The Complete Guide to Redeeming United MileagePlus Miles

Elina GellerMay 19, 2020
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United Airlines offers plenty of opportunities to redeem MileagePlus miles, but some redemption options are better than others. You’ll want to learn what the options are so you can choose the redemption that works best for you and hopefully provides good value as well. In this post, we will look at the different ways in which you could redeem your United miles, from the good (i.e. business class award tickets) to the not-so-good (i.e. buying an iPhone).

Keep in mind that NerdWallet values United miles at 1 cent each. Ideally, you want to aim for redemptions that exceed that valuation. Generally, you'll find that award tickets booked in first and business class cabins will result in better redemption values in terms of cents per mile.

Option 1: Redeem for flights on United Airlines

Redeeming miles for award tickets is one of the most common uses of United miles. As one of the largest U.S.-based airlines (362 destinations with nearly 5,000 daily departures), United's extensive reach provides a number of opportunities for award tickets. With a user-friendly website, United has done a good job of designing its award search interface.

Input your origin, destination, and date, then select the "Book with miles option" and click "Find flights" to see options for award tickets. Below is an award flight from Chicago to Los Angeles on July 8, 2020.

Awards are provided for each fare class (when available) and are also categorized as Saver or Everyday Awards.

Saver Awards are discounted tickets in economy, business or first class. They are capacity controlled, which means that during popular travel days, it may be difficult to find them. Saver Awards can be booked on Star Alliance partners, too. In the example above, the economy award for 12,500 miles is a Saver Award.

Everyday Awards are also capacity controlled, but they are priced higher than Saver Awards. There is a higher likelihood that an Everyday Award will be available when a Saver Award is not. Typically, Everyday Awards aren't a good redemption because they are expensive. These awards are available on United and Copa Airlines flights only. MileagePlus elites and holders of United’s co-branded credit cards aren't subject to capacity controls for these types of awards on United and United Express flights. For the flight shown above, the business/first award for 45,000 miles is an Everyday Award.

Searching and redeeming with dynamic award pricing

United no longer publishes a region-based award chart. Although in theory dynamic pricing should lead to some awards that are more expensive and some that are cheaper than previously priced, in most cases the tickets will be more expensive.

For reference, we’ve included United’s old award chart (page 2), which is no longer available on the website. This chart applies to awards on United or United/partners where the long-haul flight is flown by United. You can use this chart as a guide to determine if the price you’re seeing on the website is in line with previous baseline award rates.

For example, economy Saver Awards from the continental U.S. to Europe were priced at 30,000 MileagePlus miles per the old award chart. A search for award seats from Chicago to London in Sept. 2020 reveals the following award seats on United:

There are two flights listed: The 4:05 p.m. flight offers two Saver Awards at 30,000 miles in economy or 60,000 miles in business class. However, if you want to take the evening flight, you would need to pay 45,000 miles for that same economy seat with dynamic pricing. It's up to you to decide if paying 45,000 miles for that ticket is worth it.

If you’re flexible on your travel dates, you could also pull up the 30-day calendar to look for awards on other days.

A scan of the calendar for the same route illustrates that some days are cheaper to travel than others.

You’ll generally get the best value when you redeem your miles for a business or first-class ticket. Consider the following round-trip Saver Award in business class from Chicago to London for 120,000 miles + $304 in taxes. The high taxes on the return leg aren’t United’s fault, as the U.K. is notorious for adding high taxes to departing flights.

If you were to book that same business class flight in cash, you would pay $4,646. Note that the taxes are slightly higher on this flight vs. the flight paid in miles.

By using miles, you would extract a value of 3.6 cents per mile, which is over four times our 0.8 cent valuation. Although not everyone is willing to spend over $4,600 on a round-trip flight, this example is meant to illustrate the potential value of redeeming miles for premium cabin awards.

Redeeming for United award deals

United publishes flight award deals to various destinations for as low as 5,500 miles. These are separate from Saver or Everyday Awards and are probably your best bet at finding award availability at prices that are below the old award chart. A good way to search for award availability is to sort the list of flights from low to high. Select the flight you’re interested in, and on the following results page, choose the 30-day calendar to see if other dates are priced at the low mileage level.

For example, tickets from San Francisco to Los Angeles were listed for as low as 5,500 miles for travel on Sept. 18, 2020.

After you click "Book Now" on the San Francisco to Los Angeles flight, you will see a seven-day calendar across the top, along with tickets priced at the advertised level of 5,500 miles.

You can also choose the "View 30 day calendar" if you’re interested in seeing other dates.

The calendar shows that awards for 5,500 miles are available every day, as opposed to only Sept. 18, 2020, which is the date advertised on the initial awards page. So if you’re seeing an award that isn't on the date you want, it might be worth digging in a little deeper and checking alternative dates for that same route pricing.

Option 2: Redeem for flights on Star Alliance and other partner airlines

United is a founding member of Star Alliance, which boasts 25 members. Due to United’s participation in Star Alliance and its partnerships with 12 additional airlines, they have access to a comprehensive international route network; you can earn and redeem United MileagePlus miles 37 airlines. Award tickets on all partners can be booked on United.com (just like United Award tickets), which makes booking award travel convenient.

Here’s a list of all 37 airlines with award tickets that can be booked using United miles:

  • Aegean Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Air Canada (Star Alliance).

  • Air China (Star Alliance).

  • Air India (Star Alliance).

  • Air New Zealand (Star Alliance).

  • ANA (Star Alliance).

  • Asiana Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Austrian (Star Alliance).

  • Avianca & Avianca Brasil (Star Alliance).

  • Brussels Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Copa Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Croatia Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • EGYPTAIR (Star Alliance).

  • Ethiopian Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • EVA Air (Star Alliance).

  • LOT Polish Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Lufthansa (Star Alliance).

  • Scandinavian Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Shenzhen Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • South African Airways (Star Alliance).

  • SWISS (Star Alliance).

  • TAP Air Portugal (Star Alliance).

  • THAI (Star Alliance).

  • Turkish Airlines (Star Alliance).

  • Aer Lingus (Partner).

  • Aeromar (Partner).

  • Air Dolomiti (Partner).

  • Azul (Partner).

  • Boutique Air (Partner).

  • Cape Air (Partner).

  • Edelweiss (Partner).

  • Eurowings (Partner).

  • Hawaiian Airlines (Partner).

  • Olympic Air (Partner).

  • Silver Airways (Partner).

  • Vistara (Partner).

Because United removed its partner award chart in April 2020, you can no longer see the baseline cost of award flights between certain regions. This makes it more difficult to decide what’s a fair price. For reference, we’ve provided United’s Star Alliance/partner award chart (page 3), which is no longer on the site. Given the 10% increase in award rates on Star Alliance/partner flights, you could use this chart to gauge what the new prices will be.

Option 3: Use them for United Upgrade Awards

United offers four types of upgrade awards. Complimentary Premier and PlusPoints upgrades are free and don't require that you use MileagePlus miles, so we’ll look specifically at the two forms of upgrades you can use your miles on.

MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

These upgrade awards are available on paid tickets on United and United Express flights. The upgrade cost can be a combination of miles and cash depending on your fare class and cabin.

For example, if you’ve purchased a ticket in fare class O for a flight from the mainland U.S. to Europe, it will cost 15,000 miles to upgrade from United Premium Plus to Polaris business.

You can play around with the origin and destination regions to see what the upgrade cost will be for a specific flight. If you’re hoping to use miles to upgrade your ticket, you may want to check United’s upgrade award pricing when you’re determining what fare class to purchase. Generally, the more expensive the fare class, the cheaper the upgrade will be and vice versa.

Star Alliance Upgrade Awards

Similar to MileagePlus Upgrades, you could also use your miles to upgrade paid tickets on Star Alliance and partner airlines.

Fare classes C and D (business class) and Y and B (economy class) are eligible for upgrades. Additional fare classes may be permitted depending on the airline. Check with United about upgrade eligibility. Currently, you can upgrade tickets on the following partner airlines:

Option 4: Flight and Airport Benefits

You could use your miles on a variety of flight and airport benefits, including:

United Club membership

There are more than 45 United Club locations in airports globally. If you don't already have a lounge membership or you simply love United Clubs, a membership could be a great choice. An annual subscription to United’s Club lounges costs $650 or 85,000 miles, resulting in a value of just under 0.8 cent per mile.

Inflight Wi-Fi subscription

You could also purchase a package for inflight Wi-Fi starting at $49 or 7,500 miles, resulting in a little less than a 0.7 cent per mile value.

TSA Precheck

TSA Precheck helps expedite your time at the airport as you pass through a designated TSA Precheck line on your way to security screening. Additionally, when you’re walking through security, you don’t need to remove your shoes, laptop, liquids, belt or light jacket. A TSA Precheck membership is valid for five years.

If you already have Global Entry, you don't need to also purchase TSA Precheck as the benefits overlap. Also, many premium travel cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offer a statement credit when you use the card to pay for Global Entry or TSA Precheck.

If you don’t already have reimbursement through a credit card, and you’re considering a TSA Precheck subscription, you could use 11,000 United miles to pay for the $85 application fee. Using your miles would result in just under a 0.8 cent per mile redemption.

Airport dining

You can use United miles to pay your bill at select restaurants at Newark and Houston-Intercontinental Airport. You’ll need to scan your boarding pass to start your order; when you’re ready to check out, you’ll be able to select miles or cash to pay for your total bill. Based on screen shots from the United website, you’ll get just under 0.7 cent per mile in value.

All the other options: No flights, no upgrades? No problem.

In addition to flying and upgrading, there are numerous ways to use your United miles. Although you'll generally get the most value out of redeeming your miles on premium cabin award tickets on long-haul flights, it's good to know that other methods of redeeming miles exist.

Dining certificates

Your United miles could be used to purchase e-gift cards and dining certificates from Lettuce Entertain You and Restaurants.com to be used at participating restaurants. If you go this route, you’d get a much better use of your miles on the Restaurant.com dining certificates, which result in an excellent 3.8 cent per mile redemption. At Lettuce Entertain You, you’d end up with a little over 0.7 cent per mile redemption (6,800 miles for a $50 card), which isn’t a great value.

Newspaper and magazine subscriptions

You could use your United miles to pay for a magazine or newspaper subscription. A glance at current subscriptions shows the following option for the Financial Times:

A 24-week subscription to the eEdition of the Financial Times costs $49 or 1,960 miles, reflecting a redemption value of 2.5 cents per mile. Surprisingly, this is actually a pretty good value considering that NerdWallet values United miles at 0.8 cent each.

Car rentals

Your miles could be used to book a car rental. To illustrate, a two-day weekend rental in September 2020 costs 16,700 miles.

When looking for the price in cash, the exact model above wasn’t available, but a similar economy class car costs $137.

If you use miles, you’re getting a value of just over 0.8 cent per mile, which is right in line with NerdWallet’s baseline valuation for United miles. Although using miles for a car rental isn’t the most spectacular use of your miles, it wouldn’t be the worst redemption either.

Hotel awards

You could also use your miles to pay for hotel stays. For example, a two-night stay in Denver in August 2020 will cost 44,500 United miles (with a cash cost of $258). If you used miles for this stay, you’d get just under a 0.6 cent per mile redemption, which is a little weak.

Shopping and gift cards

United also allows you to use your miles to pay for online purchases, including Apple products. Although you probably won’t extract a solid value from your miles if you use them to pay for online purchases or gift cards, if you don’t expect to use your miles for travel, it's good to know you have other options. Whether it is through Apple, the MileagePlus X app or United’s gift card portal, you’re looking at a value of only 0.3 cent per mile.

The rest of the rest

  • Experiences: Bid on unique experiences or purchase tickets to events. Value varies based on the cash price of the ticket or auctioned experience.

  • Make a donation: Browse through United’s donation search site for a list of current campaigns. Donations made by June 30, 2020, will receive a match from United up to an aggregate of 500,000 miles.

  • Transfer them to someone else: This is usually a terrible value. Not only will you have to pay a fee for the cost of the miles, but you will also have to pay a processing charge. For example, a transfer of 10,000 miles would end up costing you $180.

  • Credit card statements: United credit card holders can use miles for statement credits or to offset the annual fee. Generally, these uses result in poor values.

  • Cruises: You could spend your miles to pay for a cruise. United frequently runs promotions through its cruise website for discounted options.

The bottom line

United offers plenty of opportunities to use your miles. Although the airline unpublished its award chart and increased the price of many partner awards by 10%, you could still extract some decent value from your miles, especially if you redeem for premium cabin awards.

If you’d prefer to use your miles on non-flying-related activities, United also offers plenty of redemption options through various partnerships. Surprisingly, using miles for newspaper subscriptions and Restaurant.com certificates result in decent redemptions.

On the other hand, shopping credits, gift card purchases and hotel awards reflected some of the weakest uses of United miles. Regardless of which option you chose, there is no such thing as the perfect redemption. Miles are meant to be used and not hoarded, so pick whichever redemption suits your needs.

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