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How to use United Airlines miles

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How to use United Airlines miles

Meghan HunterHow to use United Airlines milesMillion Mile Secrets Team

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.

Even though United Airlines recently ditched its award chart and moved to dynamic pricing, United Airlines miles still are easy to earn and fairly straightforward to use.

Even if you prefer not to fly with United Airlines or to any of United’s destinations, you can still get good value from your United Airlines miles by knowing how to use them on one of United’s partner airlines. Some people haven’t redeemed United Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines in a couple of years — but use their miles for partner flights quite frequently.

The United Airlines mileage program is fairly easy to understand — but there are many options for redeeming your miles. In this post, we’ll walk you through how to use United Airlines miles to get the biggest bang for your buck.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to use United Airlines miles to travel the world. (Photo by Catarina Belova/Shutterstock)

United Airlines miles: How to use them

United Airlines is one of 26 airlines that comprise the Star Alliance network. This is important because you can use your United Airlines miles to fly any airline in the network.

I typically get the most value from my United Airlines miles when redeeming for flights on airlines like ANA, Singapore or Lufthansa. In fact, my wife and I redeemed United Airlines miles on our honeymoon to fly home in business class from Asia on Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa. We received tremendous value.

Use United Airlines miles to fly (nearly) anywhere around the globe

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 to get you there. Collecting United Airlines miles is always a good idea — even if you aren’t sure how you’ll redeem them.

That’s because the United Airlines miles you earn from even short domestic flights in the U.S. can take you to London, Sydney, Cape Town, Tokyo, Buenos Aires or nearly any other major city worldwide.

United Airlines miles award pricing

For United Airlines flights

Earlier this year United Airlines eliminated its award chart and moved to dynamic pricing. You can no longer know the exact price of an award flight without performing a search on United’s site. However, it’s still possible to find standard and Saver pricing that closely mirrors the pricing from the old award chart. Plus, they still use an award chart for flights on partner airlines, which is reflected when you use United’s interactive award chart.

For example, you’ll pay 30,000 United miles for one-way economy class flights or 70,000 miles for business/first-class award flights on partner airlines to Europe from the mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.

For example, 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’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

The easiest way to start to determine the price difference between flying United or a partner airline is with United’s interactive award chart. After you enter the region you’re flying from and the region you’re flying to, you can easily scroll down and view the award flight prices for travel on a partner airline. Then you can search the same route on United’s site to see how much it would cost to fly with United.

Comparing prices isn’t as straightforward now that there’s no award chart, but taking a look at what a flight on a partner airline would cost first will help give you a baseline in figuring out the cost of an award.

Varying award prices

Unfortunately, award-flight prices are often not simple to capture. Even without the award chart, United still calls its cheapest award flights “Saver” flights and everything else is an “Everyday” award. Regardless, award ticket costs will vary by route, class of service and travel dates. With dynamic pricing, the number of miles you’ll need for an award seat usually goes up when the cash price of a ticket goes up, and vice versa. Typically, the farther in advance you can book and the more flexible you can be with your travel dates and times, the better.

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. 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. 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.

 

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 — which is great 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 high 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 because 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 generous when it comes to not gouging its customers with unnecessary fees and penalties. You’ll still pay an arm and a leg if you need to cancel your award-flight booking — it will cost $125 if your flight is within 60 days or $75 if your flight is 61+ days away to cancel and redeposit your miles. And while United removed the close-in booking fee when they ditched their award chart, they added a mileage surcharge to flights booked within 21 days before departure. So instead of paying a cash fee, you are, in essence, paying a fee in the form of extra 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.

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 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.

Reminder: The Excursionist Perk can offer great value for travel to multiple cities. (Photo by Joseph Hostetler)

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 then make the return flight from Paris to San Francisco.

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. 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.

Best uses of United Airlines miles

First, I want to share a few personal favorite “sweet spot” redemptions that I’ve gotten in the past. Keep in mind this was before dynamic pricing, but similar award prices are still possible if you can find a “Saver” rate:

  • 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, D.C. 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 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.
Sampling expensive scotch in the Lufthansa first-class terminal in Frankfurt before our flight home — thanks to United Airlines miles. (Photo by Jake Pearring)

Second, here are a few other ways to maximize the value you’ll get with your United miles:

  • Fly to Australia or New Zealand in business class on a partner-operated flight for for 90,000 United Airlines miles one-way.
  • Fly with a Saver award between the U.S. and northern South America for around 20,000 miles each way in coach.
  • Since United doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges on award tickets, flying Lufthansa first class between the U.S. and Europe using United miles can be a great deal, given these tickets can easily run $4,000+

Again, with the move to dynamic pricing, being flexible with your travel dates is the best way to ensure you’re getting the most value from your miles.

How to earn United Airlines miles

The easiest way to earn United miles is by signing up for a cobranded United credit card, like the United℠ Explorer Card. Or get a Chase Ultimate Rewards-earning card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card and transfer the rewards you earn to United at a 1:1 ratio.

There are also other ways, like flying United or its partners, using the United MileagePlus X app, dining out and more. For a more comprehensive look at these options, check out our guide to earning United Airlines miles.

Bottom line

I love using United Airlines miles to significantly reduce my travel costs. My wife, daughter and I have used these miles to travel 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, especially now that there’s no longer an award chart.

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.

And for the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets email newsletter.

United℠ Explorer Card

United℠ Explorer Card

  • Limited time offer! Earn up to 65,000 Bonus Miles.
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants and on hotel stays
  • Up to $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® Fee Credit
  • 25% back on United inflight purchases
  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $120 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club℠ with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on purchases from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

More Info

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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Anyone know if this will work?

I just booked a flight from Newark NJ to Minneapolis MN using Chase Ultimate points. Though I booked Basic Economy, I made sure to subtract several points, so that I could pay around $11, and put it on my United Explorer Card, hoping that using that card would allow me a free bag and select my seats. Any idea if this will work?

Huh, didn’t know the term for the one-way flight for 0 miles redeemed was “Excursionist.” Thanks for that. Just utilized it on a Los Angeles – Europe award to get from Frankfurt to Barcelona.

Do I book Star Alliance flights by going to United.com?

I am starting to investigate using my United miles for flights next summer (either Japan or New Zealand); I am aware of the 330 days. Besides booking as early as possible, do you have any advice on how to best achieve seats using milage. I am willing to fly either United or their partners (ANA or Air New Zealand). Thank you for your anticipated response, Eric.

I paid for round trip from jfk to ho chi min city going business class and returning from Bangkok in Premium Economy on EVA Air. I bought the tickets through the Chase Travel Portal. I want to upgrade my Premium Economy to Business Class. Can I use United Points to do this?