The Ultimate Guide to United Airlines' MileagePlus Program

The Ultimate Guide to United Airlines' MileagePlus Program

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Joining an airline frequent flyer program like United MileagePlus is a great way to get rewarded for flights and everyday expenses, even for the infrequent traveler. As a member of the MileagePlus program, you'll be able to earn airline miles and spend them on flights, seat upgrades and other redemptions. Read on to learn about the inner workings of the program, or check out our United Premier guide for information on the airline's elite status benefits.

MileagePlus: United's Frequent Flyer Program

MileagePlus is the frequent flyer program of United Airlines, one of the largest domestic and international carriers. Members of the MileagePlus program can earn miles by spending money with United and its Star Alliance partner airlines and by using the MileagePlus shopping and dining portals. Once you earn enough miles, they can be redeemed for a variety of rewards, including airline tickets, seat upgrades and gift cards.

Elite status is available for the travelers who spend and fly the most on United. To become a member of the lowest United frequent flyer level, you'll have to spend at least $3,000 with the airline in a year. Members of the elite program benefit from perks like free checked bags, bonus miles, seat upgrades, fee discounts and more.

If you don't qualify for elite status on United, you can still join the airline's frequent flyer program as a member of the lowest United MileagePlus tier. You won't get the in-flight benefits of elite status, but you'll still be able to earn miles and redeem award tickets. To join the program, you can sign up on United's website.

How Do United Miles Work?

In the United frequent flyer program, MileagePlus miles are the currency you can earn and spend on award tickets and other redemptions. In most cases, you'll earn between 1 and 5 miles per dollar on eligible purchases. United has a revenue-based earning system, meaning you earn miles based on the money spent on a ticket and not the distance flown. According to our calculations, United miles are worth about 1.1 cents.

How to Earn United Miles

As a general member of MileagePlus, you'll earn miles on United tickets, eligible partner airline tickets and purchases made through the United shopping and dining portals. You can also earn miles by signing up for a United rewards credit card and getting rewarded for your regular purchases. Below, we've broken out the top ways to earn United miles.

1. Buy United Airlines and Star Alliance tickets.

The easiest way to earn United miles is to buy United Airlines plane tickets. As a general member of the MileagePlus program, you'll earn 5 miles per dollar on every eligible ticket purchase. On basic economy tickets, you can earn miles toward award flights but not elite status.

List of Star Alliance airlines
You can earn and redeem miles with any one of United's Star Alliance airline partners.

As a MileagePlus frequent flyer, you can also earn points on tickets you buy on any one of United's partner carriers. United is a member of the Star Alliance, which includes 28 international airline partners. In most cases, miles on partner tickets are based on the price of fare, so long as the ticket is issued by United (meaning that the ticket number starts with 016). If a partner ticket is issued by an airline other than United, miles awarded are based on flight distance and the purchased fare class—i.e., longer flights and flights in first and business class earn more miles.

2. Spend with a United rewards card.

If you're committed to earning United miles—and don't care about earning points to use on other airlines—you can open up a United credit card. United offers two cards, the United MileagePlus® Club Card and the United℠ Explorer Card. The United MileagePlus® Club Card has a slightly better miles-earning rate (1.5 on non-United expenses versus the United℠ Explorer Card's 1 per dollar), but is significantly more expensive at $450 per year due to its luxury perks. If you're solely interested in earning United miles and are less concerned with lounge access, the United℠ Explorer Card is a better option, with its $95 annual fee ($0 the first year).

United MileagePlus® Club CardUnited℠ Explorer Card
United MileagePlus® Club Card
United℠ Explorer Card
Annual fee$450$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95
Miles earning rate2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1.5 miles per $1 spent on all other purchases2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, at restaurants and hotel stays; and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
Bonus50,000 after $3,000 spend in first 3 months40,000 after $2,000 spend in first 3 months. 25,000 after $10,000 spend in first 6 months
Checked bags1st and 2nd checked bags are freeFirst bag is free
Priority boardingYesYes
Foreign transaction feesNoneNone
Lounge accessIncluded United Club membership ($550 annual value)2 United Club passes per year
Credit neededExcellentExcellent

Opening one of the cards above is a good choice if you're a devoted United customer or want access to the United Club. However, if you tend to comparison shop among airlines to find the cheapest fare, you should consider a general rewards credit card. With one of these cards, you can earn transferable rewards points that can be used to book award travel with a variety of airline and hotel partners.

3. Sign up for MileagePlus Dining.

As a member of MileagePlus Dining, you'll be able to earn bonus miles by dining at select restaurants. You can join the program for free by linking your credit and debit cards to your online account. After joining, you'll earn between 1 and 5 miles per dollar, depending on your membership level in the program. Over 10,000 restaurants participate in the MileagePlus Dining program, and you can check locations near you at this link.

Membership levelLevel requirementsMiles per dollar
MemberNo email address provided1
Online memberEmail address provided and enrolled in marketing emails3
VIP memberEmail address provided and enrolled in marketing emails, plus 11 transactions completed in one calendar year5

4. Shop through the MileagePlus shopping portal.

You can earn bonus United miles by shopping through United's MileagePlus shopping portal. The portal hosts offers from retailers like J.Crew, New Balance and Lulu Lemon, which let you earn extra miles per dollar on certain purchases. If you're a frequent online shopper, this is a great way to earn United miles for your regular purchases—plus, you can earn additional points if you pay with a rewards credit card.

5. Download and use the MileagePlus X app.

With the MileagePlus X app, you can earn between 3 and 5 miles per dollar at participating stores, restaurants and retailers. To start earning miles with the app, all you need to do is download it onto your phone and log in using your MileagePlus account information (make sure you have a credit card or other payment method linked to your account).

You can search for participating local and national restaurants and stores on the app; once you're ready to check out at one, you'll enter the total purchase price and a gift card will be issued for that amount. The cashier will complete your purchase by scanning a gift card code on your phone. You're technically paying with a gift card when you use the MileagePlus X app—i.e., you purchase a gift card from United in the app and use that as your payment method—so you're liable to follow the merchant's gift card restrictions.

How to Redeem United Miles for Flights

While there are a few other options for spending United miles—like magazine subscriptions, vacation packages and hotel stays—redeeming them for plane tickets will usually give you the best value. To redeem the miles you've earned for a plane ticket, you can search for award space on the United website or on another Star Alliance website. Once you find award space for your desired itinerary, you can select to pay for the trip with miles and book your flight.

To decide whether a redemption is a good value, you can calculate how many cents per points you're getting for a particular redemption. Consider that a first class flight to Hawaii on United costs either $2,500 in cash or 90,000 miles. On this redemption, each mile is worth 2.7 cents ($2,500 / 90,000 miles = $0.027 )—well above the average value of 1.1 cents per mile.

Below, you can view select redemptions from the United mileage rewards chart. Note that the complete award chart has Saver awards in both economy and first class, and they're a lot cheaper than Everyday awards. However, they're a lot harder to find, so you may be stuck with an economy Everyday award if your travel dates aren't flexible. You can search for prices on the complete United award chart at this link.

OriginDestinationFare classAward levelMiles
Mainland U.S.CaribbeanEconomySaver17,500
Mainland U.S.CaribbeanFirst classEveryday70,000
Mainland U.S.EuropeEconomySaver30,000
Mainland U.S.EuropeFirst classEveryday155,000
Mainland U.S.HawaiiEconomySaver22,500
Mainland U.S.HawaiiFirst classEveryday90,000
Mainland U.S.JapanEconomySaver35,000
Mainland U.S.JapanFirst classEveryday175,000
Mainland U.S.South AsiaEconomySaver40,000
Mainland U.S.South AsiaFirst classEveryday180,000

FAQs about MileagePlus

Take a look at the information below if you have any unanswered questions about the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program.

Is the United MileagePlus program a credit card?

No. You can sign up for MileagePlus without any credit card. However, United co-branded credit cards can help you earn more United miles through dining and shopping spending.

Is United MileagePlus free?

Yes. United's frequent flyer program, MileagePlus, is completely free for anyone who signs up. All airline frequent flyer programs are free.

Can I convert my United miles to dollars?

No. Unlike the rewards points earned on your favorite credit card, airline miles cannot be converted into cash. Airline miles can, however, be redeemed for gift cards, flights and other goods and services that you'd normally purchase with cash.

How many miles do you need for a flight on United?

An economy class one-way domestic ticket can cost as few as 10,000 miles on a flight shorter than 700 miles, while a first class flight from the mainland U.S. to Europe or Asia can cost upward of 150,000 miles. You can check award ticket prices at this link or compare how others maximized their miles on the award travel Reddit forum.

How much is a United mile worth?

On average, United miles are worth 1.1 cents. Miles used for business class redemptions usually have a value of more than 2 cents, while some economy class redemptions can net a cent-per-mile value of under 1 cent.

How much do United miles cost?

You can earn United miles for free on United plane tickets, partner plane tickets, eligible dining purchases and purchases through the United shopping portal. You don't have to pay extra to earn miles on these purchases. If you want to purchase United miles (which we don't recommend), the average price is between 3.5 and 4 cents per mile.

Do United MileagePlus miles expire?

Yes. United miles expire after 18 months if you don't have any account activity during that time. You can prevent miles from expiring by buying United tickets, buying partner airline tickets or by making purchases with a United co-branded credit card. Miles don't expire for cardholders.

How do I find my United Airlines frequent flyer number?

If you lose your United frequent flyer number, you can call the MileagePlus customer service number to retrieve it. You'll be asked for your name, e-mail and other basic information to confirm your identity before you receive your number over the phone.

The information related to the United MileagePlus® Club Card has been independently collected by ValuePenguin and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Yowana is a former product analyst at ValuePenguin, specializing in credit cards, rewards programs and travel. He previously covered mortgages, banking and insurance for the website. Yowana graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Political Science.

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).