How to maximize the United MileagePlus program

May 28, 2020

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Despite several changes to the MileagePlus loyalty program over the years, United is still a great option for those looking to get a consistently high value when redeeming your points. As a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, travelers with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve can easily boost their MileagePlus balances through various travel and dining purchases, and the carrier’s membership in Star Alliance gives you a plethora of ways to earn miles when traveling with partner airlines.

However, earning United miles is just one part of the puzzle. Knowing which redemptions to target can ensure you’re getting a solid value, so today we’ll take a look at some of the best ways to maximize the United MileagePlus program.

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In This Post

United MileagePlus overview

United’s MileagePlus program is free to join, and as of August 2019, your miles will no longer expire. This means that everyone who flies United even once a year should sign up for the program. Even though it may take a while to earn a free flight, you don’t have to worry about losing your account balance due to inactivity.

The carrier has hubs in seven cities across the U.S. — Newark (EWR), Washington Dulles (IAD), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Houston (IAH), Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) — and offers service to hundreds of destinations around the world. However, as a member of Star Alliance, you can earn and redeem MileagePlus miles on carriers like Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines.

Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award flights

How to earn United miles

The simplest way for most people to earn United miles will be by flying with the carrier or one of its Star Alliance partners and crediting the flights to your MileagePlus account, though you’ll want to double-check your fare class and the corresponding earning rate for specific partners. When you book a flight through United, you’ll typically earn miles based on the base fare of your ticket, with bonuses provided for United Premier elite travelers. However, flights booked directly with partner airlines and credited to your United MileagePlus account will earn miles based on the distance flown and your booked fare class — you can view this page on United’s website for full details.

As mentioned above, United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, meaning that you can transfer points to your United MileagePlus account — a process that should be completed instantly. You can also transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred. Thanks to the RewardsPlus partnership between these two programs, you’ll also earn a 10% bonus on all transfers to United.

If you’re starting from scratch or looking to save up for an expensive award, you’ll want to strongly consider signing up for a United credit card. You’ll have your choice between entry-level and premium cards and personal and business options:

The information for the United Business Card and United Club Business Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

United’s cobranded cards are issued by Chase, meaning they’re subject to the 5/24 rule for new applicants.

Related: How to earn miles with the United MileagePlus program

Benefits of United Premier elite status

Before we can dive into the benefits of United elite status, we first need to address the radical changes the airline made late last year to how you qualify. U.S. airlines have been increasing their revenue requirements for elite status for many years now, but United took this trend to its logical conclusion by removing “Premier Qualifying Miles” and replacing them with “Premier Qualifying Points,” which are largely just a function of how much you spend on your tickets.

Related: United makes changes to how we earn elite status, upgrades

There are four published tiers of United Premier elite status, that offer members increasing levels of bonus points and other perks. All United elites get placed on the list for complimentary premier upgrades, with higher priority going to upper-tier elites. United elites also get access to complimentary economy plus seating, though depending on your tier that might be available only at check-in or at the time of booking.

Related: What is United Airlines elite status worth?

Dynamic pricing for all flights

Late last year United formally switched over to dynamic award pricing for its own flights. Then in April 2020, the carrier pulled its Star Alliance partner award chart with no warning and increased prices on most routes by 10%. Not only was the timing poor given the coronavirus pandemic, but the lack of warning and immediate increase in partner award rates was disappointing. Now with no chart to reference, United is free to increase the prices on some of the most popular MileagePlus redemptions without any warning as they see fit.

Award Sales

Image by gladassfanny / Getty Images
A late-2018 award sale could’ve gotten you to the slopes for fewer United miles. (Photo by gladassfanny/Getty Images.)

While there’s plenty of doom and gloom news about devaluations, decreased award availability and the stripping of benefits from award tickets, one incredibly positive trend we’ve seen over the last few years is the launch of limited-time, discounted award sales. Delta leads the way in this area, but United had been solidly improving as well. One of my personal favorites was the 2018 “Sun and Ski” sale, which made December a little cheerier with up to 40% off round-trip saver economy awards to Hawaii and top ski destinations like Aspen, Sun Valley and Jackson, Wyoming. We’ve also seen a 45% sale on saver awards to Tahiti, and a number of other great deals.

After working hard to build your stash of miles, make sure to keep your eyes on our website (and follow us on Twitter) so you can jump on the next sale and stretch your miles even farther. If you’re flexible with your destinations, waiting for a sale like this can help you get a bigger bang for your buck and save some miles to jumpstart your next trip.

Premium-Cabin Redemptions

United’s Polaris business-class product actually requires fewer miles than many business-class awards on the carrier’s partners. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

United has invested an incredible sum of money in making its international premium experience more competitive, between opening new Polaris lounges, taking delivery of new planes with the sleek, signature blue Polaris cabin, and retrofitting much of its existing long-haul fleet as well. While that’s all nice to hear, the reason it should excite you is that it’s often cheaper to book United Polaris through MileagePlus than it is to book a partner airline’s business class cabin.

Let’s take a look at a flight from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt (FRA), a premium route for United and one also operated by its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. A one-way business-class award on Lufthansa’s 747-8 would cost you 77,000 United MileagePlus miles. However, you may be able to book the exact same route on a United-operated flight for as low as 60,000 miles depending on the dynamic pricing calculator. Those 17,000 miles you save are worth $221 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.

The savings can be even more significant on other routes, like from the U.S. to South Asia, where it can cost an extra 15,000 miles or more to book a business-class award on a Star Alliance Partner airline. Of course, this won’t always be true due to the unpredictable nature of dynamic pricing, and some of United’s partners like EVA and ANA are worth paying a premium for, but this potential savings is worth keeping an eye out for.

Unfortunately United is often stingy with its business-class award space, so you might be forced to book with a partner anyway. However, you can use ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to set alerts for both United and its Star Alliance partners if there’s no business-class award space on your desired date(s) of travel. You can also use ExpertFlyer to try to ensure you get the full Polaris experience.

No Fuel Surcharges

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 takes off from JFK
A Lufthansa award might require more miles with United, but you’ll save some significant cash over booking through other Star Alliance programs. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

The excitement of snagging a “free” trip using your miles can be dampened significantly by fuel surcharges, those extra costs that many programs will add to award tickets. Other Star Alliance programs can add hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges to their award tickets, but you can keep some serious cash in your pocket by booking through United, as it’s one of the few programs out there that doesn’t add these.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel

Of course, this isn’t entirely without costs, as United’s award rates are generally higher than many of its partners. While the airline technically eliminated its close-in award booking fee, it replaced that cash charge with a 2,500-mile surcharge for United-operated flights or 3,500 miles for partner flights.

However, if you can save $500 or even $1,000 in fees on a single award ticket by booking through United, it can easily be worth it. Savings like that are easy to come by if you’re looking at certain awards like Lufthansa first class between the U.S. and Europe, where taxes from other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs can easily exceed $1,000.

United Excursionist Perk

United MileagePlus doesn’t offer an unrestricted stopover like some other frequent flyer programs, but it does offer the Excursionist Perk. If used strategically, it has the potential to be even more valuable. At its most basic level, it allows you to add a qualifying, one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket without any additional miles. Here are the rules United lists on its website:

  • The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

The simplest and most obvious use of this perk would be for a round-trip award from the U.S. to Europe or Asia. You could fly from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt, use the Excursionist Perk for a free flight from Frankfurt to Paris (CDG), and then complete your round-trip award booking with a flight back to IAD.

In this case, you’d pay the normal award rate for a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe, and the leg from FRA-CDG would be free.

Of course, you could get much more creative than this. Maybe you decide to add an open jaw, and fly back to Chicago O’Hare instead of Washington.

That’s still pretty tame in the grand scheme of what’s possible with this perk, but if you want to learn about crazy routing possibilities like “the time machine” or the “Southern North America/South of Central America/North of South America/West of Everywhere Turtler” make sure to check out Richard Kerr’s complete guide to the Excursionist Perk.

Bottom Line

Despite some negative changes to the United MileagePlus program, there are still plenty of great value options for redeeming your miles. Knowing which award types, cabins and routing rules to utilize can help you boost your redemption values every time. At the very least, make sure you study up on the Excursionist Perk if you’d like to add a free second destination to your next vacation booked with United MileagePlus miles.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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