How to Use Your United Miles for Outsized Value

These award flights on United Airlines are relatively "cheap" considering how many miles it'll cost.
JT Genter
Keith M. Rosso
By Keith M. Rosso and  JT Genter 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for a wide range of values, with some award redemptions netting you a lot more value than others. By using MileagePlus miles, you can even unlock travel opportunities you might not be able to afford if you’re paying cash — like flying in premium cabins.

Let's take a look at how you can maximize your United MileagePlus miles and some of the top sweet spots of the MileagePlus program.

MileagePlus redemption basics

NerdWallet values United miles at 1.2 cents each, which means that you should aim for redemptions that offer a value above that.

To determine the value of your miles for specific flights, divide the cash value of the ticket (less any applicable taxes/fees if you redeem miles) by the number of miles required for the flight. So if the ticket would cost either $100, or 15,000 miles + $10 in taxes/fees, the math would be as follows:

($100 – $10) / 15,000 = 0.006, or 0.6 cent per mile.

United award chart is gone

Since United no longer publishes an award chart and award prices vary based on demand, you may end up paying more miles when you fly on more popular days.

However, even years after ditching its award chart, the lowest-level saver awards still appear to generally be priced according to an unpublished award chart — particularly on international itineraries. This can provide a bit of stability in figuring out how many miles you might need to save up for a trip and how to know if you're getting a good deal.

However, not all awards price the same. Soon after getting rid of its award chart, United started pricing Star Alliance partner awards at a premium to award flights on United. For example, typical award prices for economy flights to Europe are:

  • 30,000 MileagePlus miles on United and non-alliance partners.

  • 33,000 MileagePlus miles for Star Alliance partners.

Still, there can be value found in booking awards on partner airlines. And United's more than three dozen partner airlines can get you to a much wider set of destinations than you could reach by flying United Airlines alone. You can use MileagePlus miles to book award flights on any Star Alliance member airline and most of United's non-alliance partners.

  • Aer Lingus.

  • Aeromar.

  • Air Dolomiti.

  • Airlink.

  • Azul.

  • Boutique Air.

  • Edelweiss.

  • Eurowings.

  • Eurowings Discover.

  • Olympic Air.

  • Silver Airways.

  • Virgin Australia.

  • Vistara.

7 smart money moves with United miles

With so many flights offered by United and its partners, it’s hard to know where you can get the most value out of your United MileagePlus miles. So here are some sweet spots you should be aware of. Keep in mind that before you redeem your miles, its wise to do a calculation to ensure that you're extracting at least 1.2 cents from each redemption.

1. Short-haul economy flights — in the U.S. and abroad

If you’re booking a short-haul flight, it’s worth looking into booking the flight with MileagePlus miles. Depending on your travel dates, you can book an award for as little as 5,500 United miles each way. For example, it’s often possible to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco for 5,500 miles.

That's the same price you'll find for short-haul domestic flights on partner airlines — such as intra-Japan flights on All Nippon Airways.

Or, for 6,000 United miles, you can fly intra-Europe flights such as Frankfurt to Munich on Lufthansa, Brussels to London on Brussels Airlines or Zurich to Rome on SWISS regional partner Helvetic Airways.

2. Business class from the U.S. to Europe

Using miles to fly across the Atlantic in a lie-flat seat can be a great way to get the most value for your miles, especially because the cash fare for these business class seats can run into the thousands of dollars.

It’s possible to book a one-way business class seat on a direct flight to Europe for as few as:

  • 60,000 miles on United Airlines.

  • 77,000 miles on a Star Alliance partner airline.

  • 66,000 miles on a combination of United and Star Alliance airlines.

A nice feature of United’s award pricing is you’ll typically pay the same number of miles to a particular region of the world regardless of your departure city, subject to saver award availability. This means it’s possible to use 60,000 MileagePlus miles to book a business class award whether it's a 6.5-hour flight from Boston to London or an 11+ hour flight from San Francisco to Munich.

3. A 0-mile award flight using the United Excursionist Perk

Believe it or not, you can actually book an award flight for zero additional miles when using United miles on a multi-destination itinerary. The rules are a bit complicated, but MileagePlus members can use the Excursionist Perk to get a free one-way flight on a qualifying itinerary of three or more one-way awards.

Here's a straightforward example: Fly from New York to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to Zurich and then from Zurich back to New York.

If you book these flights together as one award, United will discount the cost of the Amsterdam to Zurich flight to zero miles.

4. Round-trip to the Caribbean

Planning a warm-weather getaway to a Caribbean destination like Aruba or Turks and Caicos? You can book a round-trip flight for as few as 22,100 miles on United.

Taxes and fees on award flights to and from the Caribbean can be more expensive than other destinations. So compare the cash cost of a flight to the out-of-pocket expense when using miles.

5. U.S. to Tahiti

There aren't many flight options between the U.S. and French Polynesia — which includes once-in-a-lifetime destinations like Bora Bora and Tahiti. Thankfully, United has year-round direct flights from San Francisco to Papeete, Tahiti.

Award availability can be limited on this route, especially during peak travel times. However, it’s possible to book a saver award for as few as 35,000 MileagePlus miles each way in economy or just 70,000 United miles in business class.

If you’re not in San Francisco, it’s possible to use the same number of miles to fly from another United departure city and connect in San Francisco on your way to Tahiti.

6. Flights to Peru in economy

United offers direct flights to Peru from both Houston and New York-Newark. You can book this route for as few as 20,000 miles in economy. You’ll pay a bit more if you fly to Peru on a United partner like Air Canada or Copa Airlines.

7. Intra-Africa flights

So far, we've focused on awards originating in the U.S. However, there's a sweet spot worth mentioning for those that are building a more complex itinerary. United MileagePlus designates most of Africa in the same award region.

That means you can find flights almost anywhere on the continent for just 22,000 miles (or possibly even less) in economy. That can be a great deal for flying from the vineyards of Cape Town to the Old Medina of Casablanca for just 22,000 United miles.

How to top off your United MileagePlus account

You've got options if you don't already have enough MileagePlus miles in your account to take advantage of these sweet spots.

First, United is a Chase Ultimate Rewards® transfer partner. You can convert your Ultimate Rewards® points to MileagePlus miles at a 1:1 transfer ratio if you have an eligible Chase card. Best of all, the transfer is said to take one business day but typically happens instantaneously. So, you can quickly top off your account when you find a great redemption option.

You can also transfer hotel loyalty program points to United — including Hilton Honors and World of Hyatt. However, these transfer options are generally a bad deal.

The other way of building up your MileagePlus account is by earning miles directly through a United co-branded card like the United℠ Explorer Card.

Final thoughts on maximizing your United miles

Your United MileagePlus miles can take you all over the world, but some destinations are better than others for getting the most value out of your miles. Keeping this in mind can help you know when it’s best to redeem your United miles for your next flight and when it’s best to save them for a dream trip that lets you make the most of them.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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