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“Reader Questions” are answered three days a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — by TPG Senior Writer Julian Mark Kheel.

A major advantage of airline alliances is that you can fly on one airline and credit the flight to a frequent flyer program of another airline in the same alliance. But you might get less than you bargained for, as TPG reader Erick mentioned in a Facebook message…

I flew Air Canada to Taiwan and gave my United MileagePlus number to accrue the miles. But I was only credited 1,400 miles on a segment that is almost 6,000 miles. What’s the deal?

TPG Reader Erick

Things have gotten a bit tricky for United and the other US legacy carriers as they’ve switched to revenue-based earning systems over the last couple of years, and Erick’s mileage accrual experience with Air Canada is a good example of the complexity involved. But in this case, he also might have a valid point, as we’ll see shortly.

Let’s start by remembering that United MileagePlus generally no longer awards redeemable miles based on how far you fly, but rather on how much you pay for your ticket. A basic MileagePlus member with no elite status earns 5 miles per dollar spent, with United elite members getting progressively more miles depending on their status level. So if you’re a leisure traveler flying on United, you shouldn’t count on getting anywhere near as many miles as you used to get before the system changed.

But when it comes to crediting flights to United from a Star Alliance partner, the calculation is a little different. That’s because if you’re flying a partner and you didn’t buy the ticket through United, there’s no way for United to know how much you paid, so the airline can’t credit the miles based on dollars spent. In that case, United does fall back on how many miles you flew, which is a metric it can easily determine based on your origin and destination.

However, if you thought you might pick up a bunch of extra miles this way, it doesn’t always work out. That’s because when awarding miles based on a partner flight, United also takes into account the fare class your ticket was booked in. And if you booked into one of the cheaper fare classes, you’re only going to get a percentage of the actual distance flown.

IMG-air-canada-accrual-on-united-footnote
United’s mileage accrual chart for Star Alliance partner Air Canada.

The mileage accrual percentages are different for each of United’s partners, but if you know your fare class, you can go to United’s website and find the chart for your airline — such as the one above for Air Canada — to see exactly how many MileagePlus miles you’ll earn on a partner flight. In this case, Erick mentioned he got 1,400 miles on a segment that was nearly 6,000 miles long. By looking at the Air Canada chart, you might assume that Erick’s ticket was booked in one of the Discount Economy fare classes labeled S, T, L, A or K, and was a flight within Canada as the footnote indicates. That would explain why he only got 25% of the miles flown, which roughly lines up with the numbers he mentioned.

However, we know Erick flew Air Canada all the way to Taiwan, likely on the airline’s nonstop Dreamliner flight from Vancouver to Taipei, which clocks in at 5,960 miles. So that 1,400-mile figure doesn’t make any sense. One of two things may have happened here — if Erick booked his Air Canada flight through United and doesn’t have elite status, he would have earned 5x miles based on the pre-tax fare for that segment. You can tell what airline you booked through by looking at the first three digits of the ticket number — 016 means booked through United and anything else is another airline. Since Erick earned 1,400 miles, that means United would have assigned a value of $280 to this segment, based on the total ticket price. That makes sense.

However, if his flight was ticketed by Air Canada or another airline, United clearly owes him more miles — based on the chart above, he should have netted at least 3,000 or so miles for this one ~6,000-mile flight to Taiwan. If that’s the case, he should call up the United MileagePlus Service Center at 800-421-4655 and ask an agent to research his flight and corresponding earnings.

Either way, if you’re thinking earning fewer miles than what you’ve flown seems a bit underhanded and unfair, keep in mind that Air Canada itself credits these particular fare classes exactly the same way in its associated Aeroplan mileage program, so you’re not really losing anything by crediting to United instead. And all three of the US airlines in alliances have similar partner earning mileage structures, so that’s basically just how it is nowadays in a revenue-based earning world.

But in the end, Erick, even if you’re earning less than the actual distance flown, it may still make sense to credit partner flights to a US airline just to prevent yourself from ending up with orphaned miles in an international program you don’t use regularly. Thanks for the question, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image courtesy of DANIEL SLIM/Getty Images.

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