Using the United Explorer Bonus in a Post Devaluation World

Aug 27, 2014

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In light of the limited-time sign-up bonus offer for the United MileagePlus Explorer Card of 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 within the first 3 months, I thought I would revisit what I think are the best United award options since the recent United devaluation. (Note that there’s a better offer of 50,000 miles plus a $50 statement credit for existing United members.)

This card comes with priority boarding, free first checked bag, no foreign transaction fees, and 2 United Club passes per year. You’ll also get 5,000 bonus miles for adding an authorized user and making a purchase within the first three months. The card does have a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year.

Even will all the recent United Airlines devaluations, some redemptions still make sense.
Even with all the recent United Airlines devaluations, there’s plenty of value to be found.

How To Still Maximize United Miles

In my August valuations of miles and points, I list United MileagePlus miles at 1.5 cents apiece, so at a bare minimum, 50,000 miles is worth $750 in travel to me. However, some redemptions can get you a much better return. Below are some ideas of different ways you can maximize your United miles. As a reminder, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio, so if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Ink Bold, you can transfer your Chase points over to United to top off your account.

While United massively devalued their MileagePlus program earlier this year by introducing two new award charts with higher redemption levels on United flights and even more exorbitant award requirements on its airline partners, United miles can still be quite useful thanks to their versatility and ease of redemption. Plus, many of the economy redemption levels both on United and its partners either did not go up or went up very little, so you can still cover a lot of distance in coach.

Earning the signup bonus will just about get you a roundtrip award to Europe in coach, or one-way in business class (57,500 miles).
The signup bonus from the Explorer card will just about get you a roundtrip award to Europe in coach, or one-way in business class (57,500 miles).

Europe: Even though United increased their award pricing to Europe, two great features of United MileagePlus miles are that you can easily book on United Airlines partners, and you can book one-way awards. Delta doesn’t presently allow for one-way awards, and if you were to book using American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you’d most likely pay high taxes/fees to travel on British Airways via London (at least if you want saver seats). Economy awards on United start at 30,000 miles one-way, and first/business redemptions are 57,500 miles each way on United or 70,000 miles each-way on partner airlines.

110,000 United miles for a Southern South America award in Business Class.
110,000 United miles for a Southern South America award in Business Class.

Southern South America: Redemptions on United for Southern South America (including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile) are 60,000 miles roundtrip in economy on United and its partners, and 55,000 miles each way in business class on United metal.

Round-trip flights to Hawaii are 45,000 miles on United in Economy
Roundtrip flights to Hawaii are 45,000 miles on United in Economy.

Hawaii: United award flights to Hawaii are 40,000 miles one-way in business or first class (50,000 miles when both business and first are offered), or 45,000 miles roundtrip in economy.

You can use your United MileagePlus miles to upgrade on transcon flights.
You can use your United MileagePlus miles to upgrade on transcon flights.

Upgrades: You can also use your United miles to pay for upgrades. Your original fare class will determine whether you can upgrade solely with miles or if a co-pay is required. For instance if you wanted to upgrade to Business Class on JFK-LAX from a discount fare such as a N, G, L, K, T, or S, it would cost you $250 plus 20,000 miles each way, but an upgrade from M, E, or U would cost 15,000 miles and a $75 co-pay, which is waived for Premier members. I recently flew on United’s lie-flat business class from JFK-LAX and was quite impressed with the seats, so upgrading can be a worthy use of miles for longer flights.

United Sydney-Bangkok for 17,5000 miles in economy.
United Sydney-Bangkok for 17,5000 miles in economy.

Australia: For United flyers living in Australia or for those who want to travel from Australia, some of the recent changes actually meant a reduction in the number of miles needed for award travel. Award prices from Australia to South Asia have actually decreased and are now 17,500 miles for economy, 30,000 miles for business, or 40,000 miles for first class each way.

You can also redeem your United miles for hotel and car rentals.
You can also redeem your United miles for hotels and car rentals.

Hotel/Car Rental Awards: While not the the most valuable redemption, United allows you to redeem your miles for hotels and car rentals at a fixed value. If you don’t have enough miles, you can also use the Miles & Money option which lets you pay for part of the redemption with miles and the other part with cash. This can be useful if you’re looking fro a cheap car rental or hotel stay and don’t want to shell out the cash.

Even with the recent devaluation you can still get good use out of 50,000 United miles, so I think the current offer is strong, and encourage those who are on the fence to get it while it’s available.

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