How to get maximum value from the United MileagePlus program
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
Despite its numerous devaluations, we’ll help you get some great redemptions from the MileagePlus program. The carrier’s Star Alliance membership allows you to earn and redeem miles on partner airlines.
United MileagePlus is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Bilt Rewards, so travelers with cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Bilt Mastercard® (see rates and fees) can easily boost their MileagePlus balances through various travel and dining purchases. That said, we generally don’t recommend transferring Chase and Bilt points to United since we value United miles at just 1.1 cents each.
However, earning United miles is just one part of the puzzle. Knowing which redemptions to target can ensure you get a solid value from your United credit card sign-up bonus.
United MileagePlus overview
The carrier has hubs at airports in seven cities across the U.S. — Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey; Washington’s Dulles International Airport (IAD); Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago; Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH); Denver International Airport (DEN); Los Angeles International Airport (LAX); and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) — and offers service to hundreds of destinations around the world. However, as a Star Alliance member, you can earn and redeem MileagePlus miles on carriers like Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.
How to earn United miles
The simplest way for most people to earn United miles will be by flying with the carrier or one of its Star Alliance partners and crediting the flights to your MileagePlus account.
When you book a flight through United, you’ll typically earn miles based on the ticket’s base fare, with bonuses for elite members. However, flights booked directly with partner airlines and credited to your United MileagePlus account will earn miles based on the distance flown and your booked fare class. You can view this page on United’s website for full details.
As mentioned above, United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Bilt Rewards. That means you can transfer points to your United MileagePlus account — a process that should be completed within minutes.
Marriott Bonvoy points transfer to United at a 3:1 ratio thanks to United and Marriott’s RewardsPlus partnership. You’ll get 10,000 bonus miles for every 60,000 points transferred to United MileagePlus. Transfers from Marriott Bonvoy to United MileagePlus take around three days.
If you’re starting from scratch or looking to save up for an expensive award, consider signing up for a United credit card. You’ll have your choice among entry-level and premium cards, as well as personal and business options:
- United Infinite Card: 80,000 bonus miles and 1,000 Premier qualifying points (PQP) after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
- United Quest Card: Earn 70,000 bonus miles + 500 Premier qualifying points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
- United Explorer Card: Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
- United Gateway Card: Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
- United Business Card: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
United’s cobranded cards are issued by Chase, meaning they’re subject to the 5/24 rule for new applicants.
Benefits of United Premier status
You can qualify for United elite status by earning Premier qualifying points (PQPs) and Premier qualifying flights (PQFs). To qualify for any status, you must fly at least four United and/or United Express segments annually. Earlier this year, United deposited extra PQPs into Premier members’ accounts. By spending on your United cobranded credit card, you can also earn bonus PQPs.
There are four published tiers of United Premier elite status that offer bonus miles and other perks. All United elites get placed on the list for complimentary premier upgrades, with higher priority for upper-tier elites. United elites also get access to complimentary Economy Plus seating, though depending on your tier, that might be available only at check-in or at the time of booking.
Dynamic pricing for all flights
In 2019, United formally switched to dynamic award pricing for its own flights. In April 2020, the carrier pulled its Star Alliance partner award chart without advanced notice and increased prices on most routes by 10%.
With no award chart to reference, United is free to increase the prices on some of the most popular MileagePlus redemptions without warning. This happened in May and June 2023, when United significantly increased award rates without notice.
There’s plenty of doom and gloom news about devaluations, decreased award availability and the stripping of benefits from award tickets. However, one positive trend over the last few years is the launch of limited-time, discounted award sales. Historically, Delta has been one of the best airlines at offering award sales, but United is making progress on that front.
Earlier this year, United offered round-trip flights to the South Pacific from just 42,000 miles to celebrate its 42nd anniversary. We hope to see more of these sales in the future.
After working hard to build your stash of miles, keep your eyes on our website for deal alerts so you can jump on the next sale and stretch your miles even farther.
Premium cabin redemptions
United has heavily invested in its international premium experience, between Polaris lounges, taking delivery of new planes with sleek Polaris cabins and retrofitting its existing long-haul fleet. Best of all, booking United Polaris through MileagePlus is often cheaper than booking a partner airline’s business-class cabin.
Let’s look at a flight from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA), a premium United route operated by its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. A one-way business-class award on Lufthansa’s 747-8 would cost you 88,000 United MileagePlus miles. However, you may be able to book the same route on a United-operated flight for as low as 80,000 miles depending on the dynamic pricing calculator. Those 8,000 miles you save are worth $88 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
The savings can be even more significant on other routes, like from the U.S. to South Asia. A business-class award on a Star Alliance partner can cost an extra 10,000 miles or more on these routes. Of course, this won’t always be true due to the unpredictable nature of dynamic pricing. Plus, some of United’s partners, like EVA and ANA, are worth paying a premium for. Still, these potential savings are worth keeping an eye out for.
Unfortunately, United is often stingy with its business-class award space, so you might be forced to book with a partner. However, you can use ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to set alerts for United and its Star Alliance partners if there’s no business-class award space on your desired date(s) of travel.
No fuel surcharges
The excitement of snagging a “free” trip using your miles can be dampened significantly by fuel surcharges. Those extra costs that many programs will add to award tickets. Other Star Alliance programs can add hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges to their award tickets, but you can keep some serious cash in your pocket by booking through United, as it’s one of the few programs out there that doesn’t add these.
Of course, United’s award rates are generally higher than many of its partners. While the airline technically eliminated its close-in award booking fee, you might find award rates higher for close-in travel.
However, if you can save $500 or even $1,000 in fees on a single award ticket by booking through United, it can easily be worth it. Savings like that are easy to come by if you’re looking at certain awards, like Lufthansa first class between the U.S. and Europe, where taxes from other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs can easily exceed $1,000.
United Excursionist Perk
United MileagePlus doesn’t offer an unrestricted stopover like other frequent flyer programs, but it does offer the Excursionist Perk. If used strategically, it has the potential to be even more valuable. It allows you to add a qualifying, one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket without additional miles at its most basic level. Here are the rules United lists on its website:
- 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 are 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.
- Only the first occurrence will be free if two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit.
This perk’s simplest and most obvious use would be for a round-trip award from the U.S. to Europe or Asia. You could fly from Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, use the Excursionist Perk for a free flight from Frankfurt to Paris, and then complete your round-trip award booking with a flight back to Washington, D.C.
In this case, you’d pay the normal award rate for a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe, while the leg from Frankfurt to Paris would be “free.”
Of course, you could get much more creative than this. Maybe you add an open jaw and fly back to Chicago instead of Washington.
That’s still pretty tame in the grand scheme of what’s possible with this perk. To learn about crazy routing possibilities like “the time machine” or the “Southern North America/South of Central America/North of South America/West of Everywhere Turtler,” check out TPG’s complete guide to the Excursionist Perk.
Flights outside the US
With so many United flyers using miles for travel from the United States, U.S. redemptions have been disproportionately devalued compared to the rest of the world. Some impressive non-U.S. redemptions include Melbourne Airport (MEL) to Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) for 55,000 miles in business class on Singapore Airlines, São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU) to Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) for 27,500 miles in business class (or 38,500 miles in first class) on Swiss and Seoul to Tokyo for 8,800 miles in economy class on Asiana Airlines.
If you’re planning a trip outside of the United States, it’s worth comparing the cash price of your flight to the award price. Remember, just because you’re flying a route that United doesn’t operate doesn’t mean you can’t use your United miles.
If you’re like me, it might be worth keeping a healthy “just in case” sum of miles in my MileagePlus account for last-minute situations. A year ago, I was traveling in Belgium and had to return immediately to the United States due to a family emergency. The urgent nature of the situation meant that I needed to be on the first flight that would get me home to San Francisco.
Shopping on my phone for a flight back while en route to the Brussels airport by taxi, I found a United flight in Polaris business class for 62,800 miles connecting through Chicago. Miraculously, this flight was scheduled to depart Brussels in two hours and had the soonest arrival in San Francisco. The cash price was over $8,000.
Even with the increase in award prices for close-in bookings, this flight was a bargain and I avoided paying for an expensive last-minute paid fare.
Despite negative changes to the United MileagePlus program, plenty of high-value options remain for redeeming your miles.
Knowing which award types, cabins and routing rules to utilize can help you boost your redemption values every time. At the very least, review the Excursionist Perk to add a free second destination to your next vacation booked with United MileagePlus miles.
See Bilt Mastercard rates and fees here.
See Bilt Mastercard rewards and benefits here.
Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg.