How to redeem miles with the United Airlines MileagePlus program

Sep 19, 2020

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While not as valuable as it once was, United MileagePlus is one of the easiest types of airline miles to use. Not only are United miles easy to earn thanks to a suite of cobranded credit cards and a couple of major transferable points partners, but you can redeem miles across United’s vast network of domestic and international routes or on over two dozen Star Alliance partners.

Thankfully, United’s booking engine is one of the best for finding award availability, so you can find and book most Star Alliance awards by simply searching its site. No phone calls required.

However, there are several quirks to understand when you’re booking award flights with United miles. It’s also good to know alternative ways to redeem United miles outside of flights (though we don’t recommend them). With this in mind, let’s examine how to redeem United MileagePlus miles for United flights, partner flights, hotels and other merchandise.

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In This Post

Redeem for United flights

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United operates a huge international and domestic flight network, with hundreds of destinations from which to choose — and that’s not including its partner flights.

United no longer has an award chart for its own flights or flights operated by a partner. Instead, it uses dynamic award pricing. This is a fancy way of saying they charge whatever they want whenever they want for any flight. If you’re curious to know how many miles it’ll cost to fly on United Airlines, you’ll have to search your desired route on your desired date. Prices can fluctuate dramatically with the season.

That said, we’ve found that most international United awards with saver award space price at the same, pre-dynamic pricing rates. This means 60,000-mile one-way tickets from the U.S. to Europe in business class and 70,000-mile business class tickets to Asia. This pricing isn’t guaranteed, but it’s the prices we’ve commonly seen since the switch to dynamic pricing.

How to book flights on United.com

As noted above, United’s website is one of the better Star Alliance options when searching for award tickets, even without logging in. Just head to the United website, enter your flight search criteria and select “Book with miles” box. Then, click the purple “Find flights” button to run your search.

Searching for United Awards Online
(Image courtesy of United)

If you have United elite status or have a United credit card in your wallet, you’ll want to log in before searching. Cardholders and elite status members gain access to additional award inventory on United-operated flights.

All flights are displayed at the center of the page alongside its price. One nice thing about the United search engine is that it shows a week’s worth of award pricing at the top of the screen. Click on a date to see all the available flight options for a given day. You can sort by price by clicking on the label for the cabin you’d like to fly in — for example, click “Business Saver Award” to see the lowest price business class tickets.

Search results on United.com
(Image courtesy of United)

Once you find a flight you like, click the select button underneath the price and follow the on-screen prompts to book. Make sure to pay the ticket’s taxes and fees with a credit card that earns bonus miles on airfare.

Related: Best credit cards for flying United

Redeem on partner flights

Swiss business class is just one premium partner award readily available with United miles. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

United is a member of the Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline alliance. Here’s a look at United’s list of alliance airline partners:

  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Austrian
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Airways
  • Juneyao Airlines
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • SWISS
  • TAP Portugal
  • THAI
  • Turkish Airlines

Additionally, United has a surprisingly good number of non-alliance partners too. Here’s the full list:

  • Aer Lingus
  • AeroMar
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Azul
  • Boutique Air
  • Cape Air
  • Edelweiss
  • Eurowings
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Juneyao Air
  • Olympic Air
  • Silver Airways
  • Vistara

One of the biggest positives to using United miles is that the MileagePlus program doesn’t impose fuel surcharges on partner award tickets. Booking through other programs (like Aeroplan miles) can add hundreds of dollars in additional taxes and fees.

Unfortunately, this comes with a price. United’s premium class award rates for long-haul partner flights are usually higher than award flights on United’s own metal. In the past, United would tack on a 10,000-mile surcharge for Star Alliance partner awards. For example, booking Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt (FRA) on a United Airlines plane cost 60,000 United miles while a Lufthansa-operated flight on the same route would cost 70,000 miles.

With dynamic partner pricing, United has increased the price of partner award tickets by roughly 10% across the board. This includes flights with a partner-operated short-haul segment. For example, this flight from Newark (EWR) to Prague (PRG) via Frankfurt (FRA) costs 66,000 miles one-way in business class. Lufthansa operates only the Frankfurt to Prague leg.

United Award Ticket Pricing EWR PRG
(Image courtesy of United)

On the bright side, most partners can be booked online, so you’ll rarely have to call in to book a ticket. However, I’d still recommend searching segment by segment for your flight, as United.com doesn’t always display every connecting flight option. Additionally, we’ve found that award space on partners is more plentiful than flights operated by United.

Related: The best ways to redeem 100,000 United Airlines miles

Redeem for other travel

As with most airline miles, you can redeem United MileagePlus miles, United Club memberships, car rentals and hotel stays. But if you’ve been reading TPG for a while, you know that we seldom recommend doing this. These redemptions usually yield a far lower value than TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg MileagePlus miles at 1.3 cents each. You’ll usually get a value below 0.8 cents for these redemptions.

That said, here’s a quick look at all of your other travel redemption options alongside their redemption values.

Redeem United miles for hotels

Booking hotels with United Hotels
(Image courtesy of United Hotels)

You can use United Hotels to book hotel rooms using your United miles, but it isn’t a good deal. I quoted a one-night stay at a random three-star hotel in Paris using United’s hotel booking portal. One night in January 2021 costs $93.60 after taxes when paying cash. The same room costs 13,020 miles, giving you just 0.71 cents per mile in value. For this particular stay, you’re far better off covering your purchase with miles from a card like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

Transfer United miles to Marriott Bonvoy

Additionally, you can transfer United miles to Marriott Bonvoy points at a 1:1 ratio. This isn’t a good deal either — TPG values Marriott Bonvoy points at 0.8 cents apiece, which is 0.5 cents per point lower than United’s valuation. You should only transfer miles to Marriott if it’s a small number of miles to top-up for a specific high-value Marriott award.

Redeem United miles for car rentals

Booking rental cars with United miles
(Image courtesy of United)

You can redeem United miles through the United MileagePlus Cars portal. Again, this isn’t a great use of miles. You can redeem 34,200 United miles for a $224 Hertz rental. This is just 0.65 cents per point in value, one of the lowest redemption values in this article.

Related: How to never pay full price for a rental car

Buy in-flight Wi-Fi with United miles

You can use United miles to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi on domestic United flights too. Price varies by flight length. Additionally, the airline offers a $49 monthly Wi-Fi pass as well — this costs 7,500, equal to 0.65 cents per point in value. Again, we recommend steering clear of this redemption.

Pay for TSA PreCheck with United miles

Finally, you can redeem United miles for TSA PreCheck. 11,000 United miles covers the $85 application fee, for a paltry 0.77 cents per point in value. You’re far better off applying for a credit card — for example, the United Explorer Card — that covers the TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application. This lets you save miles on the fee and earn miles with a new credit card — sounds like a win-win to us.

Related: How to earn miles with United Airlines MileagePlus

Redeem for merchandise

You can also redeem miles for merchandise, gift cards, newspapers and broadway tickets. Like redeeming for hotels, these redemptions are generally a poor value that we recommend skipping. Here’s a quick look at all of your options alongside their redemption rates.

Redeem United miles for merchandise awards

You can redeem miles for merchandise on United’s online store. This store offers electronics, luggage and home goods. That said, we don’t recommend doing this as you’ll generally get a low redemption value. For example, a pair of Bose QC 700 headphones costs 133,700 miles. These headphones retail for $399.95, giving you just 0.3 cents per point in value.

Pay for MileagePlus X gift cards with United miles

We recommend earning miles with the MileagePlus X app, but we don’t recommend spending your miles with it. This app lets you purchase gift cards for immediate use and earn miles in the process. If you choose to redeem miles for gift cards, you’ll get a mere 0.3 cents per point in value. This is a full cent lower than TPG’s valuation.

Subscribe to newspapers and magazines with United miles

As with many airlines, you can redeem United miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions. This is a poor use of miles as it yields an extremely low redemption value.

Buy tickets to Broadways shows and events with United miles

Broadway shows and concert tickets may not be at the top of your list during the coronavirus outbreak, but United still lets you redeem miles for tickets. That said, steer clear of this redemption option as it provides a very low value.

Donate your United miles to charities

You can also donate United miles to select charities. You can donate a minimum of 1,000 miles at a time and can choose from a selection of different charities. This can be a good option for those who want to liquidate their mileage balance and give to a good cause. That said, consider if a cash donation is a more effective way to help.

Related: How you can donate your points and miles to charity

Best use of United miles

United miles have been devalued a few times over the years, but there are still a handful of excellent ways to redeem United miles. Here’s a look at some of the best United MileagePlus sweet spots you should be aware of.

Travel from the U.S. to Europe on a United Airlines flight

United Polaris on 787-10
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

One of my favorite ways to use United miles is booking flights from the U.S. to Europe in United’s Polaris business class product. When saver space is available, you’ll generally pay just 60,000 miles one-way for this flight with no fuel surcharges. This makes the ticket cheaper than booking with Avianca LifeMiles — another one of my favorite Star Alliance loyalty programs.

United IAD-LHR Pricing
(Image courtesy of United)

Polaris is a huge improvement over United’s old international business class too. Its newly redesigned seat is comfortable, and on-board service includes tasty meals and a nice selection of drinks. Make sure to check out TPG’s full review but note that service will vary during the coronavirus pandemic.

Saving on fuel surcharges

United imposes mileage surcharges on partner award tickets, but not fuel surcharges. You can save $500 or more on long-haul business class tickets when compared to booking with ANA Mileage Club, Asiana Club or some other Star Alliance loyalty programs. You’ll pay more miles in the process, but it could make a lot of sense if you want to reduce cash expenses on award travel.

ORD ZRH Pricing United Swiss
(Image courtesy of United)

Low-cost domestic award tickets on United

One of the nice things about United’s move to dynamic pricing is the addition of low-cost award tickets. These disappeared at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak but recently reappeared. Some of the low-cost tickets we’ve seen recently include Newark (EWR) to Chicago (ORD) for 7,000 miles and Houston (IAH) to Orlando (MCO) for 5,000 miles.

IAH MCO Pricing United
(Image courtesy of United)

We can’t guarantee that low-cost awards will be around forever, and your mileage may vary depending on the route you search. Regardless, you should always check United before you book your next domestic award ticket. You may find an excellent deal in the process.

Free stopovers with the Excursionist Perk

One of the benefits of booking round-trip awards with United is the Excursionist Perk. This lets you add a free stopover all of your tickets, and it’s super open-ended. In its most basic form, you use this perk to book something like Newark (EWR) to London (LHR), London to Frankfurt (FRA) and Frankfurt to Newark. You wouldn’t pay for the London to Frankfurt leg, a nice money-saver on a European adventure.

TPG editor Richard Kerr has an in-depth Excursionist guide with a list of interesting uses — make sure to check it out before you book your next United award ticket.

Related: The ultimate guide to airline stopover programs

How to find United award space

Thankfully, it’s extremely easy to find United award space. United.com has long been known as the best Star Alliance search engine, and virtually all United and Star Alliance partner award space shows online. This means you’ll rarely have to call United to book an award ticket. Just search online and book accordingly.

That said, United.com has been known to show phantom award space. This is when an award appears online that isn’t actually bookable. You can verify United.com award space before you transfer miles from Chase Ultimate Rewards by searching on ANA’s website. ANA’s search tool isn’t the most intuitive, but it’s extremely reliable. All flights shown on ANA’s website are bookable with United miles.

Related: The cheapest business class award tickets across all alliances

frequently asked questions

United Airlines 747 at ORD
(Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

The United MileagePlus program may seem daunting at first — especially if you’re new to the points and miles world. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding United MileagePlus.

How do I join United MileagePlus?

You can join United MileagePlus for free on United.com. Just head to United’s website and click the Join Now button at the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Then, enter the requested information at the center of the screen.

Clicking the join now button on United.com
(Image courtesy of United)

Once you’ve signed up, you can find your MileagePlus number on the by clicking on your name at the top of the screen. Make sure to add this number to United and Star Alliance partner bookings to earn mileage.

Viewing MileagePlus number on United.com
(Image courtesy of United)

When do United miles expire?

United recently changed its expiration policy for the better. Nowadays, United miles don’t expire even during prolonged periods of no account activity. This is great news for occasional United flyers and travelers who don’t have an immediate use for their airline miles.

Can I transfer points to United MileagePlus?

You can transfer miles from Chase Ultimate Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy to United MileagePlus. On the Chase side, you can transfer points to United at a 1:1 ratio with a 1,000 mile minimum transfer. These transfers process instantly, giving you a fast and easy way to accrue points.

You can transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to United at a 3:1.1 ratio due to United and Marriott’s RewardsPlus partnership. You’ll also receive a 5,000 mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer. This means that 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points are equal to 27,000 United miles. Transfers take roughly 48 hours to process.

Bottom line

There are many ways to redeem your United MileagePlus miles, but you’re generally best off looking to book award flights. Thankfully it’s relatively easy to book these tickets online with both United and its Star Alliance partners.

The carrier’s award search engine is one of the best out there, and the program charges extremely low taxes and fees when compared to other Star Alliance mileage programs. And with the ability to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United at a 1:1 ratio, you can quickly boost your account and unlock some of these redemptions as you plan your next trip.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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