I Flew Across The Country In First Class For Free; Here’s How I Did It
It’s been four years since I booked a transcontinental round trip flight for $96, but like the flight I took yesterday, it was free. Like being back in school, when I wrote that I wanted to show the math.
The pandemic slowed my travel but not my desire to, nor my efforts to continue to fly for as close to free as possible. Through a bit of savvy work, I was able to secure two sets of upgrades on an economy flight from Newark (EWR) To Seattle (SEA) flying United. Here’s How.
Flying for free is fairly easy, even if you don’t fly often, there’s a ton of credit card sign up bonuses that will work out to 1-3 free flights. Not that I’m bored with free flights, but I wanted to start boarding sooner and sitting in the big chair.
Just want the good stuff? I got you!
- Signed up for a Bilt account
- Linked my United MileagePlus Account
- 3 months free United Premier Silver
Caveat, this was a 24 hour promo, it’s not active anymore but similar deals might occur. Credit to Chris Hutchinson and All The Hacks newsletter for this hot tip. If you aren’t subscribed to his podcast and newsletter, do it!
I Don’t Churn
I’m not a churner of credit cards, or a person who runs after sign up bonus and then has a 1″ thick stack, a common method to achieve reward points and status. Getting status just by flying is also fairly difficult believe it or not.
What I managed to do was, through some good luck, get United Premier Silver status and then got upgraded from economy to economy plus, then first class. Here’s how this whole thing went down, starting with the cost of the economy ticket.
The Credit Card
Several years ago I bit the bullet and upgraded to the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. When I booked the flight in 2018 for $96 worth of points on my Sapphire Preferred card, it had a 1.25x multiplier, so $100 worth of points has a $125 of purchasing power. Sapphire Reserve has a 1.5x multiplier, so $100 worth of points has $150 of purchasing power.
There are upsides and downsides to this card, for most the annual fee of $550 is the biggest downside. Here’s the upsides I use to my advantage to offset that cost and justify the price:
- $300 worth of travel credit annually
- Priority Pass access to airport lounges
- $100 credit for Global Entry + TSA PreCheck
- Killer rental car insurance coverage
- No International transaction fees
- 50% bonus when points are used for travel
- 50% bonus when points are used to pay back Airnbnb stays
My round trip flight from EWR to SEA was $338, so it cost me about 22,500 points, or $225 worth of points to put a dollar on them.
Lets assume I’ve already used the $300 in travel credit and $100 for Global Entry renewal this year, subtracted from $550 that has my annual card expense costing me $150.
I saved 11,300 points, or $113 off the sticker price of my flight, bring the annual cost down to just $37.
Taking a step back to see the savings, it’s eye opening. Right now Chase is also offering an 80,000 point bonus when you meet the requirements, that’s worth $1,200 in flights. Factoring in the points earned to meet the minimum spend, I could take this trip four times for free, more if the fare dropped!
United Premier Status
In my years traveling, I’ve always signed up for airline loyalty programs but have never been faithful because I always chased the best price. This year, for some reason or another, United ended up being the better deal and when it wasn’t, the $20-30 extra knowing I would likely get Silver Premier status just by flying was worth it to me to splurge.
It’s not easy to get status, it requires not just a lot of flights, but a fairly big spend, too. Gone are the days where flying x-number of miles got status. Prior to this recent flight, here’s my status progress with a quick explanation.
PQF, or Premier Qualifying Fights. Any flight on United or United Express flight earns 1 PQF point. This is the most simple one to understand. United defines a flight as take off and landing, so a one way flight from JFK to SFO with a layover in ORD is actually 2 flights, and 2 PQF points. If it’s round trip, 4 PQF points will be earned. This year I’ve earned 18, the 17 shown here when I was taking screenshots waiting to board the flight in prep for this article and the flight itself.
PQP, or Premier Qualifying Points. This one is fickle, and there’s a lot of great articles out there that explain how this works, but if I’m being honest, it’s basically dollars for points. Different booking classes (more expensive flights) will accrue you more PQP points.
For 2022, 8 PQF and 3,000 PQP points must be accrued, or bypass the PQF requirement with 3,500 PQP points. As soon as this requirement is met, Silver Status will be earned for the remainder of the year and the following year.
For 2023, United has raised the requirements as we are post pandemic.
What’s Premiere Silver on United get you?
- Priority check-in
- Priority security screening (TSA PreCheck is usually faster though)
- Priority boarding (Group 2)
- 1 checked bag for free
- Complimentary access to Economy Plus on check-in
- Complimentary Premier access day of departure (First class!)
- A lot more, honestly, I should read more into it, you can here
Worth noting, PQP points can be earned when flying Star Alliance partners but there’s a catch. United still gives miles as rewards and flights can be booked with miles + the cost of taxes, usually around $6 on a one-way flight and $11 on a round trip flight. If you book a reward flight using United miles, you will not earn any PQF or PQP points. I suggest holding all of these until you’ve solidified status.
Interesting caveat though! When you book with Chase using Ultimate Reward points, the face value of the ticket purchased will count towards PQP and PQF points are earned for every flight! They do not give you PQP on the points value you redeemed! Huge benefit for me.
So it’s clear now, I didn’t get Silver Premier status by just flying a lot.
Bilt It And They Will Come
Sorry, horrible Dad joke. What did I Bilt you ask? OK seriously, I’m done. This is one of those things I just happened to catch out of the corner of my eye and within 3 minutes was set up, fingers crossed it would work.
Bilt is a Mastercard and rewards program rolled up into one with a few really cool features. Before we get to the features, this is the promo I got in on. Sign up for an account within the 48-hour window and link my United account, get 3-months of United Silver Premier benefits for free.
This promo is dead now (sorry!) but they do give you 100 reward points for linking United and a handful of other airlines and hotel accounts. This promo happened 2 weeks ago, more on this in a minute.
While I don’t think Bilt is a card or service I’ll use for the long term, for now, there is one really interesting feature it has if you are a renter. Bilt has teamed up with thousands of management companies that normally wouldn’t accept credit card payments for rent, to do just that. In the event your landlord isn’t one of these techno-geeks, not to worry! Bilt can actually cut a check and mail it to your landlord and you can still earn points.
If you are paying $2,000 per month in rent, you could get 24,000 points for free every year with a 1:1 transfer ratio to almost any airline or hotel. For most airlines this will work out to be a $240 ticket, and all your doing is paying your rent! Since I don’t rent, I can’t take advantage of it.
Nearly two weeks passed and it was now just 2 days before checking in for the flight and I still didn’t see my status change on United. Finally, about 18 hours before I had to check in, the status flipped to Silver Premier!
There is not a guarantee that Bilt will offer promos like this for United or other airlines again, but considering it’s a free account that I don’t have to use, I’ll keep it and cross my fingers.
Finally, First Class!
48-hours before a flight with United, the app will show an Upgrade list, I was 5th and there were exactly 5 empty first class seats. Now, Premier Silver is about the lowest level of status so there was still a chance someone with better status can bump me. Things weren’t looking to bad though as I was assigned a new Economy Plus seat at check-in, valued at $199 upgrade without status, and boarding group 2.
About 8 minutes after checking in I got a push notification from United, I had been upgraded!
I was now the proud occupant of First Class seat 3B! United does assign seats, but will do its best based off preferences in the app or on their site, I have my standby / upgrade preference set to aisle and I lucked out not getting the last row, those seats don’t always recline.
My boarding pass also upgraded, into Boarding Group 1, and all I had to do now was wait 23 hours to board the flight!
Not A Flight Review
I don’t do flight reviews (yet?) but, here’s some quick points on my flight. This was an older 737-900, commonly called a narrow-body jet. The seats recline but are not lay-flat beds, and to add further insult, there wasn’t even an infotainment system in the headrest of the seat in front of me.
United does offer free streaming of movies and TV shows on their app though, so I took advantage of that on an 11″ iPad Pro I’ve been traveling with.
The seats are plush, thick and probably been farted in a million times. That is to say, they’ve been broken in the way you want a seat broken in.
Breakfast was served and the flight attendants were amazing with beverages, in glass cups.
This was being offered as a $349 upgrade to anyone in economy. Was it worth that? Not to me.
Also another important fact. Silver Premier does not provide access to the United lounges in airports, even with a first class ticket.
Luck was on my side with this flight. Early morning Saturday flights are not popular with anyone so there was less status competition and truth be told, the plane wasn’t even at 50% capacity in Economy.
Upgrades Don’t Always Happen
I fly home in 2 days, and as I’m writing this I can see things won’t be in my favor for a first class ride home. There are 4 empty big chairs but I’m currently 17th on the upgrade list! Likely going to be economy plus, which will still be nice.
Additionally, I’ll be boarding group 2 from now on, so this should reduce the need to jockey for that ever so desirable overhead storage now that everyone does carry on. Even with a free checked bag, I likely won’t utilize that unless I’m going somewhere very cold and need to pack a lot of layers.
The whole process of signing up for Bilt and linking my United Mileage Plus account took about 3 minutes. Given I already had a trip planned, on United, this was a no brainer.
Being realistic about upgrades helps prevent disappointment. They aren’t always going to happen but, but with how the rest of 2022 looks for me, I should earn enough PQP points to maintain Silver Premier throughout 2023. With that, I will always look forward to utilizing boarding group 2 and hopefully sit in the big chair more often, maybe even a lay flat!
Total time invested to reap the reward: 3 minutes. Total time to write 1900+ words explaining how I did it and include some photos of Seattle’s Space Needle with Mount Rainier overlooking in the background: 2 hours.