, my experience on oneworld and Skyteam carriers remains limited.
I lived in LA – United. Washington DC – United. Philadelphia – US Airways (still part of Star Alliance till 2013). Frankfurt – Lufthansa. Basel – Swiss. I’ve always lived near a Star Alliance hub and that made the loyalty choice easier.
With exceptional coverage in Europe, Africa, East Asia, and now Central Asia on Air India, Star Alliance remains the preeminent alliance. oneworld and SkyTeam have done well in substantially narrowing the gap, but Star remains king.
Long past the days of $250 vouchers for broken seats and burnt out reading lights, United remained very competitively priced. It did come to a point when I stopped checking the competition, especially as I neared MillionMile status, but for years (occasionally by booking US codeshares operated by UA) United routinely offered the best prices to get me where I needed to go with the easiest chance to upgrade along with the loosest routing rules.
One of my first solo trips on United was in early 2005 when I was flying SFO-STL. Instead of a booking a direct flight, for just a few dollars more I booked SFO-LAX-ORD-STL-PIT-LAX-SFO. Turned out my ORD-STL flight was cancelled and so I rebooked ORD-DEN-STL, missing my Dodgers v. Cardinals game at Busch Stadium but getting five extra hours in first class and a lot more miles.
Why Let 1K Status Drop to Premier Gold?
So you can see, I am rather satisfied with United, even with all the post-merger cutbacks and broken promises that I will not for a moment try to whitewash. Then why did I let my status drop?
When I finished law school, there was no longer a need to travel 5,000 miles a week between PHL and LAX. When I got married last June, there was no longer a reason to fly back and forth between the LAX and FRA to court my wife.
That doesn’t mean I am going to be one of the bloggers who never sets foot on a plane anymore – I am on a plane as I type this now – but it does mean that the race for top-tier status on United is now no longer practical for me. Until United decides to change the program, I have Premier Gold (and thereby Star Alliance Gold status) for life on United, even if I do not do any further flying. My brother has that too, as my designated family member. That is a nice perk.
Even though I will have to get used to flying behind the curtain again – as the upgrades will certainly not come so frequently – I will not have to worry about finding trips to justify 100K miles of flying each year, knowing that my wife and I now have settled in LAX and I work from home. It is a different pace of life, but a welcome change of pace.
I still do not plan to fly AA or DL…United will still be my choice…but it is a relief to have earned the 1MM prize and no longer have to carefully plan each flight to ensure I reach my year-end status goal.