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United MileagePlus Program Review

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United Airlines MileagePlus Program review

With major hubs in several big U.S. cities, United Airlines may be your go-to choice when traveling between two popular destinations. Here’s what you should know before becoming a member of its MileagePlus loyalty program.

United MileagePlus: The basics

To qualify for the various United MileagePlus loyalty tiers, you need a certain number of Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs), along with a set amount of annual spending on United (tracked by Premier Qualifying Dollars, or PQDs). Here’s how many you need for each loyalty tier per year:

Premier Silver: 25,000 PQMs (and $3,000) or 30 PQSs (and $3,000)
Premier Gold: 50,000 PQMs (and $6,000) or 60 PQSs (and $6,000)
Premier Platinum: 75,000 PQMs (and $9,000) or 90 PQSs (and $9,000)
Premier 1K: 100,000 PQMs (and $12,000) or 120 PQSs (and $12,000)

With any of the Premier statuses, you’ll qualify for priority check-in, complimentary checked baggage for economy tickets 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.

You don’t need PQDs, PQMs or PQSs to purchase flights on United – you can do that with miles earned on your United credit card purchases.

Cards that earn MileagePlus Miles

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

  • Earn 2 miles per dollar on every United ticket purchase
  • Earn 1 mile per dollar on every purchase
  • Get 2 one-time United Club passes per year
  • 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
  • $95 annual fee
  • First bag checked free for you and a companion on your reservation

United MileagePlus® Club Card

  • Earn 1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on United ticket purchases

United Airlines Mileage Plus Explorer Business Card

  • Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on restaurants, gas stations, office supplies stores and United tickets
  • Earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases

United MileagePlus Club Business Card 

  • Earn 1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases

How to get more MileagePlus PQMs, PQSs and PQDs

Unlike some loyalty programs, none of the United co-branded credit cards offer automatic elite status to cardholders. But sometimes, often toward the beginning or end of a new year, United will let you purchase PQMs though its website and move up to the next tier. Short of that, though, you can’t earn PQMs, PQDs or PQSs unless you purchase United flights and fly on the airline frequently. Unfortunately, if you earn too many, they won’t roll over to the following year (as they would in Delta’s program).

You can buy additional United miles through your online MileagePlus portal, but these don’t count toward Premier status. As of October 2015, the prices range from 2.45 cents each (when you purchase 26,000 miles or more) to 3.5 cents each (when you purchase 2,000 to 25,000 miles). On occasion, United offers additional promotions on these sales where you can buy miles at a discount. NerdWallet values United miles at 1.7 cents each, so unless you can purchase with a discount of over 50%, it’s probably not worth the cost.

How to redeem MileagePlus miles

To redeem your MileagePlus miles, log on to your United online portal, go to the “Reservations” drop-down menu and click “Make Flight Reservation.” From there, fill out the form with your trip information and under “Search By,” select “Award Travel.” Look at the top row to see if Saver Awards (which are less expensive) or Standard Awards are available for your travel dates.

Good redemption options

Using your miles for international flights helps you get the most value out of them. On international flights, NerdWallet values miles at 1.3 cents each for economy and 2.2 cents each for business class. You’ll likely pay more in miles for an international trip, but compared to what you’d shell out in dollars for the same flights, using miles could be a better deal.

Bad redemption options

Though it’s headquartered in the United States, United doesn’t offer high redemption values for domestic flights. For trips within the continental U.S., NerdWallet values United miles at 1.3 cent each when redeemed for business class and 0.8 cents when redeemed for economy. This may not be a bad redemption option for someone who never flies internationally, but compared with what other loyalty programs offer, it’s on the low end.

Earn MileagePlus miles on other airlines

Through United.com, you can use your miles for Star Alliance airlines and other MileagePlus partners if they’re included in part of a multi-leg United trip, but you won’t be able to transfer miles to these other loyalty programs directly.

For example, if you wanted to go to Hawaii, and Hawaiian Airlines offered a direct flight from your city, you wouldn’t be able to transfer your United miles to HawaiianMiles and pay for your trip that way. But you could book a United flight to Hawaii that switches over to Hawaiian Airlines halfway on United.com using your miles.

And although you can’t transfer miles, you can still earn MileagePlus miles when flying on Star Alliance airlines and other partners. So if you decide, in this example, that you want to take the direct flight on Hawaiian Airlines instead of paying with miles, you can still earn miles if you enter your MileagePlus membership number when booking. Check this list to see how many miles you’ll earn through each United partner.

Aside from United, here are a list of Star Alliance airlines:

  • ADRIA Airways
  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Austrian
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Airways
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • SWISS
  • TAP Portugal
  • THAI
  • Turkish Airlines

Here are some other MileagePlus partners that aren’t part of the Star Alliance:

  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Azul
  • Cape Air
  • Edelweiss
  • Germanwings
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Island Air
  • Jet Airways
  • Silver Airways

Fine print

  • Your miles may expire after 18 months of account inactivity. Activity includes flying, earning or redeeming rewards, making purchases with your MileagePlus credit card and more.
  • PQDs are earned with purchases for base fares and carrier-imposed surcharges, flights flown by United, United Express or Copa Airlines, Economy Plus purchases and flights operated by a Star Alliances or MileagePlus partner with a United-issued ticket.
  • Note that you won’t earn PQDs on Star Alliance airlines with tickets issued from an airline other than United (the ticket number doesn’t start with 016), and you won’t earn PQMs and PQSs on other MileagePlus partners that are ticketed by United. On MileagePlus partners not ticketed by United, you won’t earn PQDs, PQMs or PQSs.

Top consumer credit card that earns MileagePlus miles

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

The best part about the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is probably the sign-up bonus, although the spending requirement is on the high side: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Overall, NerdWallet values United miles at 1.7 cents each, making this bonus worth about $850. You can get an additional 5,000 bonus miles if you add an authorized user to the account and make a purchase within the first three months. Based on NerdWallet’s valuations, that’s an extra $85. Earning 2 miles per United tickets purchase and 1 point on other purchases, this card will help you rake in the miles if you fly United frequently.

The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card also rewards loyal customers with anniversary United Club passes. Each year, you’ll receive 2 one-time-use United Club passes, granting access to lounges with complimentary bars, Wi-Fi and snacks. You’ll get an additional 10,000 bonus miles once you reach $25,000 in net purchases on your card each calendar year. The card also waives foreign transaction fees, making it a good choice for international travel.

Methodology

The calculated value of these points is based on an estimated redemption rate, not a credit card rewards earn rate. Therefore, you may notice that these numbers don’t match the rewards rates on our credit card finder tool. Read on for how we estimated these points values.

For our calculations, we sampled 10 popular airline routes — five domestic and five international — for both economy and business/first class flights. These are the routes we used:

  • LGA to MIA (LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Miami International Airport)
  • SFO to LAX (San Francisco International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport)
  • ORD to LGA (O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to LaGuardia Airport in New York City)
  • LAX to JFK (Los Angeles International Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City)
  • MIA to ATL (Miami International Airport to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)
  • LGA to LHR (LaGuardia Airport in New York City to London Heathrow Airport)
  • HNL to NRT (Honolulu International Airportto Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba, Japan, serving the Greater Tokyo area)
  • LAX to ICN (Los Angeles International Airport to Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, serving the Seoul area)
  • MCO to LHR (Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida, to London Heathrow Airport)
  • MIA to YYZ (Miami International Airport to Toronto Pearson International Airport)

For domestic flights, the miles value ranged from 0.3 to 3.1 cents each. For international flights, the miles value ranged from 0.6 to 4.3 cents each.

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 cents per mile

Last updated on September 14, 2015.

Claire Tsosie is a staff writer covering personal finance for NerdWallet. Follow her on Twitter @ideclaire7 and on Google+.


Image via iStock.