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With US airlines regularly offering less value for their points, I’ve been putting together this series with background, tips, and tricks for frequent flyer programs programs whose points:
- can be very useful to you
- that you can earn easily by transferring in from bank rewards currencies.
I love flexible points far more than earning points in a single airline frequent flyer program. That helps me to diversify so I don’t get hurt as badly when one airline program devalues and that gives me the points I need, when I need them with the airline that has availability for the award that I want.
My Biggest Flexible Points Balance is With Chase Ultimate Rewards
Chase points transfer to:
- Airlines: United, Korean, Singapore, Air France KLM, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways
- Hotels: Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton
Chase Ultimate Rewards is the only credit card program that transfers 1:1 to United.
Important Tips, Tricks, and Cautions About United Airlines MileagePlus Miles
Here are 16 things to know about the United MileagePlus Program:
- United still offers very generous stopover rules on award tickets. In fact, so crazy good that they’ll be clamping down on October 6. But for all of the awards you book before then, the best resource to see all of the things that are possible is this set of two posts at Travel Is Free: All the United Stopover Tricks to Date and Mega Stopover and Open Jaw Tricks With United.
- Since early 2014 United has charged more for awards on partner airlines than awards on their own flights. At one point in the development of their devalued award chart all awards were going to be at the higher price, so this concession is something. It’s the difference between 115,000 miles roundtrip between the US and Europe (United) and 140,000 miles (partners). However you can add partners onto a United award. The key is that United needs to be the primary overwater carrier on the award, and then partners can get you to your final destination (in the same class of service even). So United-only award pricing works to destinations United doesn’t actually serve.
- United has been clamping down on their generosity in other ways, too. The program really was too generous, not because of their intended routing rules or their award pricing but because the computer systems they use are just so bad that they allowed you to do most anything. They’ve layered on some rules to reign in bookings. For instance, Asia awards limit you to 4 connections each way on a roundtrip now — but if you’re booking one-ways between the US and Asia they only permit 3 connections.
- United elites get free Hertz car rental status. (Delta Gold elites and higher get Hertz status also).
United Platinum and higher elite members and United Club card and Presidential Plus cardholders get Hertz Presidents Circle status. United Silver and Gold Premier members get Hertz Five Star status. Hertz elite benefits, at least outside of the Platinum level (which I don’t think is as strong as it ought to be) aren’t great. But it’s better to be a Presidents Circle member getting a car class upgrade than a nobody getting turned away despite having a reservation.
- United Gold elite members and higher get Marriott Rewards Gold status which means club lounge access or breakfast (but not at Courtyard properties or resorts) and 4pm late checkout.
- Although United earned justified scorn over changes to its million mile program with the Continental merger — United specifically promised no devaluation but made 1 million mile status second from the bottom rather than second from top and took away annual confirmed upgrades — on net I think they actually improved the program.
They made it possible to earn up to lifetime Global Services status (which you normally can’t earn just by flying, it’s revenue-based or given out by sales) and because a lifetime elite’s spouse gets the same status as whatever the lifetime member has. A lifetime Gold who currently has 1K status gifts their spouse 1K status for the year as well.
- United has one of the easiest to use websites for booking awards (you don’t even have to log in to search), and they promise it’s getting better. They have most of their partner airlines online, so you know what flights are possible and don’t have to call. (Most airlines don’t have most partners on their websites, and don’t even tell you this.) However the United website is glitchy, sometimes shows phantom award space and sometimes errors out. In general I find the most reliable site for checking Star Alliance award space is Aeroplan’s.
- They don’t show all of their partners on their website, though. Sometimes partners appear on the website, and then stop showing up in searches. Right now two of the most elusive partners — Brussels Airlines and SWISS — are showing up at United.com but they haven’t always. United intentionally removed Singapore Airlines award space from their website, presumably hoping members wouldn’t know about the space or that they could get it by calling.
- If you do have to call to book an award, United’s rules are that they should charge you a telephone booking fee (unless your elite status exempts you). However I’ve never had a problem getting a phone booking fee waived explaining that the award couldn’t be booked on the website.
- United requires you to spend a minimum amount on tickets in order to earn elite status, on top of your miles flown. However this requirement only applies to members with US addresses. Plenty of people made ‘virtual moves’ out of the U.S. to avoid this, however United now requires proof of your new address.
You can also avoid the spending requirement for elite status by charging $25,000 or more in purchases in a year on United co-brand credit cards. However this only exempts you for the spending requirement to earn up to Platinum status. It doesn’t get you out of the spending requirement for 1K.
- Mileage upgrades domestically usually aren’t a very good deal anymore now that US airlines sell domestic first class for a modest increment over coach. They’re a very bad deal most of the time for non-elites, who face a cash co-pay on top of the miles. However MileagePlus elites are exempt from this co-pays on domestic upgrade awards except for premium product routes (ps transcons and premium hawaii flights). So elites may consider confirmed upgrades with miles.
- United awards miles for flights based on the fare paid, not distance flown. That makes long flights less rewarding most of the time, and great fares almost completely unrewarding. Find a $200 base fare to Asia and a general member earns 1000 miles, versus nearly 20,000 under a distance-based program. That’s why Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer is such a valuable partner — they credit nearly all United tickets at 100% of flown miles! And Singapore Airlines has a fantastic program. Downsides include miles that expire after 3 years and fuel surcharges on redemptions.
- United never adds fuel surcharges to award redemptions. Ever. It’s one of the only frequent flyer programs outside South America you can say that about. (American adds big fuel surcharges onto British Airways awards and small fuel surcharges on iberia awards, delta adds them onto Europe-originating trips and on some partners like China Southern and China Eastern.)
- United charges a $75 fee to redeem miles for travel within 21 days of departure. This fee is reduced for silvers and golds and doesn’t apply to platinum elites and higher.
You’re not supposed to be able to do this, but I’ve seen plenty of awards booked for travel in the future where the member called immediately to have them change to the dates to the close-in one they really wanted without being charged a fee. This may change in October. It’s a trick that used to work with American but no longer does. (Delta doesn’t have a close-in redemption fee.)
- Plan B awards. Years ago pre-merger United had “FFCC” status and I knew all about taking advantage of that — I had paid for a premium cabin award but was seated in a lower class of service for a particular segment so would insist on the highest priority in the upgrade queue like a disserviced first class customer.
But with the Continental merger the process changed, because United moved to using Continental’s (inferior SHARES) back end. So I learned about Plan B awards [which are almost the same thing] from Dan Eleff of Dan’s Deals.
The idea is that you book yourself in coach if business class isn’t available, but have them debit the miles for business and waitlist you. If you don’t clear into business, you get the miles back and fly coach. However at the airport insist on the highest priority for upgrades as a displaced premium cabin passenger, since you paid for the higher cabin and aren’t seated there.
- United has the best domestic extra miles awards. They’re the only major US carrier that has only two levels of awards. American has 4 (and level four can be varying prices). Delta has 5.
These are the awards where you can spend extra miles for additional award seats. When there aren’t saver awards available, some airlines give you access to extra inventory. United only gives “last seat availability” to elites and co-brand credit card holders, but it only costs 25,000 miles one way for economy seats regardless of award availability on any domestic flight — no matter how much cash that flight would cost. American can charge 3 times that much.