United Airlines MileagePlus Program – A Complete Guide (2021)

United Airlines MileagePlus Program – A Complete Guide (2021)


United Airlines is like the DMV. They’re a big, bloated organization running on outdated technology that everyone loves to hate. Despite this, they serve a vital purpose. More than likely you’ll have to deal with them at some point as a traveler, either by boarding one of their planes or with their frequent flyer program, MileagePlus. 

Like many large organizations, they’ve grown so big that there’s very little accountability, even at the top. When United called the cops to remove a passenger they didn’t want to transport, he was bloodied up in the process and garnered sympathy around the world. The airline and its CEO still refused to accept responsibility

Mention United to an infrequent flyer, and they’ll likely have a story about how awful it was when they had to sleep on the floor at O’Hare when their flight was cancelled in a snowstorm, or how United lost their bag on the way to visit Grandma for Thanksgiving.

Anyone else might complain about their frequent award chart devaluations (three in the past 12 months), their awful technology, or their new, and very confusing, upgrade system.

MileagePlus still remains a useful program. They’re a Chase Ultimate Rewards partner, and they’re a part of the largest airline alliance: Star Alliance. 

United is the biggest risk taker of any US carrier with their global network and route strategy, which leads to some interesting award opportunities. They fly to Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti, across Asia from Tokyo to Singapore to Mumbai and Delhi, from Cape Town, South Africa to Lagos, Nigeria, across Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. No matter where you want to go with your miles, United (or a partner) can likely get you there. 

There’s a lot you’ll need to know about United MileagePlus. Before you transfer miles, buy miles, or make any kind of redemption, make sure you have a good understanding of the program first. This guide will walk you through all of the nuances and sweet spots of the programs, including the Excursionist Perk. 

Let’s dig in.

About MileagePlus: United’s Frequent Flyer Program

United is one of the “big three” US airlines, and their loyalty program United MileagePlus is among the largest in the US. United serves the most destinations of any US carrier, and its loyalty program is 40 years old. You can earn and redeem United miles for travel across the planet.

United has four published elite tiers, including: Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum, and 1K. There’s a super-elite unpublished elite tier called United Global Services that’s invitation-only. You have to spend at least $50,000 with the airline every year to even be considered for the status. 

United also has a separate Million Miler Program that rewards flyers with elite status for those that fly over 1,000,000 miles with the airline. There are tiers for 1, 2, 3, and 4 million miler status.

This guide will show you how to earn and redeem United miles, earn elite status, and maximize your earnings when redeeming United miles.

MileagePlus Partners and Alliances

United was a founding member of the Star Alliance. Star Alliance is the largest of the world’s airline alliances. You can earn and redeem United miles across the alliance. United has the largest number of partners of any US carrier, which is part of what makes their miles so valuable. 

The 26 full members of Star Alliance include:

Aegean Airlines
Austrian Airlines
Air Canada
LOT Polish Airlines
TAP Air Portugal
Air China
Brussels Airlines
Thai Airways
Air India
Copa Airlines
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)
Turkish Airlines
Air New Zealand
Croatia Airlines
Shenzhen Airlines
United Airlines
All Nippon Airways
Singapore Airlines
Asiana Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines
South African Airways
Star Alliance airlines

There are two additional connecting partners of Star Alliance, which aren’t full members. Those are Juneyao Air and Thai Smile, which is a subsidiary of Thai Airways. You can earn and redeem miles on Juneyao flights, while you can neither earn or redeem miles on Thai Smile. 

Outside of the Star Alliance, United also has partnerships with:

Aer Lingus
Olympic Air
Boutique Air
Silver Airways
Air Dolomiti
Cape Air
Hawaiian Airlines
United’s non-alliance partners

Depending on the partner and the route, you may be able to earn United miles and elite credits. You can redeem miles online for any of United’s Star Alliance partners or non-alliance partners on United.com.

United MileagePlus Benefits

United MileagePlus has some great things going for it.

First of all, United partners with Chase. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United instantly and at a 1:1 ratio. Chase has some of the biggest sign up bonuses of any bank, so earning United miles is easy. United also releases more saver seats to credit card holders, so having a United card issued by Chase unlocks lots of benefits. 

Best for beginners Earn 2x points on all travel and 3x points on dining
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Best for premium benefits Earn 3x points on all travel and dining, plus annual travel credits, airport lounge access, and superior trip coverage and purchase protection
Chase Sapphire Reserve® Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Best for business purchases Earn 3x points on all travel, shipping, advertising with social media, and internet and phone services
Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card

United has a huge route network and is part of the biggest alliance, so getting to any corner of the world is possible with United MileagePlus. 

United has very generous routing rules for award travel. While other carriers like American restrict the regions you can connect in en route to your destination, that doesn’t happen with United. 

Need to get to Bangkok from New York? You can route there via Asia, Europe, Africa, India… Anywhere, really. With the number of partners United has, this is a really handy feature of the program. 

United also makes it easy to book awards. All of their partners show up online, so you can book awards on their website or app with ease. Sometimes there are issues with phantom space and discrepancies between what carriers have access to what space, and other times United’s website just won’t work. United does have a habit of pulling partner space from their website from time to time, but for the most part everything can be booked online.

If your schedule isn’t flexible, you’ll have access to more seats on United flights but at higher mileage rates. That’s great for those who would otherwise pay cash for a last minute ticket, as the savings for using miles in these situations can be substantial. 

If a last minute business class flight from Newark to London is over $6,000, but United has a seat for just 155,000 miles at the standard level, you’re getting more than 4 cents per mile. 

United does not charge any surcharges on award travel on any carrier or in any region. They’re one of the few programs worldwide that does that. You’ll only pay the airport taxes and fees. 

You can also use United miles to upgrade United flights or flights on many of their partners. It usually requires a cash copay or purchasing a higher priced economy ticket, but having the option of using miles for upgrades is a nice perk. 

You can upgrade flights with the following partners using United miles: 

Copa Airlines
LOT Polish Airlines
South African Airways
Air Canada
Asiana Airlines
Croatia Airlines
Air China
Thai Airways
Air India
Ethiopian Airlines
Shenzhen Airlines
TAP Air Portugal
Air New Zealand
Brussels Airlines
EVA Airways
Singapore Airlines
Turkish Airlines
Redeem United miles for Star Alliance upgrades on these carriers

Star Alliance upgrades are complicated, and you need the stars to line up perfectly for things to work out. The only carrier you can waitlist upgrades with miles are ANA, otherwise the upgrade space has to be available to confirm the upgrade. You can find the rules for Star Alliance upgrades using United miles here

How to Earn United Miles

There are endless ways to earn United miles. United miles are the redeemable miles that you can use to redeem for free flights, travel experiences, merchandise, and more. We’re not talking about elite qualification here, only redeemable miles. 

You can earn United miles by flying, with credit cards, through United’s promotions, or by shopping online or dining out. I’ll break down the best way to earn miles, so you can rack them up in no time. 

Here are the best ways to earn United miles: 

Flying United

The obvious way to earn United miles is by flying with United Airlines. Flying United isn’t actually that rewarding these days, as far as earning miles. 

The number of award miles you’ll earn depends on a number of factors, including whether you’re flying with United Airlines or a partner, and which airline issued the ticket. Tickets issued by United earn award miles based on the price of the ticket, while tickets issued by partners earn miles based on the distance and cabin of service. 

When you fly United, the number of miles you earn is determined by your elite status and the cost of your ticket. It’s counterintuitive that United calls these miles, as they’re a function of the price of a ticket. 

Here’s how many United miles you earn when you fly United: 

United MileagePlus Member Level:
Total Miles Earned:
General Member
5x fare (minus taxes and fees)
Premier Silver
7x fare (minus taxes and fees)
Premier Gold
8x fare (minus taxes and fees)
Premier Platinum
9x fare (minus taxes and fees)
Premier 1K
11x fare (minus taxes and fees)
United MileagePlus earning rates for United tickets

Instead of earning 2,500 miles for a cross country flight from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, you’ll earn just 1,000 miles if you paid $205.60 for that ticket and don’t have elite status. 

You may earn more miles with a partner program than you would with United MileagePlus when flying United. It’s always worth checking the specific earnings rates through a tool like WhereToCredit.com.

There are some exceptions where you’ll earn United miles based on the distance flown instead of the price of a ticket. Those include certain tickets where the fare isn’t provided to United, so the airline has no way of calculating the miles based on the fare. Those are typically unpublished, consolidator/bulk, group, tour, and opaque tickets. 

Flying with Star Alliance carriers and other partners

You can also earn United miles by flying with their partners. Depending on how you purchased your ticket you’ll either earn miles based on the price of your ticket, or by the distance of the flight segments and the fare code. 

If you purchased your ticket with United Airlines, you’ll earn miles based on the price of your ticket as you do when you fly United. You’ll want to double check your ticket number. If it starts with “016”, you’ll earn the same number of miles as listed above. 

Earn United miles when you fly Lufthansa

If your ticket was purchased through a partner airline and includes partner flights, the number of miles you earn is determined by the flight distance and the fare code. More expensive tickets, especially those in business or first class, will earn more miles. 

Discounted economy fares can earn as few as 25% or even 0% of miles flown. If you’re flying a full fare economy ticket you’ll usually earn 100% of the miles flown. Premium economy, business, and first class earn between 100% and 350% of total miles flown. 

Spending money on credit cards

It’s easy to earn United miles with credit cards. Chase issues several United Mileage Plus co-branded cards. Any Chase card that earns Ultimate Rewards points also earns United miles, as those points can be converted to United miles at a 1:1 ratio instantly. 

Chase has several personal and business credit cards that earn United miles. Those are:

United℠ Explorer Card
Learn More Terms Apply.
  • Earn 2x miles on United purchases
  • Free Checked Bag
  • Two United Club Passes Annually
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95
United Club℠ Infinite Card
Learn More Terms Apply.
  • Earn 4x miles on United purchases
  • United Club℠ Access
  • Earn PQPs Towards Status
  • $525
United Gateway℠ Card
Learn More Terms Apply.
  • Earn 2x MileagePlus miles on United purchases
  • Earn 2x MileagePlus miles on gas station purchases
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees
  • $0
United Quest℠ Card
Learn More Terms Apply.
  • 3x miles on United
  • 2x miles on dining
  • Free first and second checked bags
  • $250
United℠ Business Card
Learn More Terms Apply.
  • Earn 2x miles on United purchases
  • Annual Travel Credit
  • Anniversary Bonus Miles
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.

Chase’s Ultimate Rewards earning cards are also great for earning United miles. You can earn 2x or 3x points on dining, groceries, and travel, and those points can be transferred to United MileagePlus instantly and at a 1:1 ratio.

Here are some of the best Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards:

Buying United miles during a sale

United frequently sells miles at a discount or with a bonus. If you’re ineligible for credit card sign ups or someone who doesn’t fly frequently, you can purchase miles. 

You can score business and first class redemptions at a significant discount when buying discounted miles or with a bonus. It usually doesn’t make sense for economy class awards, given how competitively airfare is priced these days. 

Either way, you’ll want to keep up with United’s latest promotions on purchased miles. As always, do the math for any specific redemption to make sure it’s worth your while, and don’t purchase more miles than you can use in 6 to 12 months or so.

Shopping online with the shopping portal or the MileagePlus X app

For anyone who shops online, it’s easy to earn United miles for purchases. You can shop via the United MileagePlus shopping website, or with the MileagePlus X app on any phone or mobile device. 

If you’re going to make any major purchases, it’s best to check the returns with other cashback portals first before using the United MileagePlus shopping portal. You might get cash back instead of United miles, or earn more airline miles with a different program. Rakuten is one of the most rewarding shopping portals.

You can find a full guide to cashback and dining portals here.

Dining out with United MileagePlus Dining

If you’re anyone who orders take out or eats at restaurants with any regularity, it’s easy to earn United miles for restaurant purchases. In addition to using a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve at a restaurant and earning 3x miles, you can “double dip” and earn bonus miles for linking that card to MileagePlus Dining. 

Members will earn 1 mile per $2 spent at most restaurants. If you subscribe to the United MileagePlus dining newsletter, you can earn 3 miles per $1 spent at participating restaurants. After dining out 11 times in a calendar year, you will get “VIP Status” with the program and earn 5 miles per dollar spent at participating restaurants. 

There are frequent sign up bonuses for new accounts with United MileagePlus Dining, so you will typically earn a few extra thousand bonus miles after signing up and your first few dining experiences.

Best Ways to Redeem United Miles

Once you’ve racked up United miles, it’s time to spend them. Free flights start at about 5,000 miles (plus $6 in taxes), and go upwards to 140,000 miles for first class awards from the US to Asia. 

Whether you’re spending just a few thousand miles or tens of thousands, these are some of the best redemption options:

Flying business class on United Airlines

If you’re flying United in any cabin, you’ll also use less miles for saver awards than you will partners. United prices international awards on their own flights cheaper than they do partners. You can fly to Europe with United for just 60,000 miles in business, to Asia for just 70,000 miles in business class, or to Australia or New Zealand for just 80,000 miles in business.

Redeem United miles for United Polaris business class award flights

Those are the “saver” prices, which are awards at the cheapest level. Lately United releases a good amount of saver space both in advance and at the last minute due to the COVID pandemic.

For those that have the United credit card, finding saver space on United flights will be even easier as they release more discounted awards to credit card holders and elite members than they do general members.

Redeeming miles for a free-one way with the Excursionist Perk

United has another useful perk for those booking a multi city itinerary. It’s called the “Excursionist Perk”, which is a useless name. If you book a multi city itinerary that includes three or more one-ways, you can receive one of those one-ways for free if your itinerary meets the following criteria: 

  • Travel for the entire booking must start and end in the same MileagePlus defined award region 
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk (or free one-way) must be entirely within a single MileagePlus defined award region 
  • The cabin of service for the Excursion Perk must be in the same cabin or lower than the one-way immediately preceding it 

If two or more one-ways on an itinerary meet these conditions, the first occurring one-way that’s considered an Excursionist Perk will be free. You’ll find a comprehensive overview of the free-way and United’s routing rules here.

Flying short haul for only a few thousand miles

You don’t have to fly long flights in premium cabins to get a lot of value for your United miles. You can find award flights starting at just 5,000 United miles.

Those sometimes may even be on expensive routes. Look at the following example: 

Nonstop flights from San Salvador, El Salvador to Managua, Nicaragua start at about $480 USD. The same flight booked with United miles is just 9,000 miles and $45 in taxes. You’d save $435 for 9,000 United miles. That’s a fantastic deal. 

Now that probably seems like a very niche market, and it is, but this extends across United’s partner network. Any nonstop flight that’s under 800 miles within a single award region starts at just 9,000 United miles. 

Booking awards during a sale 

United occasionally puts award travel on sale. Even though the airline doesn’t publish award charts, they advertise discounted award bookings throughout the year. 

Typically there are discounts on specific destinations, and sometimes for a specific number of passengers. United has put awards to ski destinations, Hawaii, Europe, and Asia all on sale in recent years. It’s worth looking out for promotional emails from United to keep up with the latest award sales.

Redeeming miles for business class on a lux partner like Austrian, EVA, and Turkish

First class redemptions with United MileagePlus can be insanely expensive. First class from Asia to the US can be as high as 140,000 United miles.  Travel in business class on the other hand is much more reasonable, and can be a great value.

Some of the best carriers in Star Alliance include Austrian Airlines, EVA Air, and Turkish Airlines. Austrian has perhaps the world’s best business class catering. EVA Air offers exquisite service, even in business class. Turkish has maybe the world’s nicest business class lounge at the gorgeous new Istanbul Airport.

You can fly to Europe in business class from 70,000 United miles with travel on Austrian or Turkish, or from 88,000 miles with travel on EVA Air from the US to Asia.

For United’s partners like Ethiopian and Turkish, who have huge global route networks, you can connect from any continent and route via the carrier’s hub in Addis Ababa or Istanbul using miles.  

How to maximize redemptions with United MileagePlus

One of the biggest benefits of the United MileagePlus program is the free one-ways offered through the Excursionist Perk outlined above.  

If you travel on United, you’ll pay fewer miles than if you were traveling with a partner. United prices awards on their own flights cheaper than they do on partners. Their pricing is complicated, and the price of your award will depend on a number of factors for international travel. 

You can even waitlist business class awards for travel on United. If there isn’t a seat available in business at the saver level, you can pay for a saver business class award, confirm a seat in economy, and waitlist for a business class seat

If you travel with United on a transoceanic flight, you’ll get the best price for business class awards. Business class to Europe on a United nonstop is 60,000 miles. If you connect with a Star Alliance partner in Europe onwards to another destination, that will require another 6,000 miles. You’d pay 66,000 miles for something like Washington, DC to Brussels (on United) and Brussels to Berlin on Brussels Airlines. 

United MileagePlus Premier Status

United MileagePlus can be a complicated program. At the end of the day, it serves two main purposes:

  1. Awarding you with miles that you can redeem for free flights and other goods and services
  2. Tracking your elite status with Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) and Premier Qualifying Points (PQP)

We’ve covered the best ways to earn redeemable miles, now let’s dig into elite status.

PQFs vs PQPs

If you’re after elite status, you’ll need to keep track of your PQFs and PQPs. You earn a PQF for every flight you take with United or a partner. One flight (take off and landing) equals one PQF.

Earning PQPs is a function of a ticket’s price. You’ll earn 1 PQP for every dollar you spend on a ticket, and sometimes even for ticket extras. The taxes/fees on tickets don’t count. 

What’s more complicated is that you can earn PQPs when flying with United’s partners as well, but as a function of the flight’s distance. For travel ticketed by a partner carrier for travel on United’s partners, PQPs will be awarded as a function of flight distance. 

If you’re flying a Preferred Partner, the number of PQPs earned is the number of award miles earned divided by five. United Preferred Partners are:

Air Canada
Austrian Airlines
Copa Airlines
Air China
Air New Zealand
Azul Brazilian Airlines
Brussels Airlines
United MileagePlus Preferred Partners

For non preferred partners, or MileagePlus partners, you’ll earn just a sixth of the award miles as PQPs (award miles divided by 6). The (non preferred) MileagePlus Partners are:

Aegean Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Air Dolomiti
South African Airways
Air India
Juneyao Air
TAP Air Portugal
Asiana Airlines
LOT Polish Airlines
Thai Airways
Croatia Airlines
Olympic Air
Turkish Airlines
Shenzhen Airlines
United MileagePlus Partners

Depending on whether you’re traveling on a Preferred Partner or a MileagePlus partner, you’ll earn either a fifth or a sixth of the number of award miles as PQPs.

United modified the earnings requirements for elite status this year (2021) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They realize less people are flying, so they’ve made it easier to earn elite status this year. Here is how many PQFs and PQPs you’ll need to earn for each level of elite status with United: 

Elite level:
PQP only:
Premier Silver
8 PQF + 3,000 PQP
3,500 PQP
Premier Gold
16 PQF + 16,000 PQP
7,000 PQP
Premier Platinum
24 PQF + 9,000 PQP
10,000 PQP
Premier 1K
36 PQF + 13,500 PQP
15,000 PQP
United MileagePlus 2021 elite status requirements

It’s important to remember that award tickets don’t earn any PQFs or PQPs. You only earn PQF and PQP on revenue tickets. United definitely has one of the more complicated schemes for earning elite status. Thankfully they’ve made it easier to earn status this year.

They’ve launched an additional promotion for earning elite status, which you can read more about here. They’re awarding members with more PQP or redeemable miles for shopping with the MileagePlus X app.

United Elite Benefits

Of all the US programs, United definitely has the most complicated structure for earning and keeping track of elite status. But once you are an elite, here are some of the things you’ll benefit from when you fly with United: 

Premier Silver:

  • 7x miles on every flight
  • Access to Economy Plus at check-in 
  • Eligible for complimentary premier upgrades 

Premier Gold:

  • 8x miles on every flight
  • Access to Economy Plus seats at booking 
  • Two complimentary checked bags
  • Star Alliance Gold status, which gives you access to Star Alliance business class lounges when traveling internationally 

Premier Platinum: 

  • 9x miles on every flight
  • Access to Economy Plus seats at booking, plus 8 companions on the same PNR
  • Three complimentary checked bags
  • Star Alliance Gold status
  • 40 PlusPoints, which can be redeemed for confirmable pre-departure upgrades

Premier 1K: 

  • 11x miles on every flight
  • Access to Economy Plus seats at booking, plus 8 companions on the same PNR
  • Three complimentary checked bags
  • Star Alliance Gold status
  • 280 PlusPoints

Elite status has the best perks when flying United, as you’ll get perks like upgrades and extra legroom seats.

United MileagePlus FAQs

Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about United Airlines and United MileagePlus.

What is United MileagePlus Dining?

United MileagePlus Dining is an easy way to earn even more miles whenever you dine out at restaurants. You link your credit or debit card to the program, and can earn bonus miles for eating at restaurants that participate in the program. It’s one of the easiest ways to earn bonus miles for something you’re already doing! Signing up is easy. You can register and find more information here.

Is United extending elite status for travelers during the COVID pandemic?

Yes, United extended status last year and has made it easier to earn status this year. We have a dedicated post about the reduced requirements for United elite status this year. You can find United’s website with information about earning status during the pandemic here.

What changes has United made to service during the coronavirus pandemic?

United did eliminate hot meals and beverage service on domestic flights during the pandemic. Thankfully United is reintroducing meals and restoring service as the situation improves, at least in the US.

When do United miles expire?

United miles don’t expire. They made changes to the MileagePlus program in 2019 so miles no longer expire.

Can I convert my United miles to other airline miles?

No, you can’t. United miles can only be redeemed for award flights, as well as for other travel awards via MileagePlus. The redemption rate for United miles when used for booking hotels, cruises, or car rentals is particularly bad and nothing something we recommend.

Can I transfer my United miles to other airlines or hotel programs?

No, you can’t. United miles can only be redeemed within the bounds of the United MileagePlus program. You can’t convert them to any other kind of points or miles.

Should I donate my United miles to charity?

If you don’t have any good use for them, of course you can! However we recommend recommend donating cash whenever feasible. When you donate miles you’re not necessarily donating travel. The airline will convert the miles to cash, usually at a terrible rate of less than 1 cent per miles, and any organization won’t actually ever see your air miles. Additionally these kind of donations aren’t tax deductible, and are really just an accounting exercise. You can find a post covering better uses of donating miles for charity here.

Conversations (0)
The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.
Type your response here.

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Anyone can comment, and your email address will not be published. Register to save your unique username and earn special OMAAT reputation perks!

There are currently no responses to this story.
Be the first to respond.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Meet Jordan, PointsPros Consultant
2,200,000 Miles Traveled

35,000 Words Written

9 Posts Published

Keep Exploring OMAAT