Today I will cover the upsides and downsides to using United Airlines miles to fly for free, and will go over which credit card bonus offers are best for earning United miles.
United is part of Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance, which has over 25 member airlines. In addition, United has 12 additional partners: Aer Lingus, Aeromar, Air Dolomiti, Azul Brazilian Airlines, Cape Air, Edelweiss Air, Germanwings, Great Lakes, Hawaiian Airlines (inter-island flights only), Island Air, Jet Airways, and Silver Airways. There are no restrictions on how many different airlines you can use to book an award, which makes United’s program very flexible. You could, in theory, book just one award ticket from Seattle to Istanbul and fly one leg on United, one on Aer Lingus, and one on Turkish Airlines. Most of United’s partners are bookable online, but some require phoning in.
Best Routes To Redeem
United’s extensive partner network makes it possible to fly just about anywhere around the globe using MileagePlus miles. However, some redemptions are a much better deal than others.
The award chart for United has a few sweet spots when flying from the continental US or Canada. Flying to central or southern Africa stands out as a good deal, at only 40,000 miles each way, especially considering that United has three Star Alliance partners based in Africa (Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, and South African Airways). Flying to islands in the South Pacific (United’s Oceania zone) also is a good way to redeem United miles, at 35,000 miles each way. China, Mongolia, and Taiwan are also good bets at 35,000 miles each way, less than many other programs. Since United partners with Air China, you can even fly to Tibet or far western China for the same amount of miles.
An amazing deal can be had if you happen to be flying from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, or Mongolia to islands in the Pacific- awards cost only 12,500 miles each way from Japan and 15,000 from elsewhere. In addition, flights from Mexico or the Carribean to Northern South America cost 10,000 miles each way.
Closer to home, flights within Canada or between the US and Canada cost the standard 12,500 miles each way, but since United partners with Air Canada, you can fly to some very interesting places in even the most remote areas of the country that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.
One of the best parts about redeeming United miles is that they never have fuel surcharges! The few fees that United does have can usually be avoided:
- Close-in booking fee ($75): This fee will be charged if you book a ticket within 20 days of departure. To avoid it, book your ticket at least 3 weeks in advance!
- Phone booking fee ($25): Phone agents will try to charge this fee when booking awards for you. If you were unable to book the award on the website, kindly ask if they will waive the fee, and sometimes they will.
- Change/cancellation fee ($125 within 60 days of departure, otherwise $75): Unfortunately, United charges a fee for award cancellations no matter what. However, thanks to US law, you can cancel up to 24 hours after booking for free. So if you are unsure if you want to take a flight, you can still book it, ponder for 23 hours, and cancel for free!
The “Excursionist Perk”
United Airlines, like most other airlines, allows booking of one way awards, and you can combine two one ways to create a round trip itinerary if you want. Normally, stopovers are not allowed. However, in some cases, United will allow you to add a third one way ticket in the middle of your itinerary for free, which could allow you to visit additional destinations. They call this free one way the “excursionist perk.”
In order to qualify for the free leg, you have to follow a couple rules:
- Your entire trip has to leave from the same award zone as you return to. For instance, if your trip begins in the “Mainland US, Canada, and Alaska” zone, you have to end in that zone. Assuming you want to return home anyways, this requirement is not a big deal. United award zones are defined in their award chart.
- The free one way has to be in a different zone than the one you are starting from (and ending in, since they are the same according to Rule #1) and has to be entirely within that zone, including any connection cities.
Usually, this involves something like the following:
In this routing, the flyer leaves from San Francisco, and returns to San Francisco, fulfilling the first rule. The free one way is from Beijing to Seoul (or vice versa) and this fulfills the second rule because both cities are within United’s “North Asia” zone, which is a different zone than San Francisco is in. Basically, its just a trip with two stops.
But, as I’ll show you, much crazier itineraries are possible.
You could fly the first leg from Piedras Negras, Mexico (across the border from San Antonio, Texas) to Leticia, Columbia (in the Amazon); float down the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil; fly from Manaus to Iguazu Falls; travel overland through Argentina, Chile, and Peru to Cuzco and Machu Picchu; and then return from Cuzco back to Piedras Negras all for just 20,000 United miles! A very fun trip for the adventurous at heart. Here’s a visualization (connecting cities are not shown for simplicity):
This routing is valid because it meets the requirements for Rule #1 in that it leaves from and returns to the “Mexico” zone, and the free middle leg (from Manaus to Iguazu Falls) is entirely within a different award zone than Mexico (the “Southern South America” zone). Note that this itinerary also takes advantage of the sweet spot in United’s award chart from Mexico to “Northern South America,” so it only costs 10,000 miles for each of the first and last legs.
In addition to everything else mentioned here, notice that the free leg in Brazil is not in the same award zone as Leticia or Cuzco. It is in “Southern South America” rather than “Northern South America.” It doesn’t have to be in a particular zone, in fact, it could have been inside any zone besides Mexico, since that’s where the itinerary started and ended. I could have even made it in Europe from Brussels to Zurich, although that might have not been quite as useful 😉
The Excursionist Perk can be an extremely powerful tool and it can really enhance whatever trip you take. It is one of my favorite parts about flying with United MileagePlus miles.
Generally, there are not too many downsides to booking with United. There are never fuel surcharges, and an extensive partner network with freedom to mix and match partners means that you can get just about anywhere in the world that you want to go. However, I do want to point out a small limitation.
With most airlines, if you find a couple different award segments, you can piece them together to create a longer segment as long as the layover time is less than 24 hours for an international award. You could search both segments on the website and then phone in to have an agent manually splice them together. United does not allow this. For example, if you want an award from Seattle to Tromsø, Norway, but the routing is too complicated for the website’s search to figure out, than you are dead in the water. You can’t search an award from Seattle to Oslo, then search an award from Oslo to Tromsø, and then call up to have an agent put them together into one award. On the bright side, United’s online award search is better than that of many other airlines, so you can still book most awards online.
The only time when phoning in is useful for booking awards is when you are booking a partner that is not available on United’s website, such as Singapore Airlines. Otherwise the agents will just be able to find exactly what you find online.
Earning United Miles
As with all mileage programs, the best way to quickly accumulate United miles is by getting credit card sign up bonuses. You can read how to do this responsibly on my credit cards page. The following credit cards will give you United miles, there are quite a few:
United MileagePlus Explorer Card
The United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase currently offers 36,000 United Miles after spending $1000 in 3 months and adding an authorized user to the card, with the annual fee waived the first year. The highest public offer I have seen on this card is 57,000 United Miles after spending $2000 in 3 months and adding an authorized user. I would recommend waiting until the higher bonus comes around before applying to this card.
In addition to the bonus miles, this card offers a couple complimentary passes to the United Club. United Clubs are located in airports in the US and around the world, and offer nice seating, free food, complementary drinks, and sometimes even showers. They are a perfect place to go, relax, and have a bite to eat on long layovers.
Note: If you don’t feel comfortable with adding an authorized user to your card, you can still get the card bonus, it will just be 5000 miles less (this also applies to the Chase Sapphire Preferred below, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited and Chase Freedom bonuses will be 2500 miles less without adding an authorized user).
United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card
The United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card from Chase currently offers 53,000 United Miles after spending $3000 in 3 months, with the annual fee waived the first year. This is the highest public offer I have seen on this card, so now is a good time to apply if you can meet the minimum spending! This card also comes with a couple complementary passes to the United Club.
For the purposes of applying for credit cards, any side hobby which generates extra income for you can be considered a business. Just enter your full name as the legal business name on the application, the type of business as “sole proprietor,” the business tax identification number as your Social Security Number, and fill everything else out honestly and completely. Do not worry if your business income is very low, because your personal income (as the owner) will also be factored into your approval for the credit card. One great thing about business credit cards from Chase is that they do not appear on your personal credit report, assuming you make your payments on time! So that means that you do not have to worry about reallocating credit when you cancel since it will not affect your score.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
The Chase Sapphire Preferred will currently net you 59,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4000 in 3 months and adding an authorized user, with the annual fee waived the first year. This is the highest bonus I have seen on this card. Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred 1:1 to United or several other airline and hotel partners, so you can get 59,000 United miles from this bonus.
Chase Freedom Unlimited
The Chase Freedom Unlimited will currently net you 18,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $500 in 3 months and adding an authorized user. This card has no annual fee! This is the highest public offer I have seen on this card, but it is a relatively new card so could be increased in the future. Important: These points cannot be transferred to United (or any other airline or hotel program) unless you also have a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Chase Ink Business Preferred card. You will first have to transfer the Ultimate Rewards from this card to one of the other cards and then transfer them to United. It is all easy to do online if you have one of the three cards mentioned.
I recommend permanently keeping this card or the Chase Freedom below to reallocate available credit to when you cancel your other Chase cards with annual fees.
The Chase Freedom will currently net you 18,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $500 in 3 months and adding an authorized user, and is very similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited above. I have seen bonuses for this card slightly higher (by 5,000 Ultimate Rewards points) than the current offer, and sometimes I can send you a referral email which contains a better offer. Please leave me a comment below if you’d like a referral email.
I personally like this card more than the Freedom Unlimited because it has rotating 5 points per dollar bonus categories. However, it only earns 1 point per dollar spent on non-bonus categories, as opposed to the Freedom Unlimited which earns 1.5 points per dollar. Even so, it is one of my favorite cards out there and overall I end up earning more than I would with the Freedom Unlimited without even trying to spend more in the bonus categories. This card also has the same restrictions as the Chase Freedom Unlimited when it comes to transferring to United- you will need to have one of the other three Ultimate Rewards cards at the time of transfer.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
The Chase Sapphire Reserve has been quite popular recently in the national news- and rightly so, because its sign up bonus is a whopping 104,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (which can be transferred to United at a 1:1 ratio) after spending $4000 in 3 months when you apply in branch through mid-March. The downside is that there is a $450 annual fee that is not waived the first year.
The $450 fee might be worth it for some folks though, since the card reimburses up to $300 in travel per calendar year. This means that you can have $600 reimbursed if you sign up for the card sometime in the middle of the year and get the travel credit for two years before cancelling. The card also reimburses the $100 fee for signing up for Global Entry if you want to do that.
Another benefit to this card is that it includes the Priority Pass Select Membership, giving you unlimited access to many airport lounges worldwide. These lounges are a great place to relax between flights, since they have free food, free drinks, and sometimes even free showers!
Chase Ink Business Preferred
The Chase Ink Business Preferred currently has a sign up bonus of 85,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $5000 in 3 months, with the annual fee waived the first year. This is a very good bonus, but has a high spending requirement, so make sure you can meet it if you sign up. These points can be transferred 1:1 to United MileagePlus.
Chase Ink Business Cash
Contrary to what the name would imply, this card actually accumulates Chase Ultimate Rewards points as well, however (like the Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited), you will have to have another Ultimate Rewards card to transfer them to United. The current sign up bonus for this card is 33,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3000 in 3 months, which is the highest I have seen it. And this card has no annual fee!
United MileagePlus is a solid award program, and is probably the easiest one for beginners to use because of the abundance of partners, lack of fuel surcharges, and ability to book most awards online. It is also easy to earn lots of United miles quickly if you are new to using credit cards to fly for free, since Chase has a variety of cards which offer large bonuses for United.
Folks who have been using credit cards to fly for free for years may have a harder time acquiring United miles because of Chase’s new 5/24 rule, which I will talk about in a later post. Just know that it is best to apply for Chase credit cards before cards from other banks since they are much harder to get later on.
If you have any more questions on United MileagePlus that are not addressed here, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try my best to answer it!