How to Get the Most Out of Your United MileagePlus Frequent-flier Miles

United Airlines airplane
Photo: Courtesy of United

Tom Stuker, the world’s most frequent flier, expects to hit 22 million miles with United’s MileagePlus program later this year. While no one has been able to match Stuker's mileage, if you’re a U.S.-based traveler, you should still consider United MileagePlus as one of your main loyalty programs.

Not only can you earn and redeem MileagePlus miles across United’s own vast global network, but you can also do so on flights with the airline's 30-plus partners. Here’s what else you need to know to make the most of the program.

United Airlines MileagePlus
Courtesy of United

United MileagePlus Program Overview

United launched its frequent-flier program back in 1981 and called it Mileage Plus. Following United’s merger with Continental in 2011, the two airlines adopted United’s loyalty program and conflated it to MileagePlus, which is still the name it goes by today. Since then, however, MileagePlus has undergone some dramatic changes, which are worth explaining.

How to Earn United MileagePlus Miles

Like most airlines, United has plenty of partnerships, both with other carriers and companies in general. That means there are a myriad of ways for consumers to earn MileagePlus miles beyond simply flying. Let’s start with flights, though.

The principal way many MileagePlus members earn miles is by taking flights with United as well as its Star Alliance and other airline partners. Until a few years ago, fliers would earn these miles based on the distance of a flight and the fare class in which they purchased a ticket. This is still the case when buying airline tickets on United’s partners, if your ticket is not purchased through United.

In 2015, however, United overhauled how members earn miles. Now, folks earn between five and 11 award miles (these are the miles you can redeem toward free tickets) per dollar spent on United airfare. How many miles per dollar you earn depends on your elite status level with the airline.

These earning rates apply to United flights purchased directly from the airline or through online travel agencies like Expedia, as well as tickets on partner airlines so long as they are booked through United and feature a United ticket number (starting with 016). So, if you’re looking to accrue United award miles on flights, it’s safest to purchase tickets directly from United.

If you can’t do that, though, don’t worry. You can still earn award miles on partner flights ticketed elsewhere. You’ll just need to check the partner earning page for the specific airline you plan to fly.

Because United MileagePlus earning is now based on how much you spend on airfare rather than the distance of your flight, it’s harder to rack up tens of thousands of award miles on inexpensive long-haul tickets. Instead, the cheapest and fastest way to amass miles quickly is to get a United co-branded credit card.

The most popular product is probably Chase’s United Explorer card. Its sign-up bonus typically ranges from 40,000 to 70,000 bonus miles for spending $2,000 to $8,000 in the first three months. Your mileage may vary, so be sure to double check the details of any offer for which you apply. The card earns two miles per dollar on United purchases, at restaurants, and on hotel stays. Its annual fee is $95 per year, though this is sometimes waived in the first year.

The more premium United Club card, whose annual fee is $450, comes with access to United Clubs at airports. Its sign-up bonus is usually around 50,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. The card earns two miles per dollar on United purchases, and one and a half miles per dollar on everything else.

Finally, in 2017, the airline introduced a new product with no annual fee called the United TravelBank card. Rather than airline miles, however, this card earns one and a half to two percent cash back, which can be redeemed for future United ticket purchases. So, if miles are your motivator, this might not be the best choice.

United also recently announced that its miles will no longer expire, meaning you do not have to fly frequently or use a co-branded credit card in order to keep your account active.

United Airlines lounge at airport
Courtesy of United

How to Redeem United MileagePlus Miles

The other part of the mileage equation is where the fun really begins: redeeming miles for free flights, among other options.

United is currently shifting to a dynamic pricing model for award tickets, meaning the number of miles you will need to redeem for a free flight will be more directly tied to the price of paid airfares. In other words, the more expensive the ticket costs in dollars, the more miles you can expect to redeem for it.

For now, though, the airline continues to publish an award chart for partner flights that you can use as a rough benchmark for how much awards should cost. The mileage prices are based on which regions you are visiting, such as the continental U.S., Europe, and southern South America (including Argentina and Chile).

To find out how many miles you will need for a specific redemption, click on the region you'll be starting in and then look up the mileage requirement in your destination region. For example, flights from the mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada to Australia and New Zealand are 40,000 miles each way in economy, while those to Europe are 30,000 miles each way.

While award charts are helpful, you will probably find it easiest to simply search for the specific award you would like on Enter your city pairs, select whether you want to travel one way or round-trip, and add your dates of travel. Be sure to click the box labeled “Book with miles” before searching.

This should pull up results on your dates as well as display prices for the surrounding days in a tab at the top. You can also look at award prices by calendar month, which makes it easier to see which dates have the lowest-priced awards.

In general, saver-level awards in business or first class on United and its partners will generally yield the best value for your miles. United’s site is good about pulling in award inventory for flights on its Star Alliance partners, such as Air Canada and Lufthansa, as well as non-alliance partners like Aer Lingus, so it can be your one-stop shop for award searches.

Aside from award tickets, United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for upgrades, United Club membership, merchandise, gift cards, magazine subscriptions, events and experiences, vacation packages, cruises on over 24 lines, and even charitable donations, among many other options. However, non-travel redemptions tend to offer a poor value, so avoid them, if possible.

United Airlines Partners

United MileagePlus has many partnerships, both with other airlines as well as through merchant and dining networks where members can earn and/or redeem miles.

United is a member of Star Alliance, and it has over 30 alliance and non-alliance airline partners, including:

  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Airlines
  • TAP Air Portugal
  • Thai Airways
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines
  • Boutique Air
  • Cape Air
  • Edelweiss Air
  • Eurowings
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Olympic Air
  • Silver Airways
  • Juneyao Air

Check the partner page of the specific carrier you plan to fly to verify the mileage earning rates on it. For instance, most tickets on Air Canada earn between 25 and 200 percent of mileage flown, while Singapore Airlines tickets earn between zero and 200 percent of mileage flown. In other words, which carrier and what fare class you purchase can really make a difference.

Apart from other airlines, MileagePlus members can earn bonus miles on travel reservations booked through United Vacations, and earn or redeem on cruises booked through United Cruises. They can also enjoy various discounts and mileage bonuses on car rentals booked through partners like Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty. Members can also earn on stays booked with various hotel partners.

United fields an online retail portal called MileagePlus Shopping through which members can earn thousands of bonus miles. To take advantage of it, you need to log into MileagePlus Shopping using your United account credentials. From there, browse the various merchants that are offering bonus miles per dollar spent. This includes retailers like Nike, Saks Fifth Avenue, Walmart, J. Crew, and Macy’s, among hundreds of others. Click on the one you want, and you'll be redirected to their homepage, where you can shop as usual. Your purchases should rack up the bonus miles automatically.

Through MileagePlus Dining, members can register their account along with a credit card and earn between three and five miles per dollar at thousands of participating restaurants.

Finally, United MileagePlus is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. If you earn points with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Business Preferred, you can convert your points to United miles instantly at a ratio of one to one. That is a handy way to top up your account. You can also transfer points in from your Marriott Bonvoy account, but this is not usually a great value.

United MileagePlus Benefits and Elite Status

United customers who spend a lot on airfare each year can earn elite, or Premier, status, which provides benefits like upgrades, free checked bags, priority boarding, and more. The airline completely changed how status is earned for 2020, but here are the basics.

The Premier program is split into four tiers of elite status. In order to reach any of them, you must hit certain flight and spending thresholds within a calendar year. If you do, you can enjoy the benefits for the remainder of the year in which you earn status, as well as through the following year until the elite program resets every Feb. 1.

For every flight segment, which means one takeoff and landing, MileagePlus members will earn one Premier-qualifying Flight (PQF) credit. Most paid fares, except for basic economy, will earn one PQF per segment flown, regardless of the cabin class.

Fliers also earn one Premier-qualifying Point (PQP) for every U.S. dollar spent on airfare (not including taxes and fees). This earning rate does not vary based on the fare class, so business-class tickets will not net you more PQPs per dollar than a basic economy fare. Fliers earn PQPs for other purchases as well, like preferred seating assignment fees and paid upgrades.

Premier Silver requires earning either 12 PQFs and 4,000 PQPs, or 5,000 PQPs only. Benefits at this level include earning seven award miles per dollar instead of five on airfare, complimentary upgrades and complimentary Economy Plus at check-in, access to preferred seating assignments at booking, priority boarding, and a free checked bag. Fees for things like changing or canceling award bookings are reduced.

In addition to those benefits, Premier Gold members earn eight miles per dollar, can select Economy Plus seats at the time of booking, and have a shot at upgrading up to 48 hours before their flight. They also enjoy discounted or waived same-day change fees as well as two free checked bags. To reach this level, you need to rack up 24 PQFs and 8,000 PQPs, or just 10,000 PQPs.

The next level, Premier Platinum, is reached at 36 PQFs and 12,000 PQPs, or 15,000 PQPs alone. These elites have a better chance at upgrades up to 72 hours out, up to three free checked bags, and earn nine miles per dollar. They also receive PlusPoints that can be redeemed for confirmed upgrades. Members at this level who link their frequent-flier number to their Marriott Bonvoy account receive automatic Gold elite status with that program, too.

United’s top-tier status is Premier 1K. To reach it, you must earn 54 PQFs and 18,000 PQPs, or 24,000 PQPs alone. That equates to spending $18,000 to $24,000 on airfare each year. At this level, you receive even more PlusPoints, which can be redeemed for flying up front on longer international routes. Most ticketing and change fees are waived altogether, and members earn 11 miles per dollar spent on tickets. There is a higher level called Global Services, but this is reserved for high-spending frequent fliers and does not have published qualification requirements.

Pros and Cons of United MileagePlus

United MileagePlus has plenty of compelling features. The carrier’s own extensive route network, its many airline and non-airline partners, and its popular credit cards all make it easy to rack up award miles quickly. Frequent fliers who qualify for elite status can also look forward to benefits like priority services at the airport, seat upgrades, and earning bonuses. The recent removal of mileage expiration is another point in its favor.

On the other hand, MileagePlus has consistently and dramatically raised its award prices in recent years, and fliers can only expect them to get even more expensive if and when the airline switches to a dynamic pricing model. Calculating mileage earning and Premier qualification based on partner flight activity can also be tricky for neophytes and road warriors alike.

How to Sign Up for United MileagePlus

Enrolling in United MileagePlus is fast and easy. All you need is an email address and a few basic details in order to start participating and earning.

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