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

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This article was last updated Jul 29, 2015, but some terms and conditions may have changed or are no longer available. For the most accurate and up to date information please consult the terms and conditions found on the issuer website.

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
AfricaSouth AfricanUnited.comNone
AsiaAir ChinaUnited.comNone
AsiaAir IndiaUnited.comNone
AsiaANA JapanUnited.comNone
AsiaJet AirwaysJetAirways.com (registration required) or call UnitedNone
AsiaSingaporeAeroplan.com (registration required) or call UnitedNone
EuropeAer LingusUnited.comNone
EuropeAir DolomitiUnited.comNone
EuropeTAP PortugalUnited.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 120,000 miles round trip (60,000 miles one-way) – you can also connect to other airlines within Europe at this price, so flying United from Chicago to Frankfurt
  • Any Saver level economy 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 70,000 miles roundtrip (35,000 miles one way) in a lie flat seat.
  • The Middle East to / from Europe in Business Class for 50,000 miles, or Central Asia (India) to / from Europe in Business Class for 55,000 miles on any Star Alliance Carrier
  • Australia to South Asia or Japan in Business Class for 50,000 miles, or to North Asia for 55,000 miles on any Star Alliance carrier.
  • Northern Africa to Central Asia in Business Class for 45,000 miles, or Central / South Africa to Central Asia in Business Class for 50,000 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.

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®, American Express Membership Rewards®, or Citi ThankYou® Rewards, 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?


Personal: United℠ Explorer Card, 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® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Business: Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card

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.

*The information related to the United MileagePlus® Club Card, United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card, and United MileagePlus® Club Business Card has been collected by CompareCards and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card. 

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