United MileagePlus Program: The Complete Guide

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United Airlines is among the largest airlines in the U.S. and the world. It’s the dominant carrier at O'Hare International in Chicago, and it operates domestic hubs in Houston, Newark, Denver, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles, Los Angeles and Guam. The United MileagePlus program is the airline’s loyalty program.

If your home airport is a United stronghold, or if you just choose to fly the carrier regularly, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with its frequent-flyer program.

Based on our most recent analysis, at  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. .

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  or more in value from your United miles.

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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’ frequent-flyer program uses a currency called MileagePlus miles, which NerdWallet values at an average of  each. You earn miles when you fly on United or one of its partner airlines, and you can redeem them for . Although they’re called miles, you earn them based on how much money you spend, not how far you fly.

You can earn additional miles by spending money with United’s partners or using a United-branded credit card.

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 .

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.

United Airlines offers co-branded credit cards through Chase.

NerdWallet's favorite credit card for the MileagePlus program is the . 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: The annual fee is — 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.

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You can purchase additional miles through the MileagePlus website, but this is generally not a good idea. You'll pay far more than the  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.

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MileagePlus miles are redeemable for flights through United Airlines and its partners in the Star Alliance. In most cases, you redeem by booking through United’s website. Choose a flight, and you'll see what the price is in cash as well as miles.

United Airlines offers several levels of award seats, requiring more miles for more desirable seats and cabins. They are awarded as one-way flights, so if you're spending miles, you'll have to apply them to both the outbound and return flights separately.

Generally, there are two kinds of award redemptions:

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.

As a general rule, redemptions at a value lower than  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  per mile, so we recommend avoiding them.

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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.

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  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.

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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).

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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.

To earn elite status, you need a minimum number of PQFs and PQPs or PQPs only:

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 :

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 2020, you’ll keep your status through the remainder of 2020 and all of 2021.

As of April 2021, the United Airlines website identifies these as its partner airlines.

In general, you can earn MileagePlus miles on flights with Star Alliance partners and redeem your miles for flights on Star Alliance 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. Other partner airlines include:

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United Airlines co-branded credit cards are issued by Chase. Cards that earn MileagePlus miles include:

Another United co-branded card for consumers, the , does not earn MileagePlus miles.

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 .

The information related to the has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

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

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