This is the second in our weekly series that we will be running to give an overview of the top airline frequent flyer programs in the world today.
United’s frequent flyer program MileagePlus was launched one week after American’s AAdvantage program in 1981. The program went through many changes in the last few years particularly with the merger of United and Continental and their OnePass frequent flyer program in 2012, and the switch to a revenue-based earning system in 2015 (after Delta but before American).
Here is an overview of the program along with some key information that might be useful to current and potential members. Program website is available here.
Elite Status Levels (based on calendar year earnings):
- Premier Silver – requires 25,000 PQM* or 30 PQS* per calendar year and $3, 000 PQD spend
- Premier Gold – requires 50,000 PQM* or 60 PQS* per calendar year and $6, 000 PQD spend
- Premier Platinum – requires 75,000 PQM* or 90 PQS* per year and $9,000 PQD spend
- Premier 1K – requires flying 100,000 PQM* or 120 PQS* per year and $12,000 PQD spend
- Global Services – requirements unpublished but estimated to be around $30K spend per year
*PQM=premier qualifying miles, *PQS=premier qualifying segments, PQD=Premier qualifying Dollars* (Total Base Airfare Spend before taxes in US Dollars). Members need to have both a minimum # of (PQM or PQS) and a min PQD spend to requalify for status for the following calendar year. Members that reside outside the USA are exempt from the PQD minimum requirements.
Key Benefits of Elite Status
- All Premier Levels – comp upgrades on US domestic flights as well as flights to/from/within North America, Central America, and the Caribbean (except p.s. flights between JFK and SFO/LAX as well as some flights between HNL and the Eastern US) cleared up to 5 days before departure ordered by premier status level, minimum 500 miles earned
- Premier Silver – 1 free checked bag, comp access to Economy Plus seating for member and 1 traveling companion at check-in, Star Alliance Silver status
- Premier Gold – 2 free checked bags, comp access to Economy Plus seating for member and 1 traveling companion at booking, Star Alliance Gold status (access to Star Alliance lounges when traveling internationally regardless of ticketed class), free same day flight changes
- Premier Platinum – 3 free checked bags, comp access to Economy Plus seating for member and up to 8 traveling companions at booking, Star Alliance Gold status, free same day flight changes, free award ticket cancelations and redeposit, 2 one way Regional Premier Upgrades, additional premium cabin saver award availability
- Premier 1K – All Premier Platinum benefits plus 2 additional Regional Premier Upgrades, 6 Global Premier Upgrades, dedicated customer service line
- Global Services – All Premier 1K benefits plus… ability to use Regional and Global Premier Upgrade certificates on award tickets, Access to United Global First lounges in SFO/IAD/HKG/LHR/NRT when traveling in business class, additional premium cabin award availability above Premier Platinum and 1K members, and more
Lifetime Status (Million Miler Program):
For those members that have been loyal to United for many years and have flown more than a million miles, the MileagePlus program rewards those members with lifetime premier status (renews each year unless the member achieves a higher premier level that calendar year via flying). Before the merger with Continental, MileagePlus and OnePass differed in the way they tracked qualifying mileage toward lifetime status. MileagePlus only counted flown miles but OnePass counted all miles earned including those through non-flying activities. When the programs merged, former OnePass non-flying miles were grandfathered into the MileagePlus Million Miler program.
- 1 million miles = Lifetime Premier Gold status
- 2 million miles = Lifetime Premier Platinum status
- 3 million miles = Lifetime Premier 1K status
- 4 million miles = Lifetime Global Services status
United’s million miler program is much more generous than both American’s and Delta’s. You cannot even earn top tier lifetime status in either of those programs (Executive Platinum or Diamond respectively) no matter how many millions of miles you fly yet you can earn up to Global Services status on United after 4 million miles. Also, when achieving any of the above lifetime status levels, the member is allowed to designate a spouse or significant other to enjoy the same status level (something American and Delta don’t do).
Mileage Earning Structure:
Earnings for flights operated by United as well as UA codeshare tickets issued by United (tickets starting with 016) but operated by other airlines is based on the base fare of the ticket purchased and the member’s elite status and awarded after the flight is taken. Non-status members earn 5 miles per US dollar, Premier Silver members earn 7, Premier Gold members earn 8, Premier Platinum members earn 9, and Premier 1K members earn 11). To make it easier, when you search for flights, United’s website displays all the pertinent PQM, PQS, and PQD that you will earn for each flight.
One-way economy ticket from BOS to LAX, costs $184; minus the government taxes the base fare is $158
- General Member: Earns 158*5=790 redeemable miles (RDMs)
- Premier 1K = 158*11=1804 RDMs
Mileage earnings for flights marketed (tickets issued by) and operated by other airlines other than United are awarded based on miles flown plus bonuses for premium cabins. The same percentage bonuses are available for elite members as well.
Lufthansa business class roundtrip ticket (not a UA codeshare) from BOS to MUC – cost doesn’t matter but booked in Z class (discount business class)
- General member: 3851 * 2 + 50% cabin bonus = 11.553 redeemable miles (RDMs)
- Premier 1K: 3851 * 2 + 50% plus a 120% bonus on the base miles = 20,795 RDMs.
Sweet Spots on Earning
Similar to American, flying on partner airlines on cheap fares will generally net more redeemable miles than United flights and tickets issued by United for partner airlines which are solely based on fare alone. However, these tickets not issued by United will not earn any Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) which is needed to achieve premier status levels.
Because it’s harder for members residing outside the US to earn PQDs for their partner airline travel, United has exempted non-US residents from the PQD requirement. In addition, United MileagePlus members in the US are exempted from the PQD requirement (but can only earn up to Premier Platinum status based on PQMs or PQSs) if they have one of the Chase United co-branded credit cards and spend at least $25,000 in a calendar year.
Award Mile Redemptions – Sweet Spots
As with most frequent flyer programs, more often than not, you get the best value out of your miles when you redeem for international premium cabin flights. United went through a major award chart devaluation in January 2015 which included splitting award redemption rates based on whether awards are redeemed for United flights or flights including Star Alliance and other partners (higher miles cost); however, there are still some sweet spots on both the United and Star Alliance award charts which are available here.
- North America to Southern South America (Business Class) – 55k miles each way **Tip: Try Air Canada’s nonstop flight from Toronto to Santiago de Chile (SCL) with continuing service to Buenos Aires (EZE) for only 55k miles each way in business – one of the few regions where partner premium awards cost the same as United
- Australia to/from Japan or North Asia (Business Class) – 40k miles each way **Tip: Try ANA’s 787-9 Dreamliner for flights between Sydney (SYD) and Tokyo Haneda (HND)
- All International Awards – Generous routing rules on roundtrip award tickets (2 open jaws, one stopover) **Example: You could fly from Newark to Paris, stay a few days (stopover), then fly to Copenhagen (destination), stay a few more days. Then maybe take alternate transportation (train etc.) to Frankfurt, stay there a few days, and fly back from there to Boston.
One other thing to note is that United currently does not charge ANY fuel surcharges on award redemptions regardless of partner airline or flight origin/destination (you will pay government taxes, however, and a close-in booking fee if you book within 21 days of departure). They are the only major frequent flyer program that does not (even Delta and American do on some partners and/or in some regions). So even if you may be paying more miles for some redemptions, you may be better off when you compare the value of those miles to the surcharges that other frequent flyer programs charge.
This is the second in our series of comparing the top frequent flyer programs in the world. Each program has its advantages and disadvantages, and the one you should choose really depends on a combination of your base/home location, the places you travel to, the amount of travel you do, and what you redeem your miles for. We welcome your comments and questions about the various programs and your experience in each.