Travel achievement unlocked: million-miler status on United Airlines

The past three months of travel have returned me to many of my usual winter destinations, which has been great all around. But one flight in particular also took me somewhere I’d never reached before: past one million miles on United Airlines, a line I crossed 75 miles before landing in Frankfurt on my way to Barcelona for MWC last month.

Boarding passes--one for the IAD-FRA flight that put me over 1,000,000 miles, followed by older ones from United and Continental, with foreign-currency coins placed to hide my frequent-flyer numbers--sit atop a route map from United's Hemispheres magazine on which Dulles and Newark are visible.

That’s not one million frequent-flyer miles earned: United, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, offers a separate set of benefits to long-term customers based on miles flown. And United is both stricter about welcoming passengers to them and more generous afterwards.

Where Delta simply totals expenditure-based elite-qualifying miles and American factors in flight distance on paid flights on its aircraft plus base miles earned on paid partner-airline flights, United counts just miles aboard its own planes with only two minor accounting exceptions (read after the jump if you want the details). Its reward for the first million miles is MileagePlus Gold status for life–still the best mid-tier status you can get on the big three carriers.

My journey of a million miles started with an ignominious single step: I misplaced a paper ticket and flew Continental Airlines a day late from Newark to Paris to visit my family in the spring of 1989. (I didn’t have a CO frequent-flyer account until my father opened one for me in January of that year; thanks, Dad.) After a couple of years of that transatlantic lifestyle, I barely left the ground for the next few years and flew Continental even less. Fortunately, that airline didn’t enforce a miles-expiration policy–allowing my wife and I have a wonderful ride to Italy and back for our honeymoon, upgraded with miles I’d earned a decade ago.

I didn’t open a frequent-flyer account on United itself until 2003. (My Washington Post colleague Keith Alexander’s business-travel coverage and my belated introduction to FlyerTalk were instrumental in making me realize the utility of focusing my business on the airline with a hub here.) E-mail statements from United are the only records I have left that long ago of my lifetime miles, and they show the number slowly ascending–from 52,056 in February of 2007 to 92,926 in February of 2009.

A blue United tag, with a 737's engine and the Pacific Ocean visible through a window in the background.

But then two things happened within about six months: United and Continental completed their merger in October of 2010, and then the Washington Post got rid of my column and my job. The first development combined lifetime miles mostly accumulated on flights out of Newark in the previous century with those I’d clocked more recently out of Dulles and National; the second freed me to travel, both on my own money and that of conference organizers.

By February of 2016, I was up to 581,205 miles; by February of 2018, two years of covering and speaking at events across oceans had me at 750,291. Along the way, I developed an exhaustive acquaintance with the seat maps of United’s fleet, increasingly detailed mental maps of its hubs, and an enduring fondness for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” even after hearing snippets of it thousands of times in United ads, safety videos and hold music.

At the start of 2020, I finally added a column to my status-tracking spreadsheet (if you don’t have one and you’ve read this far, you should fix that) to record my million-mile progress. And then that progress stopped.

Last year saw this journey resume in earnest, and I finally crossed the million-mile mark on Feb. 26. Some avgeeks have had their flight crews celebrate the occasion, but I didn’t want to make myself too much of the story.

Because my newfound lifetime status wasn’t just about me: United lets million milers designate a companion to share their benefits, meaning I could elevate my wife to my own status. Sending an early-morning e-mail from a lounge in Frankfurt to surprise her with that news felt as good as any upgrade clearing ever has.

Continue reading

Memo to frequent-traveler programs: Kids shouldn’t need their own e-mail addresses

Our almost-six-year-old is already in multiple marketing databases, and it’s all my fault: Once our daughter couldn’t depart with us for free, we started signing her up for frequent-travel programs. The price of miles and points are already baked into the tickets we buy for her, so we might as well take part–and besides, you’ll never hit million-miler status if you don’t start sometime.

JetBlue River Visual viewBut tending these accounts has been more work than I imagined, because some companies have a hard time grasping that children represent a special group of customers who can’t be expected to have their own e-mail addresses.

At first I thought I’d solved this problem with “sub-addressing”creating a new e-mail address on my existing Gmail account by adding a plus sign and additional text to my username. It’s an Internet standard, and I had no issues creating accounts for our daughter at United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, and Amtrak with a “plus-ed” address.

But when I tried logging into our daughter’s United and JetBlue accounts a week ago and was greeted with various errors, I saw that both airlines had stopped accepting sub-addressed e-mails.

The problem was worse at JetBlue, since your TrueBlue ID is your e-mail address. I had to call and provide our kid’s account number and the no-longer-accepted e-mail address; the rep told me she needed her own e-mail address but then accepted a version of my Gmail account with a dot in the middle of my username. It’s weird to have to go through such a workaround when JetBlue’s site has a separate workflow to create a child account.

At United, I could change her e-mail to a dotted version of my Gmail handle after logging in, since MileagePlus account numbers double as usernames. United’s Twitter account then told me I could have put in my own e-mail for her account from the start. I would not have guessed that, since UA’s account-opening UX assumes you’re a grownup–and the e-mails sent to our kid suggesting she jet off to the likes of Australia, Brazil and Israel don’t exactly speak to the under-10 demographic.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and American Airlines still seem to tolerate plus-ed e-mail addresses. (I can’t speak to Delta, as that airline’s network doesn’t work for us.) But after the last week, I won’t be surprised if our little one gets unexpectedly locked out of either account; I just hope I don’t have to spend too much time on the phone to fix that problem.