6 things you need to know about United Airlines MileagePlus

Feb 19, 2022

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.


United’s well-known MileagePlus program has seen significant transformations in the last several years. Some of these developments have been favorable, like United miles no longer expiring. But some have been disappointing, such as MileagePlus devaluations.

Still, the program offers a strong value proposition. After all, members have tremendous flexibility when redeeming their miles. Plus, United has no fuel surcharges on award redemptions and is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner.

Here are the top things to know about the United MileagePlus program.

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In This Post

Unlock extra saver award availability

United credit cards and elite status offer many benefits. But many United cardholders and elites overlook one valuable perk: access to “XN” award space. The XN fare class provides access to additional economy-class saver award availability on top of the “X” economy-class saver award space open to everyone.

For example, on this flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Palm Springs, California (PSP), there is no X award availability. However, six XN seats are left, indicated by the “XN6.” Note that you will need to have United’s “expert mode” enabled to see fare classes on United’s website.

United flight availability from SFO to PSP
Note how there are no seats in the X fare class and six seats in the XN fare class. (Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

In this example, you’d only be able to book a saver award if you are a United cardholder or have United Premier elite status. After all, there’s only XN space on this flight, not X space.

In this example, the XN fare class is 9,700 miles, while the least expensive award open to everyone is 15,000 miles. So, even on this short flight, accessing the XN fare class can save you thousands of miles.

Related: No saver space, no problem: How to unlock additional award availability with United

Beware of phantom partner award space

As a frequent United flyer, I’ve often been thrilled to find Star Alliance partner award availability on United’s website. However, in some cases, it’s proved impossible to book the itineraries I’ve found.

Luckily, there are some ways to deal with phantom award space. For one, it’s always a good idea to cross-reference award space that you see on United’s website with another Star Alliance airline, like Air Canada. Doing this is easy — simply search for the same award online through Air Canada’s website. If you find that there is also award space when booking through Air Canada Aeroplan, there is likely space on the route.

Another option is to check with ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures). With ExpertFlyer, it’s easy to see whether or not there is award space on a particular flight.

ExpertFlyer award availability
(Screenshot courtesy of expertflyer.com)

Of course, dealing with phantom award availability is still frustrating. So, check out our article on seven workarounds for dealing with phantom award space.

Use the Excursionist Perk

I’m a big fan of the United Excursionist Perk. In essence, on a round-trip award itinerary, the first flight you add that’s not in the same zone as the originating region won’t cost you extra miles. The free flight must be within a single zone, booked in the same or lower class as the inbound and outbound legs and the round-trip ticket must end in the same zone it originated from.

Here are a few examples of the Excursionist Perk at work on a multicity booking in economy class:

  • Newark (EWR)-Honolulu (HNL): 22,300 miles.
  • Honolulu (HNL)-Maui (OGG): 0 miles.
  • Maui (OGG)-Newark (EWR): 22,500 miles.
  • Total: 44,800 miles plus $11.20.
A map of a flight to Hawaii from New York
(Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

Even though Hawaiian Airlines operates the interisland flight, you can still use the Excursionist Perk for this flight, thanks to Hawaiian being a United partner.

Related: Best ways to redeem points and miles on Hawaiian Airlines

Here’s another example of the Excursionist Perk’s magic in business class:

  • San Francisco (SFO)-Istanbul (IST): 77,000 miles.
  • Istanbul (IST)-Lisbon, Portugal (LIS): 0 miles.
  • Lisbon (LIS)-San Francisco (SFO): 60,000 miles.
  • Total: 137,000 miles plus $86.97.
A map of a flight to Europe from SF
(Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

Related: Expectations that were too high: A review of Turkish Airlines business class on the Boeing 777

On this itinerary, it’s impressive that you can book a 4-hour, 55-minute flight from Istanbul (IST) to Lisbon (LIS) on Turkish Airlines in business class for no additional miles. Even though I’ve used the Excursionist Perk many times in the past, it’s always a feast for the eyes to see “0 miles” when booking the “free” flight on United’s website.

"Free" flight in Europe: Excursionist perk to Europe
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

At present, this one-way flight would cost you $1,200. But by using the Excursionist Perk, you can book it for “free.”

Booking a flight from Istanbul to Lisbon using cash is business class is expensive.
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

Given the loose set of rules United has laid out for the Excursionist Perk, there are many neat ways to maximize it. These same rules apply to other regions around the world. So one can have a lot of fun planning using other partners of United, like flying Thai Airways in business class within Southeast Asia for no additional miles.

Related: Maximizing the United Island Hopper with the Excursionist Perk

Be careful using your PlusPoints to skip the waitlist

United Boeing 787-9 Polaris business class
Polaris business class on a United 787-9. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Not long ago, I wrote an article on why you may want to reconsider using your PlusPoints to skip the upgrade waitlist. Here’s even more reason why you should reconsider skipping the waitlist:

Terms outlining skip waitlist restrictions with United Airlines
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

As the terms clearly state, when you skip the waitlist, you must request the upgrade at least 30 days before your flight. And, if you need to reschedule your flight, you’ll forfeit the PlusPoints used to request the skip-waitlist update.

A Premier 1K member earns 320 PlusPoints per year, and United requires 100 PlusPoints to skip the waitlist. So, given the high number of PlusPoints required and the fact that modifications to a waitlist upgrade result in the forfeiture of the PlusPoints, Premier 1K members should highly reconsider using the skip-waitlist upgrade option.

Related: How to request an elite upgrade with United PlusPoints

Complimentary Premier Upgrades are (mostly) a thing of the past

One of the key perks of United’s Premier status is unlimited Complimentary Premier Upgrades based on availability. Although there are some restrictions, most flights within North America are eligible for CPUs.

Here’s how the priority for CPUs is determined:

  1. Premium Plus passengers: Passengers booked in the O, A and R fare classes (which represent United Premium Plus) have the highest upgrade priority of all, even above United Global Services members with full-fare Y economy tickets. This is how one former TPG staffer was able to use a $199 upgrade to Premium Plus to jump to the top of the upgrade list and ultimately earn a spot in Polaris.
  2. Upgrade type: United prioritizes those redeeming PlusPoints or miles for an upgrade ahead of elites relying on a CPU.
  3. Premier elite status of the traveler: After Premium Plus passengers and upgrade type, elite status is the next tiebreaker. United Global Services members take the lead, followed by Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, Premier Gold and Premier Silver elites.
  4. Fare class: For regular economy tickets, the priority order for different fare classes is as follows: Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G. United prioritizes Complimentary Premier Upgrades on award tickets after the lowest paid fare class.
  5. Chase United MileagePlus Club cardholders and Presidential Plus cardholders.
  6. United Corporate Preferred participants.
  7. Chase United MileagePlus cardholders with $25,000 in annual spending.
  8. Time of request.

For my last 15 United flights, I’ve received two CPUs. Although there are swarms of top United Premier members at my home airport of San Francisco (SFO), as a Premier 1K member with United, I would have expected my status to net me to more CPUs. I’ve held Premier 1K membership for the last six years, and I’ve found that CPUs are only becoming fewer and farther between.

So, when crafting your status plans, be careful not to overvalue CPUs.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Go for Million Miler

When I first saw United’s Million Miler program requirements, I was not amused. The 4 million lifetime flight miles required for United’s top Global Services tier is the equivalent of almost 17 trips to the moon or roughly 750 flights from San Francisco (SFO) to London (LHR).

But I’ve already accrued 600,000 lifetime flight miles with United. At this rate, I’ll be a Million Miler in several years. Here’s why I like the prospects of having Million Miler status:

United Million Miler chart requirements
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

United’s Million Miler program is arguably the best when compared with American and Delta. For one, after flying 1 million miles, you become a Premier Gold member for life, meaning that your status will never drop below Premier Gold. In comparison, American and Delta provide their entry-level status (the equivalent of Premier Silver) to flyers who make it to 1 million miles. Additionally, United Million Milers can nominate a companion to have their status with United.

Related: Don’t panic: United confirms lifetime elites will receive PlusPoints in the coming weeks

Bottom line

Even though MileagePlus has seen rampant devaluations in the last several years, this program has plenty to offer. It’s worth putting in the effort to learn the nuances of using United’s award search engine and all the possibilities of the Excursionist Perk. United’s generous Million Miler program is the icing on the cake with United MileagePlus.

Additional reporting by Richard Kerr.

Featured photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy.

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More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
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Balance Transfer Fee
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