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United Airlines MileagePlus Program: The Complete Guide

Jan. 23, 2020
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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.

If your home airport is a United stronghold, or if you just choose to fly the carrier regularly, you’ll want to check out the airline’s frequent-flyer program, MileagePlus.

How much United MileagePlus miles are worth

Based on our most recent analysis, NerdWallet values United MileagePlus miles at

0.8 cent

apiece. To determine the value of reward miles, we compared cash prices and reward redemptions for economy roundtrip 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

0.8 cent

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.

How to earn MileagePlus miles

United Airlines’ frequent-flyer program uses a currency called MileagePlus miles, which NerdWallet values at an average of

0.8 cent

each. You earn miles when you fly on United or one of its partner airlines, and you can redeem them for award flights. 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.

Earning 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.

Status level Miles earned Status bonus
MileagePlus Member (basic) 5 miles per $1 spentNone
Premier Silver7 miles per $1 spent 40% bonus compared with basic
Premier Gold8 miles per $1 spent 60% bonus compared with basic
Premier Platinum9 miles per $1 spent 80% bonus compared with basic
Premier 1K11 miles per $1 spent120% 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.

EARNING MILEAGEPLUS MILES WITH A CREDIT CARD

United Airlines offers co-branded credit cards through Chase.

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: Limited-time offer! Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles after $3,000 in purchases in the first three months from account opening 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. You also get priority boarding so you can get on the plane early and find space for a carry-on bag.

» JUMP AHEAD to other credit cards that earn MileagePlus miles

EARNING 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, have an 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.

BUYING ADDITIONAL MILEAGEPLUS MILES

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

0.8 cent

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.

How to redeem MileagePlus miles

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.

TWO TYPES OF AWARD SEATS

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:

  • Saver Awards seats are cheaper in terms of miles required to book them — 10,000 or 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 will not necessarily 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 of0.8 cent

    each, redemptions that give you at least that much value are a decent option. For example, break-even would be a flight that costs $320 or 40,000 miles (40,000 miles * .008 per mile). If you can book a $400 flight for 25,000 miles, that’s a good use of miles (1.6 cents per mile).

  • Upgrades. Upgrading your seat to a premium class can be another good use of miles because doing so can return value greater than0.8 cent

    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

0.8 cent

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

0.8 cent

per mile, so we recommend avoiding them.

MileagePlus program status levels

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.

HOW TO EARN ELITE STATUS IN MILEAGEPLUS

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. That’s why you must understand the terms PQD, PQM and PQS.

  • PQDs are Premier qualifying dollars. You earn them based on how much you spend on tickets with United and its partners (excluding government taxes and fees). A notable exception: If you spend at least $25,000 on a Chase MileagePlus co-branded credit card, it counts as your minimum spending requirement for all but the top Premier 1K elite status.
  • PQMs are Premier qualifying miles. Unlike the rewards currency called MileagePlus miles, PQMs are distance-based. They’re calculated by taking the mileage of the paid flight and multiplying it by the fare class. You get more PQMs if your fare is in a premium cabin or if you paid full price for a coach seat rather than a discounted price, for example.
  • PQSs are Premier qualifying segments. You earn them based on how many takeoff-to-landing flights you take. A nonstop flight from San Francisco to New York, for example, would be one PQS. If you had a layover in Denver, it would be two PQSs. Fare class matters here too. All elite levels require a minimum of four paid flight segments.

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.

PQDs, PQMs and PQSs 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 don’t earn any dollars, miles or segments.

Eligible purchased fare classesPremier qualifying miles
(PQM)
Premier qualifying segments
(PQS)
F, J300%1.5
A, C, D, Z, P200%1.5
Y, B150%1.5
M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G100%1
N0%0

Elite-Level Requirements

To earn elite status, you need a minimum number of PQDs (if you’re a U.S. resident) plus a certain number of PQMs or PQSs:

Premier levelPQM and PQS requirement (and PQD requirement for U.S. residents)
Premier Silver25,000 PQM or 30 PQS (and $3,000)
Premier Gold50,000 PQM or 60 PQS (and $6,000)
Premier Platinum75,000 PQM or 90 PQS (and $9,000)
Premier 1K100,000 PQM or 120 PQS (and $15,000)

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.

United Airlines transfer partners

As of November 2019, 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.

  • Aegean Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air
  • Juneyao Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • Olympic Air
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Airlines
  • TAP Air Portugal
  • Thai Airways International
  • Turkish 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. Other partner airlines include:

  • Aer Lingus (Ireland)
  • Aeromar (Mexico)
  • Air Dolomiti (Italy)
  • Azul Brazilian Airlines
  • Cape Air (U.S. regional carrier)
  • Edelweiss (Switzerland)
  • Eurowings (Germany)
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Silver Airways (Florida)

Credit cards that earn MileagePlus miles

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

United℠ Explorer Card

  • 2 miles per dollar on eligible United Airlines purchases, hotel stays and at restaurants
  • 1 mile per dollar spent on other purchases
  • $0 intro for the first year, then $95

United Club℠ Card

  • 2 miles on every dollar spent on eligible United Airlines purchases
  • 1.5 miles per dollar spent on everything else
  • United Club membership
  • $450

United℠ Business Card

  • 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
  • $99

United MileagePlus Club Business Card 

  • Earn 1.5 miles per dollar on every purchase
  • Earn 2 miles per dollar on United ticket purchases
  • $450 annual fee

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.

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