A Beginner’s Guide to United Airlines (UA) MileagePlus Miles

1. Introduction

United Airlines is one of the three legacy carriers in the U.S. alongside American Airlines and Delta. Their miles are some of the best when it comes to redeeming for international travel.

Here are a few reasons why I like them a lot:

  • United miles are relatively easy to earn
  • They have a big network of partner airlines to redeem miles on
  • No fuel surcharges

Interested? Let’s take a quick look at their mileage program.

2. United MileagePlus Elite Status

United MileagePlus offers 4 tiers of elite status. The most important thing to take away from this list is that you don’t have to have any of these fancy titles to book an award ticket. Further, many of the benefits derived from elite status can be covered through a credit card. So if this doesn’t interest you, skip ahead.

Here are some benefits of elite status:

  • Lounge access for international travel
  • Lower fees for canceling/changing tickets; waived phone booking fees
  • Free checked luggage
  • Upgrades
  • Earn miles faster on paid flights
  • Free Economy+ seating

The requirements for each of these levels are set out below:

Let’s define some of these acronyms:

  • PQM (Premier Qualification Miles) – this refers to the number of miles actually flown on United or one of their partner airlines
  • PQS (Premier Qualification Segments) – you can earn elite status through the number of flown segments
  • PQD (Premier Qualification Dollars) – all elite status levels require you to spend a certain amount of money on United or one of their partner airlines

At each level, you have to actually fly the minimum number of miles OR segments to qualify for that tier. In addition, you’ll have to spend the minimum Premier Qualification Dollars for that tier.

Note about PQD: If you have the United MileagePlus Explorer and Club credit card, the spending requirement is waived for the Silver, Gold, and Platinum tiers.

Click here to read more about the status levels.

Alright that’s enough. Let’s get into the fun stuff.

3. How do I earn miles?

3.1. Paid flights on United or one of their partners

This is my least favorite way to earn miles because I can’t accrue miles as quickly, but for many travelers this can be a significant source of miles.

You can earn United miles on paid flights through these partners

Important Note: Please make sure that the fare you purchased will actually earn United miles! Some fares will only earn a fraction of the miles flown. Some might not grant you any miles at all. You can check on that here.

3.2. Credit Cards

This is my favorite way to earn United miles. I get most of my United miles from receiving credit card sign-up bonuses and through spending on these cards.

United Credit Cards

Check out the links below to see what kind of sign-up bonuses they’re currently offering and how much you can earn by spending on these cards:

  1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card
  2. United MileagePlus Club Credit Card
  3. United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card
  4. United MileagePlus Club Business Card

Chase Credit Cards

You can earn Ultimate Rewards points on a handful of cards and transfer them to various airline partners (United being one of them). United is one of my favorite transfer partners. I think 90% of my Ultimate Rewards points end up going to United.

You can transfer Ultimate Rewards to United at a 1:1 ratio. This is possible if you hold one of the following cards:

If you have one of the cards above, Ultimate Rewards earned from Chase FreedomChase Freedom Unlimited (CFU) or Chase Ink Cash can also be used to transfer to United.

Which card should I choose?

United credit cards offer nice perks that are geared to enhance your travel experience on United, but their miles-earning potential can be pretty limited. The only bonus categories the Explorer and Club cards offer are for purchased on United, which means that these cards might often take a backseat in your wallet.

In contrast, Chase Ultimate Rewards cards are flush with spending categories. Chase Sapphire Reserve boasts 3 points/dollar for travel and restaurant purchases, while the Ink family gives you extra earning potential at office supply stores and on cable/cell phone bills.

If you want to earn as many miles as possible, consider an Ultimate Rewards card that best fits your spending habits.

3.3. Shopping

The MileagePlus shopping portal lets you earn United miles by clicking through their portal before shopping at your favorite merchants.

3.4. Dining

Link your credit card and earn points by dining at participating restaurants. I don’t go out of my way to dine at these restaurants. I just link my credit card and forget about it. Every once in a while I unknowingly dine at a participating restaurant and earn extra points! This way I don’t let points and miles influence my daily decisions too much.

Note: Other airlines also operate dining programs. You can sign up for all of them, you just have to use a unique credit card for each one.

3.5. MileagePlus X (MPX)

MileagePlus X is an app that helps you earn more miles through shopping. Check out their video to see how it works.

MileagePlus X is pretty unique but don’t let any of that confuse you. The way I look at it, you’re just purchasing merchant gift cards and earning extra miles in the process. If you shop frequently at any of their participating merchants, consider going through the app to earn extra miles.

4. How to book award flights

4.1. Award Chart

On United, the number of miles you pay will depend on the regions you’re traveling to/from.

For example, flights between North America and Europe cost 60,000 miles round-trip. Flights between North America and Asia cost 70,000 miles round-trip.

Here is the cost of a few notable routes (cost for Saver awards only):

Miles (for a round-trip ticket)EconomyBusiness ClassFirst Class
Within U.S. & Canada
(excluding Hawaii and Alaska)
20,000 (flight under 700 miles each way)


U.S. to China (on United)70,000140,000160,000
U.S. to China (on a partner airline)70,000160,000240,000
U.S. & Canada to Hawaii45,00080,000100,000
U.S. to Europe (on United)60,000115,000160,000
U.S. to Europe (on a partner airline)60,000140,000220,000

Check out the interactive United award chart here. You can see how much your flight should cost.

4.2. Booking

You can redeem your miles on United.com. In the “Book Travel” section, tick “Search for award travel”. If you need a more complex itinerary with stopovers and open-jaws, choose “Multiple Destinations”.

4.3. Saver Awards vs Standard Awards

All award tickets will either be a Saver or a Standard award.

What’s the difference?

  • Saver awards are cheaper, but can be difficult to find due to their limited availability.
  • Standard awards are more widely available, but they can cost nearly twice as much.

The reason why I bring this up is because I think United’s new website does a poor job of pointing out the difference between these two awards. When you search for flights, look for “Saver Award” above the price.

Important Note: Saver awards are better because they’re cheaper. Book Saver awards whenever possible! I personally only book Saver Awards.

4.4. Booking Tips

  • Plan ahead: As with any airline, searching early and often gives you the greatest chance for securing an award seat. Don’t wait til the last minute!
  • Log in first: If you are a Premier member or have a United MileagePlus Explorer or MileagePlus Club credit card, log into your account before conducting your search. You may have access to more award space.
  • Search one-ways: Even if you need round-trip tickets, start with one-way searches first. The searches are easier to navigate this way.
  • Hidden airlines: United.com hides award space on certain partner airlines (e.g. Singapore Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines). You can call in to book flights on these airlines.
  • Other tools: If United.com doesn’t turn up the results you want, don’t give up right away. Try searching for award space using ANA or Air Canada‘s search engine. (Registration Required)

5. Miscellaneous

5.1. No fuel surcharges

Some airlines will charge you a “fuel surcharge” when booking an award ticket (sometimes referred to as a “carrier-imposed surcharge”). They charge some amount of miles for your ticket, then at checkout they’ll tack on a hefty fee under the pretense of charging you for “fuel”. In short, it’s an irritating way to extort you for what should be a free ticket.

To show you how outrageous these fees can be, let’s do a quick comparison. For my example I’ll use British Airways, as they’re one of the biggest offenders of this practice.

Below is a business class award ticket on United. Notice that United charges $24.80 in fees for this award ticket.

This is what British Airways charges on a comparable route.

Over $500 in fees. Ridiculous, right? The real slap in the face is that fuel surcharges have no demonstrated relationship to the actual cost of fuel. The airline is reaching into your pocket because they can.

I could go on about this forever but I won’t. The big takeaway is that United passes on fuel surcharges so you don’t have to worry about that here. You still pay taxes and airport fees though!

5.2. Mileage expiration

Your miles will expire after 18 months of inactivity. It’s very easy to avoid this if you have their credit card or regularly book award flights. Otherwise, miles earned from flights, dining rewards, or through the shopping portal will easily reset your expiration clock.

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