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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – United MileagePlus Explorer Card
To the veteran frequent flyer, 100,000 miles may seem like nothing. If you know how to maximize them, though, 100,000 United miles can get you far. You might be surprised to learn how quickly you can go from 0 to 100,000 United miles, and to see just how much value that six-figure balance can get you.
Earning 100,000 United Miles
Unsurprisingly, credit card bonuses continue to lead the way when it comes to accruing significant amounts of frequent flyer miles. Accruing United miles is particularly easy thanks to the ability to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United at a 1:1 ratio. Even better, transfers are usually instantaneous, and they aren’t subject to an excise tax, which is unfortunately the case with American Express Membership Rewards.
Here are the credit cards with sign-up bonuses that can quickly lead you to a 100,000-mile account balance:
1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card
Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, earn another 5,000 miles when you add an authorized user and they make a purchase in the first three months. The card also offers the following features:
- Earn 2x miles spent on tickets purchased from United and 1x miles on all other purchases
- Free first checked bag
- Two United Club passes per year
- No foreign transaction fees
- Priority boarding
Perhaps the most undersold perk of the card is access to additional award space that’s not available to non-cardholders. This is why I keep the card in my wallet. There are occasionally targeted offers for a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus (sometimes available once you log in to your MileagePlus account). The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. You also receive access to the additional award space for United MileagePlus Explorer cardholders. The card offers the following features:
- 10,000 bonus miles after spending $25,000 on the card in a calendar year
- Earn 2x miles on gas station, restaurant and office supply store purchases as well as on United expenses, plus 1x miles on everything else
- Free checked bag for cardmember and traveling companion
- No foreign transaction fees
I’ve seen sign-up bonuses as high as 60,000 miles for this card in the past. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
The information for the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card has been collected independently by ThePointsGuy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns you valuable Ultimate Rewards points, which can be transferred to United at a 1:1 ratio. This card is currently offering 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months, plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user and charging a purchase to their card. Other features include:
- Earn 2x points on dining and travel purchases and 1x on everything else
- No foreign transaction fees
- Primary car rental insurance
For more information on this card, read Nick Ewen’s post on why it should be the first card you add to your wallet.
This card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Its annual fee is $450, but you do get a full United Club lounge membership. That’s the standout benefit, but others include:
- Two free checked bags
- Earn 2x miles on United purchases and 1.5x miles on everything else
- Complimentary World of Hyatt Discoverist status
- Premier Access travel services at the airport
TPG Contributor Nick Ewen listed a plethora of ways to earn United miles without flying; some of my favorite include:
- MileagePlus X — The app makes it easy to score significant bonus points on everyday purchases.
- MileagePlus Dining — Add the credit cards you use at restaurants to this program and start earning bonus miles at participating restaurants.
Just two of the above credit card sign-up bonuses can put you at or above 100,000 miles. Once you become strategic about your credit card spending, you’ll reach 100,000 miles in no time.
Maximizing 100,000 United Miles
Before trying to squeeze every ounce of value from your miles, make sure you understand the basics of booking award tickets with United.
Now that you have 100,000 United miles, how should you put them to use? Let’s look at a few examples that represent particularly good values:
1. 10 Short-Haul Domestic Flights
Flights that are 700 miles or less in length and serviced by United or United Express will cost 10,000 miles one-way or 20,000 miles round-trip at the Saver level. This a 20% discount on the usual 25,000-mile cost of a round-trip domestic economy Saver ticket. I find this especially useful when I need a last-minute flight and can avoid the ridiculous $75 close-in ticketing fee.
2. Visit 5 Asian Countries and 4 European Countries for Just Over 100,000 Miles
This can get complex, so hang in there. United’s award chart is zone-based, and the United.com award-booking engine cannot always handle the pricing of an award when multiple zones are involved in an itinerary. This results in itineraries actually becoming cheaper by adding more destinations and additional flights. The common example is the Oceania region (note that United defines this term differently) “overpowering” many other zones in the itinerary, so your award will price out at the rate for flights to Australia and New Zealand. Add in United’s surprisingly generous award-routing rules (allowing a stopover and two open jaws on round-trip international tickets) and you can really begin to make some big itineraries for a small number of miles.
If you’ve been watching the blog in the last few months, you’ve seen all kinds of cheap fares to Tokyo from across the US. In honor of these fares I’ll start a trip from Tokyo. I call this ticket the AO (Asia/Oceania) express: NRT-BKK-SYD (open jaw) AKL-PVG (stopover)-KIX (open jaw) for 45,000 miles.
This allows you to start in Tokyo and spend close to 24 hours on a layover in Bangkok; visit Sydney, Auckland, Shanghai and Osaka for 45,000 miles. You’ll be responsible to find a SYD-AKL flight (10,000 Avios on Oneworld partner LAN) and a KIX-NRT trip, which I personally would use to visit Kyoto and take a bullet train back to Tokyo.
The best part? This leaves you 55,000 miles — just shy of enough for a round-trip US-Europe economy ticket where you can again exploit the award-routing rules to visit four European countries and come back to see a second city in the US: JFK-LIS (stopover) LIS-BCN (open jaw) CDG-CPH (destination) CPH-AMS (possible extended layover to visit Holland) AMS-IAD (open jaw).
On the European leg of your trip, you would be responsible for transportation from Barcelona to Paris and D.C. back to NYC. You can do these cheaply via low-cost carriers, trains or bus.
You probably noticed you would need 105,000 miles for these two trips, but surely obtaining the 5,000 extra miles is worth it to visit nine countries. Plus, it shouldn’t be too difficult to earn those extra miles if you’re maximizing your credit card spending.
Finally, note that the combinations of countries and cities you can mix to create itineraries like the above examples are virtually endless. So have fun creating your two itineraries of a lifetime!
3. Partner Premium Classes
United miles open up the possibility of flying some of the best business and first-class products in the sky. So much so, in fact, that United started charging more for Star Alliance partner premium-class redemptions on international flights when compared to its own product.
ANA, Asiana, Lufthansa, Thai and Turkish business class all come to mind. Fly Thai Airways A380 business class seven hours for 40,000 miles from Tokyo to Bangkok. Fly 14 hours in Asiana’s A380 business class for 80,000 miles from JFK-ICN. The one downfall here is you cannot book Singapore First Suites with United miles.
4. Caribbean Islands, Hawaii and a Domestic Short-Haul
For 100,000 miles, you can book a round-trip Caribbean vacation to three destinations, fly another ticket round-trip to Hawaii and still have enough miles for a short-haul domestic round-trip ticket.
With United’s award-routing rules, you can create some amazing Caribbean itineraries for only 35,000 miles round-trip. The simplest way to do this is to route through Panama City, headquarters of Star Alliance partner Copa Airlines. The below itinerary gives you time in Panama City, Aruba and St. Maarten:
This leaves you 65,000 miles — enough for a 45,000-mile US to Hawaii round-trip and 20,000 miles for two domestic short-haul flights. Don’t forget to utilize the same open jaw and stopover rules for your US-Hawaii round-trip to maximize the 45,000 miles for that ticket.
Trial and Error Is Best
When it comes to maximizing United miles, there’s really no better strategy than a cup of coffee and quality time with the United.com award search engine. Trying as many combinations as you can think of between award zones yields impressive routings that are bookable online. Keep these simple tips in mind when searching for complex United award bookings:
- Don’t believe the color-coded award calendar on United.com; you might find availability that it doesn’t display.
- Availability results change when searching multi-city itineraries. Stick with searching leg by leg until it’s time to piece the whole ticket together.
- If you call in to book a complex itinerary, you may have to speak with multiple phone agents until you get one who understands the complex routing rules.
- Do your best to avoid United’s award-booking fees, which include close-in ticketing fees (booking within 21 days of departure) and a phone booking fee (which should be waived by an agent for itineraries not bookable on United.com). If you have United elite status, you’ll enjoy reduced or waived fees as well.
How would you maximize 100,000 United miles?