Review of the United Airlines Frequent Flyer Program

Last Reviewed: 9/9/2011

United and United Express together operate more than 3,600 flights per day to 200+ destinations, both domestic and international.  Their hubs are located in LA, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and D.C. Another interesting tidbit about United: they acquired Continental Airlines back in May, 2010, giving them combined revenue of more than $30B at the time. They are, perhaps, the King Kong of the air.

In this post, we’ll cover ways to both earn and redeem miles earned via their frequent flyer loyalty program, known as MileagePlus. We’ll also explore their Elite status levels, and the additional benefits you get from becoming an elitist.

Ways to Earn Miles with United Airlines Frequent Flyer Program

You earn miles by flying on any United or United Express flight, with a paid ticket. Additionally, miles earned on paid flights count towards Elite Status as well (more on that in a bit!). The table below shows how many miles you would earn by class for a given flight.

United Airlines Award Mileage Chart
Class Booking Class Miles Awarded (1 mile/mile flown) Elite Status Miles/Segments
First F,A 150% 150%
Business J,C,D 125% 150%
Discounted Business Z 100% 150%
Full Economy Y,B 100% 150%
Discounted Economy M,E,U,H,Q,V,W,S,T,L,K,G 100% 100%
No mileage credit X,I,O,NY,XY,XC,XF 0% 0%

Earning Miles with Partner Airlines

United is a member of the Star Alliance (28 partners as of the date of this post), so you can earn miles by flying on these partner airlines. Some of the bigger names in the Star Alliance include: Air Canada, Continental, US Air, Lufthansa, SAS, Swiss Air, ANA, and Singapore Air.

United also has 7 additional partners outside of the Star Alliance, including Hawaiian, Island Air, Aer Lingus, Emirates, Qatar, Jet Airways, and TACA.

Earning Miles with the United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card

You can earn up to 40,000 miles on sign-up, along with 2 miles for every $1 spent on United and Continental airline tickets, as well as 1 mile per $1 of spend on all other purchases. Read our review of the United MileagePlus Card here, or apply directly if reading blog posts bores you.

Earning United Miles with Non-Airline Partners

United has a number of arrangements with various partners (including various auto rental and hotel companies), whereby you can earn additional United miles for spending money with these partners. The following table outlines some of those arrangements and awards, though it is by no means an exhaustive list.

MileagePlus Miles Earned With Auto and Hotel Partners
Partner Type or Hotel Family Miles Earned
Avis, National, Budget, Alamo, Dollar, Thrifty Car rentals Earn 50 miles per day on all qualifying paid rentals of 1-4 days. Earn 500 miles on qualifying rentals of 5 days or more.
Clarion Inn, Comfort Inn/Suites, Quality Inn Choice 250 miles per stay
Conrad, Hilton, Embassy Suites, Garden Inn, Grand Vacations Hilton 500 miles/stay or 1 mile/$1 spent
Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn(+Express) IHG 2 miles/$1 spent
Intercontinental IHG 500 miles per stay
Aloft, le Meridien, Sheraton,W Hotels, Westin Starwood 2 miles/$1 spent
Hyatt, Park Hyatt Hyatt 500 miles per stay
Courtyard, Fairfield Inn Marriott 1 mile/$1 spent
JW Marriott, Marriott, Renaissance Marriott 2 miles/$1 spent
Days Inn, Ramada Wyndham 2 miles/$1 spent

So, You Want To Be Elite?

It seems to be human nature that folks always seek out preferential treatment. So, if you’ve always been outside of those velveteen ropes looking in at the jet-setters, here’s your chance to join the elite-just follow United’s lead.  Karl, forgive us.

Obtaining Elite Status: Let The Transformation Begin

There are 4 levels of Elite membership, starting from Member (think: low social status-everyone starts here); Premier; Premier Executive (“Baby, I’m a Premier Executive”…dang, that sounds good); and 1K (the elite of the elite).

Elite qualifying miles (EQMs) are earned when you fly any United or United Express flight (1 EQM per mile flown). Elite qualifying segments (EQS) represent one flight segment flown, and offer another way to level up on your elite status.

Per the table below, you can achieve various Elite levels either by earning EQMs OR via earning a sufficient number of EQS’s.

Miles Required to Obtain Elite Level Status
Member Premier Premier Executive 1K
Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) required None 25,000 50,000 100,000
Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS’s) required None 30 60 120

The Benefits of Being Elite

The primary benefit is you get to look down on the rest of us schlocks. But there are some secondary benefits. While the chart below is not exhaustive, we’ve tried our best to pick out what we think are the most impactful benefits. You can view the full chart here.

Select Benefits of UnitedPlus Elite Status
Benefit Description Member Premier Premier EARNING
Earn minimum 500 miles per flight If you fly less than 500 miles, you’ll still earn 500 award miles and 500 Elite Status Miles (EQMs). N/A Yes Yes Yes
Earn bonus miles N/A N/A 25% bonus 100% bonus
Complimentary seats in Economy Plus N/A Yes Yes Yes
Unlimited domestic upgrades Complimentary for you and 1 companion if available N/A Yes Yes Yes
No co-pay for some mileageplus upgrade awards Within continental US, Alaska, Canada N/A Yes Yes Yes
Regional upgrades
  • Get 2 regional upgrades when you hit 75K elite miles or 90 elite segments.
  • Used for 1-way upgrades to next class of service.
  • Good within continental US, Hawaii, Canada, Caribbean, Central America and Mexico.
  • You earn 2 more for every 25K EQM/30 EQS earned after that in same calendar year.
  • These are in addition to the 2 upgrades you will earn for each quarter in which you fly 10K paid, qualifying miles.
N/A N/A Yes Yes
Systemwide upgrades
  • Used for 1-way upgrade to the next class of service.
  • Upon earning 1K status, you will receive 6 complimentary systemwide upgrades.
  • You will then earn 2 additional upgrades for every additional 50K elite status miles (or 60 elite qualifying segments) you earn during the calendar year.
  • You can upgrade another person.
N/A N/A N/A Yes
Priority treatment Includes priority on: check-in, security lines, boarding, baggage handling, wait lists N/A Yes Yes Yes
Star Alliance benefits N/A Silver Gold Gold
Exclusive Saver Award inventory N/A N/A N/A Yes
Check bags for free N/A 2 3 3
10% discount on in-flight duty free N/A N/A N/A Yes
Select fees waived Includes same-day standby; booking/changing award ticket; getting paper tickets via fed-ex N/A N/A N/A Yes

It Should Be Fun! Redeeming your United Miles

Who doesn’t like to redeem their miles or points or cash back? Although, I must confess, after the act of redeeming, I’m left with a deep sense of ennui, knowing I’ll need to use my credit card for another 6 months to redeem something exciting and meaningful.

While there are a number of ways to use your hard-earned miles, including for hotel stays, car rentals, shopping and dining, magazine subscriptions, etc, generally your biggest bang for the buck will be redeeming your miles for airfare or upgrades.

Here is an abbreviated mileage chart for economy class with some of the main destinations.

United Mileage Redemption Chart: Departing from US to Select Destinations/Regions
Fare Class Mainland US Mexico/Central America Europe Middle East South/North Asia/Japan
Economy 12.5 (Saver Fare)/25 (Standard Fare) 17.5k/35k 30k/55k 40k/75k 32.5k/65k
Business 25k/50k 30k/60k 50k/125k 60k/150k 60k/150k
First 35k/70k 40k/80k 67.5k/147.5k 75k/160k 70k (except JP: 67.5)/160k

You can check out the full awards chart here. Finally, you can also redeem your miles for Star Alliance awards, though typically availability is the challenge as the airlines like to reserve award seats for their own customers (ie those with award miles from that given airline).

Upgrade Me! Redeeming Miles So You Can Fly In Style

To hard-core frequent flyers, upgrades often represent the holy grail of redemptions, since the dollar value per mile redeemed can often exceed $0.05 per mile (and that, my friends, is pretty insane!). The chart below (promise, this is the last chart!-I just needed to pump your heads full of juicy info) highlights miles and co-pays required to snag those upgrades. Note that it’s not the full chart, just some select destinations. As you’ll see, the more discounted your airfare, the higher the co-pays. Some of those co-pays (for international flights) are downright painful.

One-Way Miles And Co-Pay Fees Required to Upgrade to the Next Class: Based on Travel Originating in the US
Class you are booked in Description Mainland US Europe Middle East South/North Asia and Japan
J,C,D Business (J is full fare; C & D are discounted) 15k miles ($0 co-pay) 20k ($0) 35k ($0) 30k ($0)
Z Business (discounted) 15k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($550) 35k ($600) 30k ($600)
Y Economy (full fare) 7.5k (no co-pay) 15k ($0) 25k ($0) 20k ($0)
B Economy (full fare) 10k (no co-pay) 20k ($0) 35k ($0) 30k ($0)
M,E,U Economy (discounted) 15k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($300) 35k ($300) 30k ($350)
H,Q Economy (discounted) 15k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($425) 35k ($450) 30k ($450)
V Economy (discounted) 17.5k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($475) 35k ($500) 30k ($500)
W Economy (discounted) 17.5k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($550) 35k ($550) 30k ($550)
S,T,K,L,G Economy (discounted) 20k ($75 co-pay) 20k ($550) 35k ($600) 30k ($600)

You can check out the full award upgrades chart here.

Hotel and Car Rewards

You can also use your miles to redeem for hotel and car awards, though we at GetDebit invariably find that you always get better economic value by redeeming your miles for flights and upgrades. (this sort of makes sense, since its United’s loyalty reward program). So don’t bother with these, unless you really have the urge.

GetDebit’s Closing Thoughts On The United Loyalty Program Known As UnitedPlus

We realize that folks have their own opinions and needs regarding airlines. For example, some folks probably love flying United; others may have no choice, given their need for specific routes and schedules. Yet others may cherish the idea of being “elite”. With that in mind, we tried to provide a broad overview of the various aspects of United Airlines’ frequent flyer loyalty program, and in certain cases we’ve provided some links for you to get even more detailed info if you so desire.

If you are primarily interested in just the bottom-line economics of the card, then I strongly suggest you take the GetDebit Ranking Engine for a spin. It’ll take as an input your estimates of spend by category, and then calculate, with great precision, which credit cards would generate the most rewards for you! You can also check out our post on how much miles from United Airlines are worth.

Rock on-from the elitist pigs at GetDebit.

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