The Complete Guide to United MileagePlus

Last Updated: 03/10/2020


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United’s MileagePlus program lets members use points to pay for everything from flights to hotel rooms to Broadway tickets. Only a couple of those options are a good value, but the best values remain in redeeming for flights, especially business class, when you can find them.

What Is United MileagePlus?

MileagePlus is the frequent flyer program for United Airlines. United is the world’s third-largest carrier, and is part of Star Alliance, the biggest airline network. United claims to offer the most ways to use points and the most award destinations of any U.S. frequent flyer program.

The most obvious way to earn MileagePlus points is to fly with United and its regional subsidiary, United Express. You’ll get at least 5 points per dollar for that, plus bonus points if you have elite status. But there are lots of other ways to rustel up points as well.

You can fly with partner airlines (from Aegean to Turkish); stay with partner hotel companies (including Marriott, IHG, and Hyatt); and book hotels through the United portal (2 points per $1 spent), Pointshound (2 points per $1) or Rocketmiles (0.8 cents to 2 cents per $1). You can also get MileagePlus points for renting cars from various companies, riding Amtrak, using Quicken Loans or LifeLock and buying through United’s dining, shopping, golf, vacation, gift card, and cruise programs.

The airline’s co-branded credit cards will score you another 2 points per $1 spent with United and less for most other purchases, depending on the card. United also regularly offers ways for cardholders to earn bonus points.

Elite status—called Premier—definitely helps when you’re trying to accumulate United miles. The airline has four Premier tiers, from Silver to 1K; as you climb the status ladder, you get more perks, including free checked bags, upgrades, and up to 11 points per dollar spent on fares. 

Credit Cards That Earn MileagePlus Points

How to Use MileagePlus Points

There are more than a dozen ways to use United points; most offer poor value, but a few options are solid and a couple—award flights and newspaper and magazine subscriptions—can be outstanding.

  • Award flights. Book on United or 28 partner airlines. 
  • Upgrades. Use miles to buy upgrades on paid tickets. 
  • Hotel rooms, rental cars, cruises. Pay through the United Hotels portals, at values of 0.5 cents to 1.5 cents per point. 
  • Merchandise. Shop for hundreds of name-brand products. 
  • Shopping and dining. Use the MileagePlus X app, get 0.5 cents per dollar.  
  • Gift cards. Buy e-cards for the equivalent of 0.6 points per mile. 
  • Experiences. Travel packages, behind-the-scenes tours, and more. 
  • United Club Membership. A year of lounge access for 85,000 miles. 
  • TSA Precheck. Cover the application fee with points. 
  • In-flight Wi-Fi.  Internet on United flights for 7,500 points. 
  • Subscriptions. Magazines and newspapers, many at great redemption rates. 
  • Transfer and gift miles. A pretty terrible value. 
  • Donate to charity. Choose from dozens of nonprofits. 

Award Flights

There are some big pros and cons to using miles to book United flights—but mostly pros. The main downside is that the airline doesn’t use an award chart, which means that the only way to find out how much a flight will cost in points is to search for it. Even then, prices are constantly fluctuating, so if you come back to the site in a few days, the cost of the flight may have changed.

The biggest upsides are that United is part of the Star Alliance partnership, which means that you can use MileagePlus points to book seats on 28 different airlines. United doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges for award tickets, even with those partner bookings—which can save you hundreds of dollars, depending on your itinerary.

Finally, and most importantly. you can often find solid value for your miles with United—and sometimes mind-blowing deals.

We’ve had no trouble finding flights that gave us more than 2 cents per mile, including a flight from Houston to New York that cost $329 or 14,500 miles. We also searched for a one-way trip from Chicago to Paris. In cash, it cost $3,207 whether you were flying nonstop or changing planes in Frankfurt. In points, the nonstop flight cost 72,000 miles—a fantastic 4.5 cents per mile—and the layover flight cost just 32,500 miles. That’s about 10 cents a mile, a value that’s practically impossible to beat.

Keep in mind that availability can be spotty. Some routes will have great deals, while others are poor values. United loosely adheres to the notion of an award chart unlike fixed value redemption programs like Southwest or JetBlue. In certain cases, you’ll find award tickets can be much better than paying cash.

You also have to pay fees for award flights; they can be as low as $5.60 per ticket, but can also be many times that. 

Seat Upgrades 

United lets members use MileagePlus points to pay for seat upgrades on paid tickets. Prices vary depending on your ticket type, route, elite status, and more. On many routes you’ll also be responsible for a co-pay. If an upgrade is available, you can book it when you reserve your ticket or afterwards, and will be wait-listed for the change. If the upgrade doesn’t come through, you will get your points and any money back.  

Hotel Rooms, Rental Cars, Cruises

MileagePlus members can use their points to reserve rooms through its travel portals:  United Hotels, MileagePlus Car Awards and MileagePlus Cruises.  Rates vary widely, from 0.5 cents to 1.5 cents per point. The hotel portal lets customers toggle between cash and points prices, for easy comparison. The rental car and cruise portals don’t; it’s wise to take the extra step of doing a separate search to see what kind of value you’re getting before you commit your points. 

Merchandise

You can use your MileagePlus points to purchase items from the United portal–everything from sunglasses to Apple products to Bugaboo strollers. The value is unimpressive, just 0.5 to 0.7 cents per mile. 

Shopping and Dining

With the United MileagePlus X app, you can use points to pay for purchases at various businesses, including AMC Theatres, Chipotle, Starbucks and Nordstrom. But you’ll get poor value this way: just 0.5 cents per point.

Gift Cards

Through the United site, you can use MileagePlus points to buy electronic gift cards from brands including eBay, Macy’s, Home Depot, and Lululemon. They offer poor value as well—0.6 cents per point. 

Experiences

United has three different ways to use miles on experiences. Through the Exclusives program, you can buy or bid on trips, event tickets, and some very special-access experiences like the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Summer Olympics or meet-and-greets with Broadway stars.  Many of them are sold through auctions. There are also a lot of packages that include “priceless” components—not worth an infinite amount of money, but unavailable on the open market, so without a price tag—which also makes calculating values tough. Our advice is to set a maximum price you’d be willing to pay for an experience, translate that into points using a strong value (at least 1.5 points per dollar), and act accordingly.

You can also use points to buy tickets to selected Broadway shows, operas and other performances in New York. Expect to get 0.7 cents to 1 cent per point this way. For instance, we saw $78 tickets for Blue Man Group going for 11,000 points apiece—about 0.7 cents a point. Jersey Boys fans could get almost 1 cent per point for orchestra seats.

If rock concerts and sporting events are more your speed, you can use points to buy seats through MileagePlus Event Awards, a partnership with Tickpick. The selection is enormous, and you’ll get about 0.75 cents per point—not amazing, but better than buying a gift card. 

United Club Membership

United has 45 airport lounges around the world that offer free drinks and snacks, high-speed Wi-Fi and other amenities. You can buy annual access for $650 or 85,000 miles—about 0.8 cents per point.

TSA Precheck

Use your points to cover the $85 application fee, a value of 0.9 cents a mile.

In-flight Wi-Fi

Instead of paying per-flight for internet access, you can purchase a subscription that lets you connect on any Wi-Fi-equipped United or United Express flight. Pricing for North and Central America starts at $49 or 7,500 miles, a value of about 0.7 point per mile.

Subscriptions

Like many other loyalty programs, United MileagePlus lets you use points to buy newspaper and magazine subscriptions. This can be an excellent value—a Bloomberg Businessweek subscription costs $75, but in miles it’s 16,000 miles or 5 cents a mile. Allure magazine gives you a value of about 2 cents a mile. And a 39-week print subscription to The Wall Street Journal  3,240. Compared to the retail of $81 a month that’s a value of 2.5 cents per mile. 

Transfer to Friends and Family

You can transfer points to other MileagePlus members, with a minimum of 500 points, but it will cost you—$7.50 for every 500 points you want to move, PLUS a $30 transaction fee. That’s super-steep, and almost never worth it. 

Donate to Charity

Southwest partners with several charities, including the Guide Dogs of America, Americares Foundation, Clean the World. The minimum donation is 1,000 miles, and there is no associated tax break. 

Summary

United has one of the better airline loyalty programs, thanks in part to its participation in Star Alliance—you’ll usually be able to book a trip with miles, and often at good value. Most of the other options are fun but not terribly wise. Stil, if you happen to get a big windfall, there are worse ways to use them than to see the Olympics.