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United MileagePlus cheat sheet for using miles: Airlines, fees, alternatives, and more

by on Wed July 29, 2015 • 33 Comments
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If you’re new to United MileagePlus, or prefer to forget the ins and outs of it, here is a cheat sheet with the least you need to know to get the most out of your miles.

You’ll be prepared for fees, know where to look, and where to get extra miles when you need them.

Airlines you can book, fuel surcharges, and where to find space

This list has all the airlines you can book with United miles, as long as the airline has made award space available on the flight you want.

RegionAirlineWhere to check award spaceFuel surcharges
AfricaEgyptairUnited.comNone
AfricaEthiopianUnited.comNone
AfricaSouth AfricanUnited.comNone
AsiaAir ChinaUnited.comNone
AsiaAir IndiaUnited.comNone
AsiaANA JapanUnited.comNone
AsiaAsianaUnited.comNone
AsiaEVAUnited.comNone
AsiaJet AirwaysJetAirways.com (registration required) or call UnitedNone
AsiaShenzhenUnited.comNone
AsiaSingaporeAeroplan.com (registration required) or call UnitedNone
AsiaThaiUnited.comNone
EuropeAdriaUnited.comNone
EuropeAegeanUnited.comNone
EuropeAer LingusUnited.comNone
EuropeAir DolomitiUnited.comNone
EuropeAustrianUnited.comNone
EuropeBrusselsUnited.comNone
EuropeCroatiaUnited.comNone
EuropeEdelweissUnited.comNone
EuropeGermanwingsUnited.comNone
EuropeLOTUnited.comNone
EuropeLufthansaUnited.comNone
EuropeSASUnited.comNone
EuropeSwissUnited.comNone
EuropeTAP PortugalUnited.comNone
EuropeTurkishUnited.comNone
Latin AmericaAeromarUnited.comNone
Latin AmericaAviancaUnited.comNone
Latin AmericaAzul BrazilCall UnitedNone
Latin AmericaCopaUnited.comNone
North AmericaAir CanadaUnited.comNone
North AmericaCape AirUnited.comNone
North AmericaGreat LakesUnited.comNone
North AmericaHawaiian Airlines (within Hawaii only)United.comNone
North AmericaIsland AirUnited.comNone
North AmericaSilver AirwaysUnited.comNone
PacificAir New ZealandUnited.comNone

How much do awards cost?

United has an easy to use tool that will show you the award prices based on where you want to fly. Or you can view its full award chart here.

Beware that international awards on partner airlines in Business and First Class can often cost much more than awards on United’s own flights.

What are award change and booking fees?

  • Close-in fee: $75 when you book less than 21 days before departure (waived for Premier level fliers)
  • Change date (no change to origin / destination) 21 days or more before departure: $75 (less for Premier level fliers)
  • Change origin/destination: $100
  • Cancel and redeposit miles: $200 (waived for Platinum and 1K level fliers)
  • Change flight time on the day of departure: $75 (less for Premier level fliers) – you can do this as long as all of your flights are on United, and you can change to a flight that has the same award space available within 24 hours of your original flight.

Tip: If United changes the time of your flight, which they often do in the months leading up to your flight, you might be eligible for a free change or refund, so it’s worth calling to ask.

What are the best award values?

Some of the better values if you can find them are:

  • Business Class seats to Europe on United’s own flights for 115,000 miles round trip (57,500 miles oneway) – you can also connect to other airlines within Europe at this price, so flying United from Chicago to Frankfurt
  • Any Saver level coach seat to Asia or Europe when cash tickets would cost you about $1,500 or more. You’re getting a decent 2 cents or more in value.
  • United’s P.S. flights in Business Class from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco for 50,000 miles roundtrip (25,000 miles one way) in a lie flat seat.
  • Central Asia (India) and the Middle East to / from Europe in Business Class for 45,000 miles on any Star Alliance carrier.
  • Australia to South Asia in Business Class for 30,000 miles, or to Japan or North Asia for 40,000 miles on any Star Alliance carrier.
  • Africa to Central Asia in Business Class for 45,000 miles.

Can you upgrade with miles?

Yes you can, though you usually get more bang out of your miles by booking a First or Business Class award on its own, as United charges lots of cash fees for upgrades. You can read all about upgrading on United here.

Can you waitlist for Saver award space?

If you can’t find award seats at the Saver price you can only waitlist for premium cabin (First, Business Class) award space on United’s own flights. There are two ways to do this:

  • Book an award on a different flight that has the award price you want. Then waitlist for the one you prefer to fly. If the waitlist clears you will be charged a date / time change fee ($75 – $100).
  • Find a flight with Saver level Economy Class space and waitlist for Business Class on the same flight. The Saver level Business or First Class level of miles will be deducted, but if you don’t clear the waitlist for the long international segment the extra miles will be refunded. You can learn about this method here.

What if you get stuck with a ‘Mixed Cabin’ award?

United will let you waitlist to clear into First or Business Class if you book an award at the First / Business Class price but are stuck in coach for some of the flights. If the flights in coach are on partners you can’t waitlist, but you can call to be put into the higher cabin if you see space open up later on. You can read more about Mixed Cabin awards here.

What stopovers are allowed?

You can book one stopover when you fly a roundtrip award ticket, so you can stay in two cities during your trip.

So for example you can fly Chicago to Paris (stopover) to Rome (destination) then back to Chicago.

United also allows an ‘open jaw’ so your roundtrip ticket can return to a different city in the same region. So in the example above you could return to New York or Los Angeles instead of Chicago.

Stopovers on awards that only include domestic or Canada travel will require more miles than a standard roundtrip, but they are ‘free’ on other international awards.

Can you hold an award seat?

United does not offer holds of awards, though if you book an award you can cancel it within 24 hours free of charge.

Alternative miles to book United flights

If you’re short on United miles, you can book United flights using miles other than United MileagePlus.

Any Star Alliance partner’s miles can access the basic Saver level award seats open to base level MileagePlus members, so if you have a credit card that earns transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, or Citi ThankYou, you have a few options to book United flights without using United miles.

Economy Class seats come from ‘X’ class, and Business Class seats come from ‘I’ class, while First Class seats come from ‘O’ class.

  • Singapore KrisFlyer (award chart) has decent prices for domestic United awards, though you’ll pay fuel surcharges on many international routes. It’s a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou, and Amex Membership Rewards. You get one free stopover on roundtrip awards.
  • ANA Mileage Club (award chart) which is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards often has much better prices than United for long trips outside the U.S., though you pay fuel surcharges on flights to and from Asia. You can’t book one way awards, but you can get one free stopover on awards.
  • Air Canada Aeroplan (award chart) has prices similar to United MileagePlus (though much less for Business Class to Europe) and it levies no fuel surcharges on United flights. It’s a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards. You can get one free stopover on your award if it’s a trip to a different continent, or between Canada and the U.S.

What hotel points can you transfer from?

  • Marriott Rewards (rate varies from 8 points = 1 mile to 2.24 points = 1 mile depending on how many points you transfer – conversion rates are here)
  • Starwood Preferred Guest (2 points = 1 mile)
  • Hilton HHonors (10 points = 1 mile)
  • IHG Club (5 points = 1 mile)
  • Club Carlson: (10 points = 1 mile)
  • Hyatt Gold Passport (2.5 points = 1 mile; extra 5,000 mile bonus when you convert 50,000 points)
  • Choice Privileges: (5 points = 1 mile)
  • Wyndham Rewards: (5 points = 1 mile)

What credit cards earn United miles?

Direct

Personal: United MileagePlus Explorer, United MileagePlus Club Card

Business: United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card, United MileagePlus Club Business Card

Holding these cards gives you access to extra Economy Class Saver award space via United’s ‘XN’ bucket.

Via Transfer

These cards let you transfer the points they earn into your or your spouse’s United account any time at 1 point = 1 mile.

Personal: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom (if you have an Ultimate Rewards card that has an annual fee like the Sapphire Preferred)

Business: Chase Ink Plus Business Card, Chase Ink Cash Business Card(if you have an Ultimate Rewards card that has an annual fee like the Ink Plus)

How do you transfer miles?

You have to pay if you want to transfer miles from your account to someone else, and United charges $7.50 for every 500 miles you transfer, or 1.5 cents each.

You’re better off booking an award for someone else from your own account, since you can use your miles to book tickets for anyone you’d like, even if you’re not traveling.

Do United miles expire?

United miles expire after 18 months of inactivity. Any earning or spending of miles counts as activity, so as long as you do that, it will extend the expiration date of your miles another 18 months. And you can extend the expiration as many times as you’d like. You can read about options to stop them from expiring here.

To avoid hassle, if you plan to earn some miles to keep them from expiring, like through online shopping, try to make sure your earning activity happens about 2 months before your miles are set to expire, as it can take a while before partner miles appear in your account.

Holding a United branded credit card automatically exempts you from this requirement.

If your miles did expire, you can pay a fee to reinstate them, based on how many you’d like to reinstate.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Miles dont expireas long as card is open
Learn more

Partner Offer

50,000 bonus points

Intro Offer

$0 introductory annual fee, then $95

Annual Fee

$0

Foreign Transaction Fee Waived

Yes

Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

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33 thoughts on United MileagePlus cheat sheet for using miles: Airlines, fees, alternatives, and more

  1. Robyn

    Was wondering if it was possible for me to book a ticket for my brother using my United Mileage Plus account? So I get the points? Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Curritha Lani

    When is the next promotion for mileage plus? How many mileage from Majuro, Marshall Islands to Manila, Philippines per adult with round trip?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Curritha – You’ll earn 5 miles for every dollar you spend on the ticket. So if the airfare is $500 you’ll earn 2,500 miles.

      Reply
  3. David

    Earlier today I logged on united.com to book award travel with 72,000 Mileage Plus miles remaining in my account. I was quoted (and printed out) a roundtrip, ‘lowest economy’ fare of 60,000 miles + a $99.16 fee for DEN-MAD-DEN in late November—the flight is a code share operated by Lufthansa, United’s Star Alliance Partner.
    As I tried to book that fare minutes later, the site indicated “You do not have enough miles.” indicating the the identical flight was now 100,000 + a $99.16 fee—for which United generously offered to sell me an additional 29,000 miles for $1,091.13 (also printed out).
    There’s been considerable talk from UAL’s executive suite acknowledging United’s service is not all it could be and pledging to improve same, forthwith. Writing as a formerly pampered UAL profit center with nearly 1 million miles flown on the carrier, “I’m not feeling the love!”

    Reply
  4. Pam

    I have a small amount of miles that are about to expire. If I transfer them to a friend, will they still expire? Or will they remain active as long as her account remains active?

    Reply
  5. Kelly

    Hi,
    I saw united had mile transfers on sale last month. How often does united run this type of promotion?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Kelly – No hard and fast rules, but they seem to appear every few months. Keep an eye on your email from United, and make sure you’re subscribed to emails from MileagePlus.

      Reply
  6. Jeff

    I would like to plan a trip with me, my wife and three daughters. I have enough miles for a round trip and one of my daughters does too. The other 3 tickets I will probably have to buy. Do I need to do three separate transactions for this? Will our reservations be linked so that my daughter doesn’t end up sitting by herself?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Jeff – You would need the separate transactions, and they will remain separate reservations, though you can call to have the reservations cross referenced with each other. And if you book them at the same time, you should be able to select seats at the same time.

      Reply
  7. Elaine

    Can I transfer miles from my 8 year old’s account to mine in order to get enough miles together in one account to qualify for an award ticket?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Elaine – You can, but there will be a fee to transfer from one MileagePlus account to another. How many are in her account?

      One way to avoid a transfer fee would be to book one way award tickets. One way tickets are half the price of a roundtrip. And since you can book tickets in your name (or anyone else’s name) out of her account, you could use her miles for some of the trip, and your miles for the rest of your trip.

      Reply
  8. Janice

    Can I book flights for my 2 grandchildren, ages 14 & 17 and my son, 34. If 75,000 miles are required and I only have 61,000?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Janice – You can choose to buy one of the tickets in cash and the other two with miles. Or you can buy additional miles (though buying 14,000 miles will cost almost $500, so you’re probably better off buying one of them in cash).

      Just check to see what the price for the same flights would be by doing a search for a regular ticket.

      It’s okay to cancel and refund any of your tickets within 24 hours of purchasing.

      Reply
  9. Craig

    Do miles that have been transferred into United count towards status? For instance; suppose I earn the signup bonuses for both the United card (30,000 miles) and the Chase Sapphire (50,000 points.) I then transfer the 50,000 points into United to total 80,000 miles. Would I then qualify for United Premier Platinum? (Assuming I also spend $9,000 with United, as required)

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Craig – Unfortunately they don’t. Only miles earned via flying count toward status, unless you hold a Presidential Plus card (which is no longer offered).

      Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Peter Andersen – From the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, there is no fee to transfer points into your MileagePlus account. To transfer from one MileagePlus account to another, the fee is $7.50 per 500 miles, plus a $30 fee.

      Reply
  10. Jennifer Hazzard

    I booked one-way Standard flight from Florence, Italy to San Francisco using 65K miles plus $75 in fees, for travel in June. I need to change my departure so that I leave from Milan, Italy and found an Economy fare using 30K miles. If I make the change thru the Awards site, will my miles account be
    credited back for the difference (35K miles) AND will my Chase United Card also be credited for the
    fees associated with the original flight? I am new to using my Award Miles! ALSO….can you please
    tell me what “Lifetime Miles” are and how do I use them?? Thank you!

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Jennifer Hazzard – If you switch flights to the Saver level fare, you’ll get the difference in miles back, but you’ll pay an additional fee for the change ($75 if it’s more than 21 days before departure).

      As for Lifetime Miles…that’s just a tracking counter like an odometer. You can’t actually spend those miles, but if you reach 1,000,000 Lifetime Miles, you’ll get Premier Gold status benefits for life.

      Reply
  11. Ingrid

    Can I purchase airfare for my children and wife with my miles? We earn miles from our explorer card for family expenses therefore we should be able to use those miles earned for purchasing airfare for my family members. Or can the miles be transferred to their (my wife and children’s) mileage accounts to purchase airfare?

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Ingrid – You can book award tickets for anyone you’d like using the miles from your account. No transfer needed.

      Reply
  12. Stephanie

    I have just under $1million miles accrued on United Airlines and do not want to accrue more. I have a United Mileage Plus account and want to redeem my miles in the form of hotels and car rentals. My questions are these:

    – Do I need to book my hotel and car rentals on United’s MileagePlus account website using only the choices that are offered there in order to “pay” for these with redeemed miles?

    – If I book my hotel and car rentals through United’s MileagePlus website, but use my own personal credit/debit card can I still “pay” with mileage?

    – Am I able to link my own AMEX credit or other personal credit or debit card, not an United affiliate card, to my Mileage Plus account such that I can book hotel or car rental and charge them to my personal card and “pay” the card with my redeemed airline mileage.

    – If I use an United affiliate credit card such as Chase MileagePlus Explorer to book hotel and car rental outside of the MileagePlus website will I be able to “pay” the balance in mileage?

    I am very anxious to have answers to each of these questions so I may make some informed decisions, as I really prefer to avoid having a United affiliate credit card.

    Thank you! Stephanie

    Reply
    1. MileCards.com

      @Stephanie – You can use a combination of miles and money to pay for hotels or car rentals via the MileagePlus portal – but you have to do it via the United site and can only stay at the hotels available there.

      You can use whatever card you’d like to pay for the money portion of the cost.

      Reply

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