The Complete Guide to the United MileagePlus Program

The Complete Guide to the United MileagePlus Program
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United MileagePlus miles are some of the most valuable in the travel world.  Not only is United a carrier with a large, global route map, it has some great partners in Star Alliance to fill in its service gaps.  Recently, we saw the Chase MileagePlus Explorer Card update its bonus offer to 50,000 miles.  It's a good offer, on par with their highest offers for the card in the past, and we thought now would be as good a time as ever to outline the MileagePlus program, and its sweet spots to use those miles.

The Basics

The United MileagePlus program is a good program to earn points and miles in for several reasons.  One, as mentioned, United and its partners go a lot of places.  Two, United doesn't charge high fees or fuel surcharges for award travel, keeping your cash in-pocket.  Flying on British Airways using British Airways Avios (a oneworld partner) can be just as expensive as a roundtrip sometimes!

United Airlines is a part of Star Alliance, and as such has a number of in-network partners.  All of these airlines can be booked with award tickets using United miles.  They include:

  • Adria
  • Aegean
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Austrian
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian
  • Eva Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • Scandinavian Airlines
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai
  • Turkish Airlines
  • United

Furthermore, United has additional partners that you can use your miles on.  They include:

  • Air Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Cape Air
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Island Air
  • Jet Airways
  • Silver Airways

So, to be clear, you can use your United MileagePlus miles on any of the airlines mentioned above.  That's a lot of destinations (As of March 2017, Star Alliance alone serves 1,300 airports in 190 countries).

Earning Status

Like American and Delta, potential United elite members will have to earn it based on two factors: flying a certain number of miles or segments, AND spending a number of "premier qualifying dollars" for U.S. residents. If you have a foreign address, I recommend using that one, as the spending requirement doesn't apply to you.

Screen-shot-2014-06-09-at-8.51.08-PM

There is a backdoor way to Premier Silver status, though: Marriott offers its top-tier Platinum members free Premier Silver status, without having to fly United once! You can earn Marriott Platinum with 75 nights, or by status-matching your SPG Platinum status (earned with 25 stays or 50 nights). I enjoy Premier Silver status because of this benefit, and received a free upgrade on my last United flight from Chicago to Phoenix (a $150 upgrade).

Premier Silver Benefits

You'll receive some great benefits with Premier Silver. First, you'll be able to access open Economy Plus seating at check-in, and have one companion join you complimentary. You'll also be eligible for upgrades for you and your companion up to a day before departure. Plus, you'll be able to upgrade Y- and B-class full-fare economy tickets. Each ticket will earn a minimum of 500 miles towards elite status, and 7x the fare for redeemable miles. You'll receive priority check-in, screening, boarding, baggage handling, and your own priority desk line, as well as a free checked bag.

Premier Gold Benefits

In addition to the above, you'll receive free economy plus at booking with Premier Gold status, for you and a companion. Plus, you'll receive upgrades up to 48 hours from departure. You'll earn 8x the fare in redeemable miles, and have lounge access at Star Alliance lounges internationally. You'll receive 2 bags at check-in, and have discounted or waived same-day flight change fees.

Premier Platinum Benefits

In addition to the Premier Gold benefits, you'll receive Economy Plus benefits for up to 8 companions. Upgrades could clear up to 72 hours from your flights, and have regional premier upgrades eligibility. Flights will earn you 9x the fare for redeemable miles. You'll be able to check 3 bags, and have discounted or waived phone service charges and discounted United Club membership. There's also a 10% discount in in-flight duty free purchases. There's also better award availability for premium cabins.

Premier 1K Benefits

Finally, there's Premier 1K. You'll receive the above benefits, plus upgrades clearing up to 96 hours ahead of schedule. You'll get instant upgrades on M-class tickets, and Global Premier Upgrades eligibility. Tickets earn 11x the fare for redeemable miles, and you'll have a dedicated 1K phone service line.

Getting the Most United Miles Possible

Earning United miles is not as easy as it once was- like many US-based airlines, they've moved to a revenue-based earning system. Once upon a time, you earned miles based on butt-in-seat miles flown, plus a multiplier for elite status and class of travel. Now, you'll earn based on fare paid on United flights, plus a multiplier depending on what status level you are. To make things more confusing, if you decide to fly a Star Alliance partner, and credit miles back to your United account, you'll still earn miles based on flight distance and class of service.

United Mileage Earning Chart on United-operated Flights

Status Level
Earning per Dollar:
Member
5 Miles
Premier Silver
7 Miles
Premier Gold
8 Miles
Premier Platinum
9 Miles
Premier 1K
11 Miles

Star Alliance Partners:

Flight Mileage + Fare Class Bonus

 

  • Adria earns 50% for discount economy
  • Asiana earns 70% for discount economy
  • Air China earns 0% – 50% for discount economy
  • Air Canada earns 25% for discount economy within North America
  • Avianca earns 50% for discount economy
  • Croatia Airlines earns 50% for discount economy
  • Egypt Air earns 25% – 50% for discount economy
  • Eva Air earns 50% – 75% for discount economy
  • Lot earns 25% for discount economy and 50% for economy
  • Lufthansa earns 0% for discount economy within Europe, and 100% everywhere else
  • Shenzhen earns 0% – 50% for discount economy
  • South African earns 50% for discount economy

 

Finally, speciality tickets, like unpublished fares, bulk fares, group tour fares, and opaque tickets where you wouldn't know the fare you paid (like packages), earn miles based on fare class and flight distance. This is interesting, because depending on the fare class and distance flown, you make earn thousands of more miles than you otherwise would have paying for the ticket directly from United.

Specialty Fares Award Chart for United

united

Chase's MileagePlus Explorer card recently updated their sign up offer.  You'll receive 50,000 miles for spending $2,000 in the first 3 months of card membership.  In addition, you'll receive 5,000 more miles for signing up an additional cardholder.  The benefit of receiving 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 in a year is there as well.  You'll earn 2 United miles per dollar on all United purchases, and 1 mile on everything else. You'll still receive one free bag when flying United, and get priority boarding.  There are no foreign transaction fees, and the card waives its $95 annual fee in the first year.

But, many don't know there are other credit cards out there that can net you some MileagePlus miles.  For one, there is a business version of the United MileagePlus Explorer card.  You can sign up your business using its EID, or use your personal social security number for sole proprietorships. There's also the United MileagePlus Club and Business cards that get include United Club memberships that earn miles for purchases.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card currently has a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points for spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of account opening, and earns 2 points per dollar on all travel and dining purchases (1 point per dollar on everything else). These points can be transferred at a 1:1 ratio into your MileagePlus account for United miles.  Same goes for the Chase Ink Business (80,000 points) and Chase Sapphire Reserve card (50,000 points).

If you already have a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points (like the ones just mentioned), you have even more options with some of Chase's cash-back cards.  You can transfer your cash back earned with the Chase Freedom card (15,000 points sign-up bonus), Freedom Unlimited Card (15,000 points sign-up bonus) or Ink Cash card (30,000 points sign up bonus) into your Ultimate Rewards account.

The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express can transfer its sign-up bonus of 25,000 miles into United accounts, but at a 2:1 ratio, which I wouldn't recommend based on other valuable transfer options with the SPG program.

Booking Awards

For United, you'll want to pay attention to two separate award charts.  On all United flights, you'll use the United award chart below.  These points values are for one-way travel.  If you want to travel roundtrip, double the mileage.

unitechart

You may notice two types of awards- 'Saver' and 'Standard.'  Saver awards are for off-peak travel, and you can often find availability for these awards when you're booking awards (though they are capacity controlled).  Sometimes, though, you will only find standard awards (and you'll want to avoid that if you can, since it is often double the number of points).

For Star Alliance and partner awards, you'll use this chart:

staralliance

Keep in mind that these numbers are for one-way travel.  If you're traveling roundtrip, double the mileage.  Notice that there are no saver awards with this chart, just one price for each region-to-region pair!

Tips and Tricks of the Award Chart

You'll notice in the United Airlines chart above, some saver awards for the domestic travel square lists "10,000" as an award price.  If you are able to find a city-to-city pair within 700 miles with saver availability, this will be priced at 10,000 miles.  While this isn't as good as a low-fare award on Southwest or British Airways' distance-based award chart (nor American's 7,500 mile saver level), if you're stuck with United miles, this is a great move.

Find yourself in Maui, and you want to island hop to Oahu?  United's chart allows you to do that cheaply, for 6,000 miles each way!

United used to be more flexible with routings and stopovers on award travel. Now, they have what they call an "Excursionist Perk":

The Excursionist Perk is a free one-way award within select multi-city itineraries. Members who book an itinerary with three or more one-way awards will be eligible to receive one of those one-way awards for free, if it meets all of these conditions:

  • The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

This was mainly put in place to stop "power users" like myself from using the award stopover rules of the past to stopover in Europe on the way to Asia from the US. For the regular user, there won't be many changes to your day-to-day award booking.

Finding Awards

When you want to book awards, I would first try United.com.  If you find saver awards on your dates of travel and preferred city pairs, then book it.  There are no booking fees for booking online (though $25 is assessed for over-the-phone transactions).

However, for our more adventurous users out there, you can use ANA's website to search for Star Alliance availability.  It's a little tricky, so hang with me.

Why would you want to go look at a website other than United for awards?  Well, it's because United.com doesn't always show all of the Star Alliance partners that have award space.  It's frustrating (trust me).  Flights on ANA, LOT, Singapore, South African, and Shenzhen airlines often don't appear.  If you're traveling somewhere where these airlines fly, and don't see availability on United.com, ANA's website may be worth a look.

Still with me?  Great.  Let's get started.  First, sign up for an ANA mileage account here.  Login once you have an account, and go to this link.  ANA requires you to have miles in your account to search for partner award availability, so that option will be greyed out.  Strangely, there is a glitch in their website, and it's easy to get around.  Instead, make a search for an international flight.  When the results come up, a button at the bottom that reads 'Use Star Alliance Member Airlines' will now be in blue.  There, you can continue to search to your heart's content for as many Star Alliance award flights as you'd like.  Note the flights you like, with all the necessary information (like dates, flight number, airline, and cities involved).

When you've found the flights you'd like, call United at 1-800-UNITED-1 to actually book the awards.  You'll be assessed a $25 fee, but if you can sweet talk the phone agent, you might escape a fee.  The answer's no if you don't ask!