Booking United Awards Using Partner Programs
United Airlines has partner agreements with 39 separate airlines, not all of which are members of the Star Alliance. Most of these airlines have their own loyalty programs, and many allow you to redeem miles for flights on United airlines — sometimes at a lower cost than United's award rates. Today, I'll show you which partner carriers can yield value when looking to book free United tickets.
Earning Partner Miles
Even if a partner's program charged a reasonable number of miles for United awards, there needs to be an easy avenue for you to accrue that program's miles. Below is a chart showing United partners and the opportunities you have to accrue miles in the programs. The airlines shown 1) have frequent flyer programs 2) make it easy for us to obtain a significant balance 3) allow redemptions on United Airlines :
|American Express Membership Rewards||Chase Ultimate Rewards||Citi ThankYou Rewards||Starwood Preferred Guest||Co-Branded US Card|
|Air New Zealand||X|
|Lufthansa (Miles & More)||X|
*Avianca LifeMiles are included because of the regular buy miles promotions that make using LifeMiles for United flights a viable option. The US Bank LifeMiles credit card has been discontinued.
With the programs identified that allow us to accrue miles, let's look at each one and quickly decide which to avoid and which may hold value for booking United flights:
Intra-North American round-trip business-class flights on United only cost 42,000 Aegean Miles. The good news? Aegean includes the US, Canada, Mexico and the majority of the Caribbean in the North America zone. United charges 60,000 miles for round-trip business-class Saver awards to the Caribbean, so booking this itinerary through Aegean's program could be a good option.
Aegean allows a stopover of up to 24 hours on Star Alliance partners. North America to Europe round-trip in business is only 90,000 Aegean miles — or 75,000 Starpoints when you factor in the 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer.
Air New Zealand
Right off the bat, I don't recommend using Air New Zealand Airpoints for booking United flights because of the poor 65:1 SPG transfer ratio. A one-way United flight within North America less than 2,000 kms in length would cost 13,000 Starpoints — far too much considering all the other great ways you can redeem this currency. Prices for Air New Zealand partner flights only go up from there, with some simply unreasonable.
Aeroplan charges less than United's own program on some routes, but Air Canada does impose significant fuel surcharges on some partner redemptions. However, United is one of several airlines excluded from these charges, making EWR-CDG round-trip routing in business booked through Aeroplan a good deal; it costs 110,000 Aeroplan miles — 5,000 less than United charges at the Saver level. Take a look at Aeroplan's partner award chart to find the prices of United routing you would like to book.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Aeroplan program is that it charges flat rates for infant award flights. Instead of having to pay United 10% of a full business- or first-class adult fare for a child to sit in your lap (on international itineraries), you can book the same United itinerary via Aeroplan and pay a flat $100 or 10,000 additional miles for a business-class infant award ticket.
My wife and I flew back and forth from Japan to the US on award tickets, but routinely had to pay 10% of a $4,000-$6,000 business-class fare for my son to sit on our lap. With Aeroplan, you pay a $50, $75, $100, or $125 flat fee based on the class of your award booking. This can add up to big savings, and you'll enjoy the exact same onboard experience if you use the program to book a United award.
Here's the partner award chart, which is in kms and generally offers poor value. The SPG program doesn't differentiate between kms and miles with Air China as it does with LANPASS kms which has a 1:1.5 ratio. Simply avoid this program.
We've written about the new ANA program several times and have detailed a few examples of when ANA can cost less than United's award chart in both business and economy. North America to Japan can cost as little as 40,000 miles round-trip in economy during the low season.
You can transfer both Starpoints and Amex Membership Rewards points to your ANA account, making it relatively easy to accrue a large Mileage Club balance quickly. You can also earn miles with the ANA Card USA from the First National Bank of Omaha.
There are some very attractive sweet spots in the Asiana partner award chart: You can fly United business class from the continental US to Hawaii for 55,000 miles round-trip and business class from the US to Europe for only 80,000 miles round-trip. Another great option is the US to Japan, Korea or China for only 120,000 miles round-trip in business — a 10,000- to 20,000-mile savings over the MileagePlus prices. Unfortunately, you have to call Asiana to book partner awards, and the process is not easy. Do your research on United.com beforehand to find flights with Saver availability and feed the agents the flight numbers you want.
You can transfer Starpoints to Asiana at a 1:1 ration, and there's also the Asiana American Express Card from Bank of America, which offers 10,000 miles after your first purchase and earns 2x miles on gas and groceries.
The LifeMiles program can be a great option for the lazy: All you have to do is save your money and wait for a 100% or more buy-miles bonus for LifeMiles, and you can fly United for relatively cheap (compared to buying a premium-class revenue ticket).
Note that the LifeMiles Star Alliance award chart shows one-way prices. Flying round-trip on United from the US to Europe costs 126,000 miles, or $1,852 for a business-class round-trip ticket to Europe with the 125% buy-miles bonuses that pop up from time to time.
You can also lower your cost if you use a mix of miles and cash to book award tickets. It's probably not worth using LifeMiles in the domestic market, as the program charges the same 12,500 miles for one-way North America domestic tickets as the MileagePlus program.
I’d personally use the LifeMiles program (in conjunction with a by-miles promotion) to book Lufthansa first class, since the program doesn't impose fuel surcharges on award tickets. However, it's important to note that some readers have reported difficulty booking Lufthansa awards with this program, and Avianca's call center agents can be challenging to work with if you need to make any changes over the phone.
I researched the EVA Infinity MileageLands program last year when looking at Citi ThankYou transfer partners and I found the Star Alliance award chart to be ungenerous — with one exception for United-operated flights. Hawaii and the Caribbean are in the same region, and a round-trip business-class ticket between North America and either of these destinations runs only 80,000 miles. With two stopovers and an open jaw allowed on round-trip award tickets, you could book SFO-HNL-IAH-SXM/STT-EWR-SFO in business for just 80,000 miles.
Jet Airways' JetPrivilege partner award chart divides the world into 13 ill-defined zones, four of which are for the continental US alone. The chart yields no value and should be avoided for booking United flights.
Lufthansa (Miles & More)
The Miles & More program is a complex beast — its intricacies are impossible to explain in full in this post. Here's what you need to know when looking to book United flights with the program:
- Two stopovers and two open jaws are allowed on round-trip awards, but stopovers cannot be in the region of departure.
- Mileage Bargains allow you to fly from select US cities to select destinations in Europe for 30,000 miles round-trip (in economy not necessarily on United metal, but this is such a good option I have to mention it).
- 50,000 miles for an economy round-trip ticket to Europe (you have to originate in the US)
- North America to the Caribbean round-trip in economy is 35,000 miles, and gives you the opportunity to fully utilize the two stopovers and two open jaws to visit several destinations.
- Beginning September 15, Miles & More will use a slightly tweaked award chart that leaves the above redemptions in tact.
The Miles & More Premier World MasterCard is currently offering 20,000 miles after your first purchase and an additional 30,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first 90 days of account opening. That means you get a round-trip ticket to Europe on United with one card sign-up.
TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele broke down the best partner routings for using KrisFlyer miles for award tickets, often showing a cost savings when compared to the United MileagePlus award chart.
You can fly round-trip on United in economy from the continental US to Hawaii for 35,000 KrisFlyer miles, round-trip in business from the US to southern South America for 100,000 miles (10,000 miles less than what MileagePlus charges for a Saver award) and fly in business class on round-trip flights within North America for only 40,000 KrisFlyer miles. Check out Singapore's Star Alliance chart for all routing costs.
I dissected the Royal Orchid program last year when looking at Citi ThankYou transfer partners, and unfortunately Thai's program charges too many miles for most routes to be considered a strong option for booking United awards.
Best Partners to Book United Flights
As you can see, some partner programs can save you miles compared to United's own award chart, while others are best to skip altogether. Among the best options, 80,000 miles round-trip in business class to Europe on Asiana; 30,000 miles round-trip to Europe through Lufthansa's Mileage Bargains; and 40,000 low-season economy round-trips to Asia with ANA stand out as especially strong redemptions. Depending on the effort required, I might also look at flying to the Caribbean utilizing Aegean's program for 42,000 miles in business with a 24-hour stopover, though I'd try to figure out how to get 2,000 Aegean miles so I'd only have to use 35,000 Starpoints for the flight.
Without a doubt, many of the above examples provide significant value for your transferable points, and some are probably options you haven't considered. Remember to keep in mind each program's routing rules and try to fully utilize any allowed stopovers and open jaws.
Have you used any of the above strategies to book United flights?