United MileagePlus – Program Introduction & Review

United Airlines has received a lot of press for their rewards program, United MileagePlus, after what turned out as a one-two punch in 2014, with a redemption devaluation in February and the announcement of a revenue based earn structure for 2015. They followed up this year with a devaluation of partner earnings…Is it still worth to be a member of United MileagePlus in 2015?

Reach – How far will it take me? United is one of the largest airlines on the planet, giving you access to 342 destinations in 60 countries with one of the largest fleet of planes – read the United Facts & Figures for more info. United is part of StarAlliance, the largest airline alliance in the world, allowing you to earn and redeem miles on a huge number of flights all over the world, more than any of their American competitors! If you have the miles, you can probably get there with United MileagePlus.

Earn – How do I earn miles? You earn miles with your flights on United or any of the other StarAlliance carriers, but after several rounds of devaluation and program changes, you earn fewer miles than ever and it has become more complicated to figure out how many miles you’ll earn! 
On United flights, you earn miles based on the price of the ticket, ranging from 5 miles/USD for general members to 11 miles/USD for 1K members:

United MileagePlus Earn Table

This also applies to flights on United tickets, operated by partner airlines. So, if you buy a $300 ticket to fly from San Francisco to New York, as a general member you will earn 3,000 miles for a round trip ticket (instead of approx. 5,000 miles based on distance). United is very simply rewarding you more for spending more, so people with expensive last-minute, short flights or expensive international premium class tickets will earn more under the new scheme, while leisure travelers on discount tickets are likely to loose out. Surprisingly, the earning is capped at 75,000 miles per ticket (or $6,818 for a 1K traveler). This actually discourages the very frequent business travelers on premium international tickets, which to Asia or Europe are frequently more than that maximum amount. 

You will also earn points for flights on their partner airlines. Unfortunately, figuring out how many, has become a science on its own, because United will award you a different number of points based on the partner and the fare class of your ticket, anywhere between 0% of the miles flown for a deeply discounted ticket and 250% for a First Class ticket. The easiest way to figure out how many miles you earn and whether it makes sense to credit your miles to United MileagePlus or another program, is to check on WhereToCredit

Other earning partners include hotels or rental cars. The rules again vary by partner, sometimes earning points per USDollar spent, for example with Marriott, sometimes earning a fixed number of points per stay, for example with Hyatt. In general, you’ll be better off earning with the hotel chains’ own reward program, but if you don’t stay with any chain frequently, it might make sense to consolidate those points with United.
Probably the easiest way to earn Untied Miles these days is by credit card – there are a staggering 23 (! and counting) credit cards available around the world, from the US to Japan, Hongkong and Latin America. You can find the full current list here!
In the US, there are a number of different cards available, from the prepaid MileagePlus Go Visa card to the no-annual fee United TravelBank Visa and the (best for most travelers) United Explorer Visa card. The United Explorer card currently offers a 50,000 miles sign-up bonus after spending $3,000 in three months – you’d have to spend $10,000 on United flights to earn the same number of miles on an airplane, making it clear why credit cards have become so attractive and why airline reward programs are really more credit card programs than loyalty programs these days!

United also has a shopping portal, MileagePlusShopping, allowing you to earn miles for online purchases from a long ist of retailers! And if you are still short of miles for your next trip, you can try their dining network, MileagePlus Dining, to earn miles when you eat out. Overall, it’s hard to imagine a broader rewards earning network than what United has put together with MileagePlus. With United Miles, it has created a currency of its own, especially of course for its home market, the USA.

Redeem – what do I get for my miles? You have decided to collect United Miles through the MileagePlus program, flying and buying – now, what are you going to do with all those miles: One of the most frequently selected reward options is a US domestic ticket, which will cost you 25,000 miles for a round trip (as a “Saver” ticket). That’s pretty standard among the US airlines. Short flights under 700 miles are available for 10,000 miles one-way! You can find an interactive mileage calculator for United flights here!

I recommend to get the most from your miles by using them for expensive tickets, resulting in a higher cents/mile value! While domestic trips will often only get you 1 cent/mile, a first class trip to Europe on Lufthansa (160,000 miles round-trip) or business class on All Nippon Air to Asia (150,000 miles round-trip) is often much better value. You can find the current award chart for StarAlliance flights here!

In either case, I’d recommend to only book Saver Awards and to start your search early (11 months out) to find them. Standard Awards with higher availability are excruciatingly expensive and rarely acceptable value. In most cases, you’ll be better off to spend cash and save your points for another day!

Status Benefits – what perks will I get? United MileagePlus has four levels of elite membership, giving a whole range of benefits to its members: 

UA MileagePlus Benefits Overview

In addition, United has an unpublished Global Services level, awarded based on revenue with a traveler. It requires a significant spent on full-fare economy, business and first class tickets. In return, you’ll be at the top of upgrade lists and receive the best service United can muster!
United also has a Million-Miler program, offering members who accumulate 1Million Miles on United planes (partner flights don’t count) life-long Gold Status (including StarAlliance Gold), 2MM Platinum, 3MM 1K and 4MM GlobalService. This also includes complimentary matching status for a spouse or loved one! 

As a long-term 1K and Global Services member, the benefits I value the most are:

Access to Economy Plus – the United Economy cabin is a dreadful place to spend any amount of time and outright awful on international, long-haul flights. United is one of the few airlines still without in-seat entertainment units in economy on international fligths, even some discount carriers are doing better. EconomyPlus, with an additional 5in of legroom, makes the difference between miserable and reasonably comfortable (if bored), especially for somebody who is 6ft3 like me!

United Economy Plus Seats

Complimentary Domestic Upgrades – based on your status level, you will be waitlisted for a complimentary upgrade on domestic flights. If you fly enough to become GS or 1K, you have a reasonable chance of getting upgraded. At the lower levels, your chances are much smaller, especially during busy travel periods and on main-hub routes.

Polaris Seat, courtesy of United

Global Premier Upgrades – these 6 (or more) international, system-wide upgrades were my single, most coveted perk for international travel. Both, when economy travel was required for business or on personal trips, the GPUs would allow me to upgrade any ticket at a fare class of W or higher to upgrade to Business Class, offering tremendous value! Unfortunately, United has devalued this perk greately, giving paid upgrades priority over GPUs, making them drastically less valuable. Even as a Global Service member I would have up to 8 paid upgrades in front of me, making it very unlikely for lower-level members to score an upgrade on busy routes or days.

Waived fees – MileagePlus waives a number of fees for high-level elite members, for example the change or redeposit fees for award tickets. This allows you to make award bookings well in advance, when availability is very good, and change or cancel later without additional cost.

Some of the other benefits, like priority check-in, boarding and luggage handling, are also available to credit card holders, making these benefits much less valuable due to the sheer number of beneficiaries. On the other hand, it provides infrequent United travelers the opportunity to receive some of the basic perks without having to chase status!

If you fly enough to earn the status level above, you will be glad about the benefits provided! They will make travel on United easier and the benefits are very much in line with other US carriers.

If you are expecting VIP treatment based on your status, you need to manage your expectations. While United pre-merger did provide exceptional service to 1K/GS members, and some degree the other elite levels, that special treatment has vanished since the United CFO identified the elite travelers as “over entitled” and cut special treatment and recognition. While pre-merger UA would go out of their way to ensure the satisfaction of their most frequent travelers, I witnessed the disappearance of that customer-oriented service attitude. Now your service level will depend on the luck of the draw, whether you get one of the many nice agents and crew United has – or one of the few bitter, horrible agent and crew who should not be allowed anywhere near a customer!

Who should join United MileagePlus? As pointed out in the United overview, if you live in one of the United hubs and travel frequently on business, you might find yourself frequently on United planes (with few alternatives), making MileagePlus a logical choice. I myself lived in San Francisco, traveling frequently on business across the US, to Frankfurt, Germany, and London, UK, as well as Asia and Australia, giving United and other StarAlliance carriers the vast majority of flights to my destinations, and making MileagePlus my default program for years.

If you are a business traveler with only a few flights a year, it will be difficult to earn enough miles on United to redeem them for a high-value award. If United is your preferred, corporate carrier, that might again make MP your default program.

If you are a leisure traveler with a few flights a year, it also might be difficult to achieve valueable awards through flying. But if you are a US resident and willing to sign up for a United-affiliated credit card and/or their shopping and dining programs, you can consolidate your earning with MileagePlus and earn a dream vacation flight with United. I would only recommend that though, if you live in a United hub and United is your only or by far best to get you to your dream destination.
If you have access to other airlines or are collecting flights for an aspirational dream trip, you might be better of with the program of an airline with better hard product and service! If you are new to miles & points and just now choosing a program, I recommend you start with the dream destination you want to go to and work backwards to the program, airline and class of service that will get you there.


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