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United Airlines MileagePlus Program: The Complete Guide

Aug. 16, 2018
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We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.

United Airlines is among the largest airlines in the U.S. and the world. It’s the dominant carrier at its home airport, O’Hare International in Chicago, and it operates domestic hubs in Houston, Newark, Denver, San Francisco, Washington (Dulles), Los Angeles and Guam.

  • Based on our most recent analysis, NerdWallet values MileagePlus miles at an average of 1 cent apiece
  • Depending on how you redeem, you could get a value of as little as 0.5 cents per mile or as much as 2.1 cents
  • See how we arrived at these figures

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 to earn MileagePlus miles

United Airlines’ frequent-flyer program uses a currency called MileagePlus miles, which NerdWallet values at an average of 1 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.

In general, MileagePlus miles will expire if you go 18 months without earning or redeeming miles on United or a partner. However, miles don’t expire for holders of MileagePlus credit cards. Buying or transferring miles also resets the 18-months clock on expiration.

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: Unless the ticket is issued by United, in which case miles are awarded based on fare, United’s partners in the Star Alliance award MileagePlus miles 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: 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. The annual fee is $0 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 often pay far more than the 1 cent per mile at which NerdWallet values MileagePlus miles.

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’s flight award chart tells you the maximum number of miles you’ll need for a given flight. 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 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 $400 or 40,000 miles. 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 than a penny 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. Upgrade prices are also available in United’s award chart.

BAD REDEMPTION OPTIONS

As a general rule, redemptions at a value lower than 1 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 1 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 comes 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 miles 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 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 $12,000)

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.

United Airlines transfer partners

As of January 2018, 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.

  • Adria (Slovenia)
  • Aegean (Greece)
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • ANA (All Nippon Airways, Japan)
  • Asiana Airlines (South Korea)
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca (Brazil)
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa Airlines (Panama)
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air (Taiwan)
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa (Germany)
  • SAS (Scandinavian Airlines)
  • Shenzhen Airlines (China)
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Airlines
  • 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 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

United MileagePlus® 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

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

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.

Methodology

The calculated value of MileagePlus miles is based on the estimated redemption rate, not credit card rewards earning rates. 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
  • SFO to LAX
  • ORD to LGA
  • LAX to EWR
  • MIA to ATL
  • LGA to LHR
  • HNL to NRT
  • LAX to ICN
  • MCO to LHR
  • MIA to YYZ

For domestic flights, the miles value ranged from 0.5 to 2.1 cents apiece for economy, and 0.5 to 1.9 cents each for business/first class. For international flights, the miles value ranged from 0.8 to 1.2 cents each for economy, and 0.9 to 1.2 cents each for business/first class.

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

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