Hacking My Way to Elite Airport Privileges

Last year, I lost my elite status with United because I failed to read the fine print. I flew over 50,000 miles on Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, SAS, and Thai Airways, but failed to take 4 paid flights on United equipment. Damn. My loss. But I won’t let that stop me from getting back at least some of my privileges.

While elite status can offer a wealth of benefits, the two that I missed most were priority boarding and priority security. Getting through security at my home airport of Chicago’s O’Hare can be a nightmare on a Monday morning*** and since fees were introduced for checking in luggage, everyone and their mother has switched to carry ons.

*** TIP: If you’re traveling on United, Terminal 1 will typically have the longer security line. Go through security in Terminal 2 instead and use the walkway to Terminal 1 to get to your gate. ***

So when I started flying domestically again, I began looking for ways to game the system.

The easy way to get back my elite status would be to complete a challenge. Several airlines offer programs that will allow you to ‘fast-track’ to elite status. Some may require you to have status in another airline in which they will do a status match; others will simply charge a fee and then require a specified number of trips / miles / segments within a shortened time period to gain status. Unfortunately for me, United only allows this every 5 years and I used that up a few years ago when I transferred status from US Airways. So that’s out.

If you’re considering a challenge, check out The Points Guy’s guide for 2013.

But then I found out about the United MileagePlus Explorer Card. One of the benefits of the card is priority boarding, putting me in boarding group 2. Plenty of time to make sure I can get my carry on in an overhead bin without having to put it 10 rows behind where I’m sitting. So I signed up and here I am with priority boarding without the status to buy me into it. Sweet.

But what about getting through security? Well since it launched in 2011, the TSA pre-check program is slowly rolling out through major airports and hit O’Hare in the summer of 2012. Unfortunately, for a lowly non-elite traveler like me you’re not eligible. During the initial testing periods, the program required airlines to sponsor passengers and airlines are only doing that for its elite travelers. But there is good news. Being a member of one the CBP’s trusted traveler programs automatically makes you eligible for pre-check as well.

So that’s what I did. I went with Global Entry although there are other trusted traveler programs that may make more sense for you. It costs you a $100 for a 5-year membership, you fill out an application online, and go to an interview with an agent where they will issue a final approval. It’s surprisingly simple and took me no more than 30 minutes to fill out the application online. After that, I ended up waiting about 3 weeks for an initial approval and received an email when that occurred. I immediately went to schedule an interview and got a time slot for the next day (a Sunday even!). For the interview I was expecting some questions like “Why do you want global entry?” or “Why did you travel to this location? But no… it was far easier. The only question I was asked was “So you live on Damen? Is that in Bucktown?”. Seriously, that simple.

So just like that, by the time I drove home my online account was updated with my known traveler ID which I promptly put into my existing reservations with United and onto my profile. Once the number was in my profile, another link opened up allowing me to enroll in TSA precheck. Awesome. The deed is done.

… and let me tell you – PRECHECK IS AWESOME. Leave your shoes on, keep your toiletries in your bag, don’t take out your laptop. Just empty your pockets and walk through the scanner. And just like that sausage, egg, and cheese I scarfed down Monday morning – I’m lovin’ it.

Essential Info for the MileagePlus Explorer Card:

  • $95 annual fee after the first year
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • First checked bag is free
  • 2 miles per dollar spent on United and 1 mile for all other purchases
  • Current sign up bonus of 30,000 points after $1,000 in spending in the first 3 months.

Essential Info for Global Entry:

  • $100 one-time fee
  • Valid for 5 years
  • No minimum flight requirements to qualify
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