The Complete Guide to the United MileagePlus Program
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Table of Contents
- What is United MileagePlus?
- United Airlines frequent flyer sign-up
- How much are United miles worth?
- United Airlines vs. competitors: How it stacks in 2023
- How to earn United miles
- How to redeem United miles
- United elite status
- United Airlines partners
- Credit cards that earn United MileagePlus miles
- Need more help deciding?
United Airlines is among the largest airlines in the U.S. and the world, with domestic hubs in Chicago, Houston, Newark, Denver, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles, Los Angeles and Guam. MileagePlus is the name of the airline’s loyalty program.
The airline operates 4,500 daily flights to more than 300 cities across five continents. In addition, United has partnerships with 14 airlines and is also a member of Star Alliance, which has 26 member airlines. These relationships mean that you can earn and redeem miles on 39 airlines, and travel to so many destinations.
If your home airport is a United stronghold, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with its frequent flyer program so you can start reaping the benefits of the airline’s vast reach.
Follow along as we discuss different ways to earn and redeem MileagePlus miles, elite status, the best United credit cards and the airline’s Star Alliance and other airline partners.
What is United MileagePlus?
MileagePlus is United Airlines' frequent flyer loyalty program. When you fly on paid tickets on United Airlines, its airline partners and its Star Alliance partners, you can earn MileagePlus miles. You can also earn miles in many other ways, including using a United credit card, transferring from Chase Ultimate Rewards, dining, shopping and much more.
Once you’ve accumulated enough miles, you can redeem them for free flights in first, business class and economy seats on United and its partner airlines. You can also redeem miles for flight upgrades.
United Airlines frequent flyer sign-up
Before you can start earning miles with United Airlines, you’ll need to sign up for a MileagePlus frequent flyer account. It’s free to join, and you can register for an account here.
How much are United miles worth?
Based on our most recent analysis, NerdWallet values United MileagePlus miles at 1.2 cents apiece. To determine the value of reward miles, we compared cash prices and reward redemptions for economy round-trip routes across several destinations and dates. We divided the cost of the cash ticket by the cost of the reward ticket to determine a “cent per mile” value for each flight, then averaged this value across several flights and dates. Read more about how we arrived at these figures.
This is therefore a baseline value for United miles, based on real-world data collected from hundreds of economy routes, not a maximized value. In other words, you should aim for award redemptions that offer 1.2 cents or more in value from your United miles.
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 Airlines vs. competitors: How it stacks in 2023
While United MileagePlus can pay dividends for some travelers, here’s the bad news: United Airlines came in seventh place out of 9 in our most recent analysis on the best airline loyalty programs Sure, it beat out notoriously controversial airlines like budget carriers Spirit and Frontier, but it’s the worst among the legacy carriers.
United came in last in two categories: basic economy tickets, and flying with pets. While United’s basic economy tickets are cheap, the extra fees are abundant, so you might end up paying just as much as a higher fare class anyway. United won’t let your pet fly in cargo, and it’s even restrictive (and expensive) if you’re bringing your furry friend in the main cabin.
It did manage to make the podium for good elite status benefits. If you spend a lot or fly a lot, United can work for you, but it’s far from the best for infrequent or budget-conscious travelers.
Here's a closer look at how MileagePlus competed across categories:
Last in rewards (mile) value.
Second to last in operations.
Tied for second in elite status benefits.
Tied for third in terms of total fees.
United tied for last with Delta when looking closer at the best basic economy tickets.
Sixth in in-flight experience.
Last place in most pet-friendly airlines.
How to earn United miles
You can earn miles when you fly on United or its partner airlines, by using a United Airlines credit card and by shopping and dining with partners.
MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for award flights and many other uses, though none of which are as fruitful.
Earn MileagePlus miles when you fly
The number of miles you'll earn for a flight depends on how much you spent on the ticket and your status level within the MileagePlus program. All statuses above basic membership earn mile bonuses.
For example, the basic member rewards rate is 5 miles per dollar. But at Premier Silver level, you earn a 40% bonus, which turns your rate into 7 miles per dollar. We'll have more on status levels below — or you can jump ahead to that part now.
MileagePlus member (basic)
5 miles per $1 spent.
7 miles per $1 spent.
40% bonus compared with basic.
8 miles per $1 spent.
60% bonus compared with basic.
9 miles per $1 spent.
80% bonus compared with basic.
11 miles per $1 spent.
120% bonus compared with basic.
NOTE: You earn miles only on airfare and airline fees. Government-imposed taxes and fees do not earn miles. Generally, the most you can earn on a ticket is 75,000 miles.
Earning on other airlines: When the ticket is issued by United (ticket number starting with 016), you’ll earn miles based on the cost of the fare. But if your ticket is booked through one of United’s partners, miles are awarded based on a calculation involving the price and class of the ticket and the flight distance.
Earn United MileagePlus miles with a credit card
United Airlines offers co-branded credit cards through Chase. Bonuses between cards vary, so if you’re considering a credit card, take a look at its bonus history so that you can take advantage of a high welcome offer.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
NerdWallet's favorite credit card for the MileagePlus program is the United℠ Explorer Card. It gives you 2 miles per dollar spent at restaurants, on hotel stays and on purchases from United, and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.
You get a great sign-up bonus to start: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. The annual fee is $0 intro for the first year, then $95 — but the checked bag benefit on this card can make up for it quickly. The first checked bag is free for you and a companion traveling on your reservation.
Here are some more resources for shopping United credit cards:
» JUMP AHEAD to other credit cards that earn MileagePlus miles
Earn United MileagePlus miles through partners
Hotels. You can earn additional MileagePlus miles at most major hotel chains. In some cases, you earn 1 or 2 miles per dollar spent; in others, you earn a flat number of miles per stay. See partner hotels and the earning rules here.
Dining. Register a credit card with MileagePlus Dining, and every time you use that card at a participating restaurant, club or bar, you'll earn up to 5 miles per dollar spent. There are more than 11,000 participating locations.
Auto rentals and other transportation. Hertz-owned rental agencies, including Dollar and Thrifty, offer the option to earn MileagePlus miles. See the rules here. Amtrak rail service and select shuttles and car services are also partners.
Shopping. When you shop online through the MileagePlus Shopping mall, you earn miles for every dollar you spend at more than 850 retailers.
Financial partners. Earn miles when doing business with lending and insurance partners, among others. Details here.
Buy United miles
If you want to buy United miles, you can do so on the MileagePlus website, but this is generally not a good idea. You'll pay far more than the 1.2 cents per mile at which NerdWallet values MileagePlus miles. However, if you need a few thousand miles to top up your account for a valuable award, it could make sense.
» Learn more: How to earn United MileagePlus miles
How to redeem United miles
MileagePlus miles are redeemable for flights on United Airlines, on Star Alliance airlines and on United’s independent airline partners. Star Alliance has 26 member airlines and United has partnerships with 14 airlines. All of this means that you can use United miles to fly on 39 airlines, creating so many opportunities for traveling the world.
MileagePlus members have the option to pay for domestic United flights using a combination of miles and cash, called Money + Miles. You'll earn miles on the cash portion of the payment, excluding taxes and fees.
United has a user friendly search engine, which means that In most cases, you can redeem miles directly on United’s website. Choose a flight, and you'll see what the price is in cash as well as miles.
United award tickets
United offers several levels of award seats, requiring more miles for more desirable seats and cabins. Flights can be booked as one-way tickets or round trips, and there is no benefit of booking a round-trip ticket.
Generally, there are two kinds of award redemptions:
Saver Awards seats are cheaper in terms of miles required to book them — ranging from 5,000 to 12,500 miles for domestic economy, for example. But they are scarcer and might not be available for the flight you want.
Everyday Awards seats are more available than Saver Awards seats but require more miles. Flyers with elite status, which United calls Premier, and eligible holders of MileagePlus credit cards have unrestricted access to book seats — even the last seat on the plane — at the Everyday Awards level.
United discontinued its published award chart for flights on Nov. 15, 2019, and does not have a set amount of miles required for each flight anymore. You can generally expect that prices that are cheaper with cash will also be cheaper with miles. It’s always best to compare the cost of each before booking.
Note that if you pay for a flight with miles, you don’t earn frequent-flyer miles for that flight.
Good redemption options
Free flights. Because we value MileagePlus miles at an average of 1.2 cents each, redemptions that give you at least that much value are a decent option. For example, break-even would be a flight that costs $480 or 40,000 miles (40,000 miles * .012 per mile). If you can book a $480 flight for 25,000 miles, that’s a better use of miles (1.9 cents per mile). United has many opportunities for sweet spot redemptions.
Upgrades. Upgrading your seat to a premium class can be another good use of miles because doing so can return value greater than 1.2 cents per mile. Some upgrades to business or first class require payment in the form of a cash co-pay as well as miles. As with award seats, upgrades are based on one-way flights. The price of an upgrade depends on the fare class of your current ticket — upgrading from a cheaper fare will generally cost more.
Bad redemption options
As a general rule, redemptions at a value lower than 1.2 cents per mile aren’t good. Other redemption options include United Club membership fees, hotel stays, car rentals, cruises and gift cards. These options tend to offer a lower value than 1.2 cents per mile, so we recommend avoiding them.
» Learn more: The complete guide to redeeming United Mileageplus miles
United elite status
Anyone can sign up for the MileagePlus program. It's free to join. With basic membership, though, pretty much all you get is a frequent-flyer number and an account where your points accumulate. The real goodies come when you earn elite status. First, we'll look at what you get at the four elite levels of MileagePlus. Then we'll look at what it takes to get there.
MileagePlus elite levels and benefits
On United, elite statuses are called Premier levels. From lowest to highest, they are Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K.
With Premier statuses, you’ll qualify for mileage bonuses, seat upgrades, priority check-in, complimentary checked baggage, better award-seat availability, discounted and waived fees and other benefits. And if you get Gold status or better, you’ll also have lounge access when traveling internationally. Here’s a full list of all the perks you’ll receive at each level.
Note that a few of the most valuable perks of elite status are available through some of the airline’s co-branded credit cards. They include free checked bags, priority boarding, better access to award seats and even United Club airport lounge access.
» Learn more: 5 things to know about United Airlines lounges
How to get elite status on United
To earn MileagePlus Premier elite status, you need to do things the airline cares about as a business: fly often, fly far and spend money. This will earn you a combination of Premier qualifying points (PQPs) and Premier qualifying flights (PQFs).
PQPs are earned on the base fare, carrier surcharges, economy plus seats or subscriptions, preferred seat purchases, upgrade award co-pays, paid upgrades and flights ticketed and operated by Star Alliance partners.
A PQF is one flight. Each segment flown (except basic economy) will count as one PQF. Flights taken in basic economy will not earn any PQFs.
» Learn more: Guide to United Airlines Premier elite status
You don’t need to track all this math yourself; United does that and displays it in your online MileagePlus account. But the chart below shows how it works. United, like other airlines, labels fare classes with letter codes. For example, F is first class, Y is full-fare economy and N is basic economy. Your fare class for each flight segment is displayed during booking and when viewing a ticketed itinerary on united.com.
PQPs and PQFs are all credited to the person flying, not the person paying for the tickets. And if you used frequent flyer miles to pay for a flight, you won’t earn any PQPs or PQFs.
United elite status requirements
To become an elite member, you need a specific number of PQFs and PQPs or PQPs only. Here are the requirements to earn status starting in 2023:
PQF + PQP
12 PQF + 4,000 PQP.
24 PQF + 8,000 PQP.
36 PQF + 12,000 PQP.
54 PQF + 18,000 PQP.
Since United can’t determine how much money you spent on flights with Star Alliance partners, if you chose to earn United miles on those flights, PQPs will be earned based on an airline’s designation as a “Preferred” or “MileagePlus” partner:
Earning Premier status is based on flying and spending during the previous calendar year. Once you qualify for a Premier status, it is valid from the date you qualified through the end of the following program year. So, it could last more than 12 months. For example, if you qualify for Premier Silver status in June 2023, you’ll keep your status through Jan. 31, 2025.
United Airlines partners
The United Airlines website identifies these as its partner airlines.
Star Alliance members
In general, you can earn MileagePlus miles on flights with Star Alliance partners and redeem your miles for flights on Star Alliance airlines.
Other partner airlines
On airlines outside the Star Alliance, your ability to earn and/or redeem miles is more limited. For example, you may be able to earn miles but not redeem them, or you may be able to redeem only for certain flights.
Credit cards that earn United MileagePlus miles
United Airlines co-branded credit cards are issued by Chase. Cards that earn MileagePlus miles include:
2 miles per dollar on eligible United Airlines purchases, gas, local transit and commuting.
1 mile per dollar spent on other purchases.
Annual fee: $0.
2 miles per dollar on eligible United Airlines purchases, hotel stays and at restaurants.
1 mile per dollar spent on other purchases.
Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $95.
3 miles per dollar on eligible United Airlines purchases.
2 miles per dollar on restaurants, select streaming services and all other travel.
1 mile per dollar spent on other purchases.
Up to $125 in annual United credit.
Annual fee: $250.
4 miles per dollar spent on United purchases.
2 miles per dollar spent on dining and all other travel.
1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.
United Club membership.
Annual fee: $525.
Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurants, gas stations, office supplies stores, transit and United purchases.
Earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases.
Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $99.
2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases.
1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase.
Annual fee: $450.
Another United co-branded card for consumers, the United℠ TravelBank Card, does not earn MileagePlus miles.
Need more help deciding?
We've covered all the basic details of the United Airlines MileagePlus program. But if you still aren't sure whether a frequent flyer program is worth the effort, see our absolute beginner's guide to frequent flyer programs.
The information related to the United℠ TravelBank Card and United Club℠ Business Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.
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:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card