Travel: How to get maximum value from the United MileagePlus program

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

Although its numerous evolutions and devaluations have resulted in a very different program now than when it launched 40 years ago, United’s MileagePlus program is still a great option for those looking to get a consistently high value when redeeming points.

It’s a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Bilt Rewards, so travelers with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Bilt Mastercard can easily boost their MileagePlus balances through various travel and dining purchases. Additionally, the carrier’s membership in Star Alliance gives you a plethora of ways to earn miles when traveling with partner airlines.

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  How 4 TPG reporters would spend 1 million United miles United MileagePlus has seen changes and devaluations over the years, but MileagePlus miles remain a powerful airline currency for both international and domestic award tickets. In addition to offering some great redemption options and fun routes (such as the Island Hopper), there’s also the program’s famous Excursionist Perk, which allows a free stopover on round-trip …In addition to offering some great redemption options and fun routes (such as the Island Hopper), there’s also the program’s famous Excursionist Perk, which allows a free stopover on round-trip international tickets.

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.

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United MileagePlus overview

A United Airlines domestic first class meal. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy A United Airlines domestic first class meal. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

United’s MileagePlus program is free to join and miles never expire. This means that everyone who flies United even once a year should sign up for the program. Even though it may take a while to earn a free flight, you don’t have to worry about losing your account balance due to inactivity.

The carrier has hubs at airports in seven cities across the U.S. — Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey; Dulles International Airport (IAD) outside Washington, D.C.; O’Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago; George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston; 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.

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How to earn United miles

United Airlines Polaris business class on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy United Airlines Polaris business class on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

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. However, you’ll want to double-check your fare class and the corresponding earning rate for specific partners.

When you book a flight through United, you’ll typically earn miles based on the ticket base fare, with bonuses provided for United Premier elite travelers. 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.

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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 instantly. You can also transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred. Thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership between these two programs, you’ll also earn a 10% bonus on all transfers to United.

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 Club Infinite Card: Earn 120,000 bonus miles after you spend $6,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • United Quest Card: Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • United Explorer Card: Earn up to 70,000 bonus miles. Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open.
  • United Gateway Card: Earn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • United Business Card: Earn 75,000 bonus miles after $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 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.

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Benefits of United Premier elite status

United Premier Gold members and higher enjoy special perks when traveling on partner airlines like Lufthansa. (Photo by of Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy United Premier Gold members and higher enjoy special perks when traveling on partner airlines like Lufthansa. (Photo by of Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

You can qualify for United’s coveted status by earning Premier qualifying points (PQPs) and Premier qualifying flights (PQFs). You must fly a minimum of four segments on United and/or United Express annually to qualify for any status. Earlier this year, United gave all its existing Premier members a generous amount of PQPs to help them retain or upgrade their status in 2022. 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 members bonus miles and other perks. All United elites get placed on the list for complimentary premier upgrades, with higher priority to 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.

Related: What is United Airlines elite status worth?

Dynamic pricing for all flights

A United Polaris lounge at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy A United Polaris lounge at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

In 2019 United formally switched over to dynamic award pricing for its own flights. In April 2020, the carrier pulled its Star Alliance partner award chart with no warning and increased prices on most routes by 10%.

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Not only was the timing poor given the coronavirus pandemic, but the lack of warning and immediate increase in partner award rates was disappointing. With no chart to reference, United is free to increase the prices on some of the most popular MileagePlus redemptions without any warning as it sees fit.

Related: 6 flyer-friendly improvements United should consider implementing next

Award sales

A late-2018 award sale could have gotten you to the slopes for fewer United miles. (Photo by gladassfanny/Getty Images) © The Points Guy A late-2018 award sale could have gotten you to the slopes for fewer United miles. (Photo by gladassfanny/Getty Images)

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 we’ve seen over the last few years is the launch of limited-time, discounted award sales. Historically, Delta has been the best airline at offering award sales, but United has offered some too. For example, in 2018, we saw the “Sun and Ski” sale, which made December a little cheerier with up to 40% off round-trip saver economy awards to Hawaii and top ski destinations like Aspen, Colorado; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Jackson, Wyoming. We’ve also seen a 45% sale on saver awards to Tahiti and several other deals, but it’s worth noting that there haven’t been any award sales for a while now.

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.

Related: Riding the bus could now give your United status a boost

Premium cabin redemptions

United’s Polaris business-class product actually requires fewer miles than many business-class awards on the carrier’s partners. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy United’s Polaris business-class product actually requires fewer miles than many business-class awards on the carrier’s partners. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

United has invested an incredible sum of money in making its international premium experience more competitive, between opening Polaris lounges, taking delivery of new planes with the sleek, signature blue Polaris cabin, and retrofitting much of its existing long-haul fleet. While that’s all nice to hear, what should excite you is it’s often cheaper to book United Polaris through MileagePlus than it is to book a partner airline’s business class cabin.

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Let’s look at a flight from Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, a premium route for United and a route also operated by its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. A one-way business-class award on Lufthansa’s 747-8 would cost you 77,000 United MileagePlus miles. However, you may be able to book the same route on a United-operated flight for as low as 60,000 miles depending on the dynamic pricing calculator. Those 17,000 miles you save are worth $206 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, where it can cost an extra 15,000 miles or more to book a business-class award on a Star Alliance Partner airline. Of course, this won’t always be true due to the unpredictable nature of dynamic pricing, and some of United’s partners like EVA and ANA are worth paying a premium for, but this potential savings is 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 anyway. 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.

Related: 6 things you need to know about United Airlines MileagePlus

No fuel surcharges

A Lufthansa award might require more miles with United, but you’ll save some significant cash versus booking through other Star Alliance programs. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy) © The Points Guy A Lufthansa award might require more miles with United, but you’ll save some significant cash versus booking through other Star Alliance programs. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

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.

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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, it replaced that cash charge with a 2,500-mile surcharge for United-operated flights or 3,500 miles for partner flights.

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.

Related: United’s best kept elite status secret: How to earn PQP faster with partner flights

United Excursionist Perk

United MileagePlus doesn’t offer an unrestricted stopover like some 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 any 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.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

The simplest and most obvious use of this perk 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.

(Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper) © The Points Guy (Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper)

In this case, you’d pay the normal award rate for a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe, and the leg from Frankfurt to Paris would be “free.”

Of course, you could get much more creative than this. Maybe you decide to add an open jaw and fly back to Chicago instead of Washington.

(Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper) © The Points Guy (Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper)

That’s still pretty tame in the grand scheme of what’s possible with this perk. However, if you want 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.

Related: No saver space, no problem: How to unlock additional award availability with United

Bottom line

Despite some negative changes to the United MileagePlus program, there are still plenty of great value options 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, make sure you study up on the Excursionist Perk if you’d like to add a free second destination to your next vacation booked with United MileagePlus miles.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images.

Additional reporting by Kyle Olsen.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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