Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
INSIDER SECRET: When searching for award flights on United Airlines, first log into your United Airlines account. Some elite members or United Airlines credit cardholders get access to additional award flights.
United Airlines miles are easy to earn and even easier to use thanks to the fantastic award search tool at United.com. For this reason, I almost always start there when investigating an award flight that I might want.
Even if you prefer not to fly with United Airlines or to any of United’s destinations, you can still get significant value from your United Airlines miles by knowing how to use them on one of United’s partner airlines. I personally haven’t redeemed United Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines in a couple of years — but I use their miles for partner flights every couple months.
The United Airlines mileage program is fairly straightforward — but there are many options for redeeming your miles. In this post, I’ll walk you through how to use United Airlines miles to get the biggest bang for your buck.
United Airlines Miles: How to Use Them
United Airlines is one of 28 airlines that comprise the Star Alliance network. This is important because you can use your United Airlines miles to fly on any of United’s partner airlines.
I typically get the most value from my United Airlines miles when redeeming for airlines like ANA, Singapore Airlines or Lufthansa. In fact, my wife and I redeemed United Airlines miles on our honeymoon to fly home from Asia in Turkish Airlines business class and Lufthansa business class. We had a fantastic experience and received tremendous value.
Use United Airlines Miles to Fly (Nearly) Anywhere Around the Globe
Some folks get confused or disheartened about earning specific airline miles because they aren’t interested in visiting destinations served by that airline. But with United Airlines’ network of partners you can redeem miles to fly nearly anywhere on earth.
I always recommend that miles and points enthusiasts start with a destination in mind: Decide on a trip you’d like to take before you start earning the miles and points necessary to get you there. Collecting United Airlines miles is always a good idea — even if you aren’t sure how you’ll redeem them.
The United Airlines miles you earn from short domestic flights in the US can take you to London, Sydney, Cape Town, Tokyo, Buenos Aires or nearly any other major city worldwide.
United Airlines Miles Award Charts
For United Airlines Flights
United Airlines uses two different award charts (rather confusingly) — for flights redeemed on their own airline or for award flights redeemed on partner airlines. For United Airlines flights, the price you pay for award flights will always be less than or equal to the number of miles required for partner award flights. So I always try to find award flights on United Airlines first (unless there is a specific partner airline you have your eye on).
But keep in mind that partner award flights will always price out at the Saver level, while award flights on United Airlines can cost significantly more because they offer Everyday-level award flights. So although you will theoretically save miles by booking Saver-level United Airlines award flights, you should double-check the actual cost to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible. Keep reading for more information on the distinction between Saver and Everyday award levels.
To determine the specific cost (in miles) for the flights you’re interested in, decide on your origin and destination first. Then, identify which region(s) your origin and destination are in. Region definitions are generally intuitive and straightforward (i.e., California is part of the “Mainland US” region), but you can also view United Airlines’ region definitions here.
Then, head over to United’s interactive award chart and put in your origin and destination regions.
The results will be displayed below the map. This is a helpful tool for initial planning and can give you a great estimate of how many miles you might need to save for an upcoming trip.
For example, I know that I’ll need a minimum of 60,000 United Airlines miles per person for round-trip Saver-level award flights in economy to Europe next summer. Or I can shoot for 120,000 United miles for round-trip business class flights. I know that I’m not guaranteed to find the ideal flights on the perfect dates for the least number of miles — but at least it gives me a good starting point for collecting and saving miles.
For United Airlines Partners and Star Alliance Airlines
As previously mentioned, United Airlines charges a different number of miles for award flights on its partner airlines (on some routes). The easiest way to determine these price differences is with the same interactive award chart. After you enter your two regions, you can easily scroll down and view the award flight prices for travel on a partner airline.
Using the same example from above, you’ll notice that there is no difference in the miles needed to fly economy class between Europe and North America on a Star Alliance partner airline. But if you want to fly in business class, you’ll be on the hook for 70,000 United miles one-way per person — as opposed to just 60,000 United miles to fly on a United flight.
This difference can be significant when calculating the cost of round-trip flights or when travelling with more than one passenger. So I always look at the interactive award chart to get a rough sense of prices before I start the booking process.
Different Award Types (Saver versus Everyday)
Unfortunately, award-flight prices are often not as simple to capture as we might hope. That’s why United Airlines (and most other airlines) have created many different award levels when redeeming miles for flights. United calls their cheaper award flights “Saver” flights and their more expensive, more accessible award flights “Everyday.”
Everyday awards typically cost so much more than Saver-level award flights that I try never to use them. However, Everyday-award flights are typically available down to the very last seat on the plane, while Saver seats can sell out quickly. So Everyday seats can be useful when you know there is a particular flight you need to be on or a date and time when you need to travel.
In the example above, you can see that a one-way Everyday coach seat between the continental US and Europe costs 70,000 United Airlines miles. Ouch! Given that a Saver-level award flight costs only 30,000 United miles, this means that you would be paying more than double the price. This just reinforces the rule that booking far in advance and being flexible with your dates and times can lead to significant savings.
Booking Award Flights on United.com
Perhaps the simplest way to determine the price of any specific award flight is to simply search for it on United.com, and the United Airlines search tool is easy to use. To get started, just navigate to United.com and check the “Book with miles” box on the flight booking page.
Then enter your origin, destination, dates, and the number of travelers as you would when searching for any other flight. If you have more advanced search criteria (such as a multi-city reservation or upgrades), you can click on “Advanced search” to be taken to a full booking screen.
Click “Find flights,” and you’ll be taken to a results page displaying available flight options — as well as several more customization options you can use to narrow your search. For example, you can click on “View 30 day calendar” to view award flight prices for the whole month, or you can click on any of the column headers to sort by that specific level of award flight (such as “Business Saver Award” to sort by the lowest priced business-class flight options).
Overall, United’s award search functionality is very intuitive and allows you to play around with options to your heart’s content. You can even click into a specific flight (by clicking “Details” or “Seats”) to view that specific flight’s aircraft information, seat map, and other applicable info —w hich is especially valuable for aviation nerds like me.
When you’ve found the award flight you’re interested in, just click on “Select,” and proceed through the traveler details and payment confirmation pages.
Using United Airlines Miles for Flight Upgrades
You can also redeem your United Airlines miles for upgrades on paid travel on United Airlines. Although this might sound like a great idea (if you’re happy paying for coach but would love to splurge to fly up front once in a while), the booking rates are generally rough and there’s little consistency in the value you might get. The specific price to upgrade any paid ticket from economy to economy plus, domestic first class, or international business class depends on the route, fare class of your paid ticket, your booked seat, as well as your United Airlines elite status (if you have any).
This means that the best way to determine if upgrading with miles is a good option … is to keep an eye out for mileage upgrade offers at the time of booking. Typically, I would pass on these as they represent a poor value. But if a specific upgrade is calling your name (such as a first class seat when your company will only reimburse you for business travel in coach), this might be an option for you.
Award Booking Fees to Keep in Mind
United Airlines is one of the more generous airlines when it comes to not gouging its customers with unnecessary fees and penalties. Of course, you’ll still pay an arm and a leg if you need to cancel your award-flight booking — $125 if your flight is within 60 days; $75 if your flight is 61+ days away to cancel and redeposit your miles.
You’ll also owe some other annoying fees for things like booking an award flight over the phone ($25) that is available to be booked online. If your award flight can’t be found at United.com, ask a United Airlines phone agent to waive the fee and they’ll likely do it for you.
Any flight (whether booked over the phone or online) that departs within 21 days will be subject to a $75 close-in booking fee (similar to what you’ll find with American Airlines award flights). Always book at least 21 days in advance to avoid this charge (though it’ll be disappearing on November 15, 2019).
Finally, the good news: United Airlines charges among the lowest taxes and fees for award flights. Specifically, United Airlines does not charge you carrier and fuel surcharges for otherwise pricey airlines, like Lufthansa. So I prefer to use United Airlines miles for award flights even though the amount of miles required for a specific flight might be slightly less when redeeming another currency (such as Air Canada Aeroplan miles).
One-Way Awards, Open Jaws, and Stopovers (and the United Airlines Excursionist Perk!)
United Airlines lets you book one-way award flights which can be very helpful when trying to book or plan a trip with different mile and point currencies. My family and I make use of one-way award flights on almost every trip we take. It’s also handy when we want to visit more than one destination on each trip.
“Open jaws” are simple too. An open jaw consists of flying into one airport and then flying out of another airport. For example, flying from San Francisco to London and then returning from Paris to San Francisco is an open jaw. Because of the ability to book one-way award flights, you can easily book a trip with multiple open jaws.
Finally, United Airlines offers the valuable Excursionist Perk — a stellar benefit that allows you to book a “free one-way flight” in any region other than the region where your trip originated. Using the example above, you could book San Francisco to London (outbound flight), then fly from London to Paris for free, and finally, Paris to San Francisco (return flight).
There are several ways to leverage this benefit. To view our full breakdown of the Excursionist Perk and how you can and should use it, check out our post on the United Airlines Excursionist Perk.
Other Booking Tips and Considerations
Perhaps the simplest booking tip is the one I reiterate often: Book early and be flexible. Like most airlines, United Airlines and many of its partners open up award space ~330 days in advance. So the earlier the better when booking your award flights or planning travel.
But United Airlines and several of its airline partners (most notably Lufthansa and Swiss Airlines) also release significant amounts of award space in the weeks before departure — assuming there are still seats available for sale on the plane. This means that your ideal booking windows are as far in advance as possible and as close to departure as possible (though keep in mind the close-in booking fee). But as always, you’ll find the best award space if you can be flexible.
I always double-check my travel plans and wait to book until I’m sure of my travel dates to avoid unnecessary change or cancellation fees. I also save money by avoiding paying for “extra legroom” or other premium seats when given the opportunity during booking. These are small things that can add up to significant savings — helping you keep award flights as close to “free” as possible!
A Few of My Favorite Uses of United Airlines Miles
We’ve told you in the past about some of the best “sweet spot “redemptions for United Airlines miles — but I wanted to share a few personal favorites:
- 22,500 United Airlines miles, one-way per person, for nonstop flights from Chicago O’Hare to Maui in economy. This wasn’t the most valuable redemption I’ve ever had, but finding nonstop award flights on a Saturday morning in July from Chicago to Maui (or any Hawaiian island) is no small feat.
- Last-minute first-class flights from Europe to Washington DC for 110,000 United Airlines miles per person one-way (with very little in taxes and fees). At the conclusion of a trip to Europe for our first anniversary, I convinced my wife to let me change our flights to travel home in the luxurious, over-the-top, memorable Lufthansa First Class (including a four-hour layover in the exclusive first-class terminal). Some other airlines might have required fewer miles but the taxes and fees make those redemptions outrageous (looking at you, Air Canada Aeroplan). Using United Airlines miles was the easy choice.
- 10,000 United Airlines miles plus ~$80 for a last-minute flight to a family vacation. This award flight was actually for a coworker who was stranded (because of a flight cancellation) and wasn’t willing to pay the exorbitant last-minute flight prices. This award flight was a phenomenal redemption — and perhaps my favorite on this list.
- Business-class flights home from Thailand on Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa for 80,000 United Airlines miles per person. This flight concluded our amazing honeymoon in 2015 and I was giddy to be flying the “long way” around the globe in lie-flat seats. The seats (and food and wine) were fantastic and the redemption value was unmatched.
Clearly, I love using United Airlines miles to significantly reduce my travel costs. My wife, daughter and I have used these miles to travel all around the globe — to Tokyo, Sydney, Germany, Hawaii, Istanbul, Bangkok, and beyond. And because of United Airlines’ valuable miles, we’ve made some incredible memories as a family.
But knowing how and when to use United Airlines miles for the best value can be tough, and some airlines make redeeming frequent-flyer miles an absolute headache with difficult award charts, limited availability and a host of hidden fees.
I hope this guide has given you a clearer picture of how to use your hard-earned United Airlines miles. And if there’s anything we missed — drop a note below and I’ll jump right on it.
You can learn more about United Airlines miles here:
- United Mileage Plus Review
- United Miles Value
- United Airlines Status
- How to to Earn United Miles
- Do United Airlines Miles Expire?
- Current United Airlines Promotions
And for the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.