How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected by the Changes at United Airlines

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How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected by the Changes at United Airlines

Million Mile SecretsHow Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected by the Changes at United AirlinesMillion Mile Secrets Team

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This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but changes are coming to the United Airlines frequent flyer program starting March 1, 2015.

United Airlines will switch to a revenue-based frequent flyer program for earning miles (NOT for earning elite elite status or redeeming miles) on flights departing after March 1, 2015.  This means that instead of earning miles based on the distance you fly, you’ll earn miles based on how much you paid for your ticket.  You’ll earn more miles per $1 you spend if you have elite status compared to folks who don’t.

The changes will mostly affect folks who earn United Airlines miles from flying, and NOT those of us who collect miles from credit card sign-up bonuses, spending, shopping portals, or hotel points transfers.  You can stop reading if you earn your miles from credit cards, because nothing really changes!

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Change Is Coming: United Switches to a (Partial) Revenue-Based Frequent Flyer Program

What’s Changing?

Link:   Changes to United Airlines’ MileagePlus Program

When you fly United Airlines now, you earn miles based on the distance flown.  Some fares, like full-fare coach class, Business Class, and First Class, will earn extra miles (between 125% and 250% of the distance flown), but all discounted coach class fares earn a minimum of 100% of the miles you fly.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Right Now, You’ll Earn Miles on United Airlines Based on Distance Flown and Class of Service

United Airlines is changing the way you earn miles for flights flown (NOT booked) after March 1, 2015.  You’ll earn miles based on how much you paid for your ticket (base fare + surcharges) and what kind of elite status, if any, you have with United Airlines.

Here’s how many miles you’ll earn per $1 you spend (base fare + surcharges) for each elite status level:

Elite Status LevelMiles Earned
None5 Miles per $1
Premier Silver7 Miles per $1
Premier Gold8 Miles per $1
Premier Platinum9 Miles per $1
Premier 1K11 Miles per $1

So for example, on a $300 ticket, you’d earn:

  • No Status:  1,500 miles
  • Premier Silver Status:  2,100 miles
  • Premier Gold Status:  2,400 miles
  • Premier Platinum Status:  2,700 miles
  • Premier 1K Status:  3,300 miles

United Airlines says they’ve made these changes to reward members for their spending on United Airlines, which doesn’t help those of us don’t like to spend a lot of money on airline tickets!  But I wrote that we should expect changes to how airline award programs are run, so this isn’t a surprise.

That said, I know many folks will be unhappy with this announcement.  But part of being in the miles and points game is being able to adapt to industry trends and changes.  There will still be ways to get Big Travel with Small Money!

How Will This Affect You?

The biggest impact of this change will be on folks who actually fly on United Airlines to earn miles (vs. those who earn miles through credit card bonuses and spending).  This will especially affect those who like to fly long distances on discounted fares.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Folks Who Earn Miles Through Cheap Long-Distance Tickets Will Be Most Affected

For example, I checked the United Airlines website for a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles in November.  Their lowest fare is $398 round-trip in coach class.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
A Round-Trip Flight From New York to Los Angeles Costs $398

Under United Airlines’ current system, you’d earn 4,950 miles for this trip if you don’t have elite status.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
You’d Earn 4,950 Miles for This Trip Without Elite Status

However, if you flew the same trip after March 1, 2015, and paid the same amount, you’d only earn ~1,990 miles ($398 fare x 5 miles per $1 you spend).  That’s an approximate number because not all surcharges and fees will count towards spending.  In any case, you’ll earn ~3,000 miles less.

And as a top-tier elite (Premier 1K), the difference in earning is even more substantial.  Currently, Premier 1K flyers would earn 9,900 miles for this route.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Premier 1K Elite Members Would Earn 9,900 Miles for a New York to Los Angeles Round-Trip Flight

After March 1, 2015, a Premier 1K elite member would only earn ~4,378 miles ($398 fare x 11 miles per $1 you spend) for the same $398 ticket.  That’s a difference of over 5,500 miles!

The good news is you’ll still earn Premier Qualifying Miles (which count towards elite status) based on the distance flown, not on the fare paid.  So those folks who like to “mileage run” by buying low or mistake fares on long routes to achieve elite status will NOT be affected by this change.

Note:   These changes will only affect flights flown on United Airlines or United Express, or Star Alliance and partner tickets issued by United Airlines.  You can still buy tickets on Star Alliance or partner airlines and credit the mileage to United Airlines under the old distance-based calculation.  But be careful since many foreign airlines do not give you 100% of the miles earned for the cheapest tickets.

Who Might Benefit From This Change?

1.   Business Class Travelers on Expensive Tickets

If you’re an elite business traveler whose company pays lots of money for Business Class tickets, but you get the miles, you might do quite well under the new system.

For example, a round-trip discounted Business Class ticket between Newark and London, UK costs $4,879.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
You (Well, Hopefully Your Employer) Will Pay $4,879 for a Round-Trip Business Class Ticket Between Newark and London

Using the old distance-based system, an elite Platinum 1K flyer would earn 17,330 miles for this ticket.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
You’d Earn 17,330 Miles Using the Distance Based System

The same trip flown after March 1, 2015 (assuming the same fare paid and elite status) would earn 53,669 miles ($4,879 fare x 11 miles per $1 you spend).  That’s a huge difference!  So overseas business travelers flying on expensive tickets might be very happy with this change.

And someone without any elite status at all would earn 24,395 ($4,879 fare x 5 miles per $1 you spend) for this ticket.  That’s better than what a top-tier elite would earn (17,330 miles) under the old system.

Note:  The class of service bonus is included in the number of award miles you earn per $1 you spend.  From the MileagePlus Updates website:

For tickets that will earn award miles based on ticket price, the class-of-service bonus and Premier bonus will be included in the number of award miles you earn per dollar.

But before you (or your boss) go buying $10,000 overseas tickets, United Airlines says you can only earn a maximum of 75,000 miles per ticket.  And there’s no minimum number of miles.  I don’t understand why you’d want to upset folks spending tens of thousands of dollars on flights by limiting the maximum miles earned.

But you could get around this by booking 2 1-way tickets (if 2 1-way tickets are priced the same as your roundtrip).

2.   Short-Haul Flyers on Moderately Priced (or Higher) Tickets

If you frequently fly short-haul routes (even in coach class), you might benefit from these changes, too.

A round-trip coach class ticket from Toronto to Chicago costs $340.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
You’ll Pay $340 for a Round-Trip Coach Class Ticket From Toronto to Chicago

With the old system, this ticket would earn a non-elite member 874 miles.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
It’s a Short Distance, so You’d Only Earn 874 Miles as a Non-Elite Flyer

But the same trip after March 1, 2015 would be a better deal for mileage earning.  You’d earn 1,700 miles ($340 fare x 5 miles per $1 you spend).  So if you fly a short distance on a (relatively) expensive ticket often, you will likely do better with the new revenue-based system.

Looking at it differently, the only way you’d do worse with this route under the new system would be if the fare were below ~$175.  That’s because ~$175 miles per $1 you spend = 875 miles, which is about what you would have earned under the distance-based system.

Folks who do lots of short-haul flying on some routes may actually do very well with the new system!  So it’s not all bad news.

3.   Folks Who Use Miles Earned From Credit Cards to Fly on Award Tickets

The new system will discourage folks who mileage run (buy very cheap tickets for long-distance routes) to earn miles to use towards award tickets later.  So award seat availability might actually improve on United Airlines!

This means there could be less competition for available award seats.

What About Earning Miles Through Credit Cards?

Link:   Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Link:   Chase United MileagePlus Club

Link:   Chase Sapphire Preferred

Link:   Chase Ink Bold

Link:   Chase Ink Plus

Link:   Chase Freedom

There’s NO change to how you earn miles from credit cards.  If you earn most of your United Airlines miles from credit card sign-up bonuses and spending, this change won’t have much of an effect.

In their FAQ, United Airlines says:

Does this change affect how I earn bonus award miles with my U.S.-based or international United MileagePlus credit card?  No.  If you hold a credit card that earns MileagePlus miles, nothing is changing with how you earn those miles.  For example, United MileagePlus Explorer cardmembers will earn two award miles for each $1 spent on tickets purchased from United.

So you’ll still be able to get the sign-up bonuses and earn 2 miles per $1 you spend on United Airlines with the Chase United Explorer and Chase United Club cards.  That said, I prefer using my Chase Sapphire Preferred because I’d get 2 Ultimate Rewards points per $1 spent which I can transfer to United or other airline or hotel partners.

And there’s no change to transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred, (no longer offered) Chase Ink Bold, and Chase Ink Plus cards to United Airlines.  If you have any of these cards and a Chase Freedom card, you can indirectly transfer your Chase Freedom points to United Airlines as well.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to United Airlines Isn’t Affected!

Will United Airlines Change How You Spend Miles?

Yes, but the changes aren’t clear yet.

United Airlines says they’ll be adding more and better ways to use miles.  This usually means options which either aren’t good values!

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
I’m Most Curious About the “More on the Way” Promise

Here’s a link to United Airlines’ current award chart.

Should You Change Your United Airlines Strategy?

If you earn most of your United Airlines miles from flying, you’ll probably want to look closely at how these changes will affect you.  But there is NO (repeat, NO!) change for most of us who earn United miles via credit cards!

Other airlines, like Delta, have already moved to a (partial) revenue-based frequent flyer program.  And I predicted that other airlines would follow with adding revenue components to earning miles and elite status.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
Delta Started the Trend Toward Revenue-Based Mileage Earning…Who’s Next?

You could consider switching to frequent flyer programs like American Airlines or Alaska Airlines which still earn miles based on distance flown.

But given the trend toward revenue based programs, I’m sure we’ll eventually see changes to earning miles on them, too.

Folks who flew United Airlines for inexpensive, long-distance domestic tickets to collect miles to use on international flights might now consider switching to airlines like Southwest or JetBlue for their domestic flying.

The free checked bags, cheap fares, modern planes, and quirky service on these airlines might be a lot more attractive now that folks won’t (usually) earn as many miles on United Airlines.

Remember, if you buy tickets on a Star Alliance or partner airline (as long as the ticket isn’t issued by United Airlines), you can still credit the miles to United Airlines under the old system.

How Your Travel Plans Will Be Affected By The Changes At United Airlines
You’ll Still Earn Miles on American Airlines Based on Distance Flown…but for How Long?

Not much will change for folks who don’t earn United Airlines miles from flying.  What will likely change is how we’re able to use those miles for award tickets, but until United Airlines gives us more information, it’s hard to say exactly what the effect will be.

That said, if you’re planning on buying paid tickets United Airlines and can fly before the changes take effect on March 1, 2015, you’ll almost definitely earn more miles (unless you’re buying very expensive tickets!)

Bottom Line

United Airlines is changing its frequent flyer program to a revenue-based system for flights flown after March 1, 2015.  This means that instead of earning miles based on the distance flown, you’ll earn miles based on how much you paid for your ticket.

This change WILL NOT affect many of us who earn United Airlines miles from credit card bonuses and spending.  It WILL change things for folks who actually fly on United Airlines to earn miles.  But elite status qualification will still be based on distance flown.

While this is not great news, let’s remember that the game is constantly changing and we need to adapt.  There will always be ways to get Big Travel with Small Money, and I’ll keep you updated on them!

How will this announcement change your United Airlines strategy?

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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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Wojciech Majewski

I am 2 million mile flyer with United and have been 1K member for over 15 years in a row.

The new rules are making me earn far less miles. For a flight from Singapore to Tokyo, which I take few times a year, after March 1 2015, I was credited only 2783 miles vs. previously 6656.

I understand that the new program is designed to reward flyers who pay more for United services, but there is no reason to punish everyone else. I run my company and always try to keep the cost down.

I called American Airlines where I have currently only a Gold status and they instantly offered me matching Executive Platinum membership. Bye bye United…

I’m not sure if I could make a reservation with award miles after March 1, 2015. I didn’t appreciate that “more on the way”, which looked as a lack of transparency to me. Well, I really do not like that changes, especially because will affect my earning miles in long distance flights (my family lives overseas).

Will the amount of miles to get a award reservation flight change too?

I have been flying just with United long years, but I am feeling umcomfortable with this lack of transparency this time. Thanks for reading.

Hello,

what if I buy tickets from priceline.com or expedia? do I earn miles based on distance or cost? Thanks

It seems that with my travel patterns I would make out really well in regards to points (I am Gold with UA). Will the number of points required for a rewards fare go up with this new program?

Do you know what happens if my round-trip begins in February (before the Mar 1 cutover) but the return leg is in April?

Do I get the full mileage-based award miles for the whole trip (or) do I get only the $$ based miles on the return leg?

I’d assume it’ll be the full miles since they’ll have to go to trouble to split the round trip cost into each way to assign miles if it were half and half each method.

Author
Million Mile Secrets

@Ram – I’d guess full miles, but can’t say for sure.

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