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Is United’s the World’s Most Rewarding Rewards Program?

Is United’s the World’s Most Rewarding Rewards Program?

When airlines advertise their loyalty programs, the marketing message typically focuses on a program’s earning side.

But United has just launched an aggressive new ad campaign that flips that approach. Rather than touting the ease with which Mileage Plus members can accumulate miles, United’s new ads promise that the miles will be easy to actually use.

Among the ads’ copy lines:

  • "The mileage program that wants you to use your miles"
  • "Miles that hate staying home on weekends"
  • "Miles that get you where you want to go… even at the last minute"

Of course, it’s easy enough to boast good intentions—talk is cheap.

But United backs up those purported intentions with a solid roster of program features designed to give Mileage Plus members expanded options for mileage redemption. Among them:

None of the above is unique to United. But taken together, they represent as impressive an array of redemption-friendly award options and program rules as can be found in any airline program.

Choice, Value

Choice is one thing, value another.

In a recent survey of alternative award options, I found the value of United miles redeemed for merchandise to be well under 1 cent per mile. When redeemed for free hotel nights, the miles were sometimes worth a penny apiece, but usually less.

For reference, the average value of a mile redeemed for a 25,000-mile restricted coach award is around 1.2 cents. Since that’s by far the most popular award, it’s a value that consumers use, consciously or not, as a benchmark when assessing other award options.

United’s ads also push the availability of unrestricted awards: "Miles with the clout to book any open United seat. Guaranteed. With a Standard Award, if there’s a seat for sale, it’s yours for miles."

But Standard awards are twice as expensive as restricted awards, so the per-mile value plummets to 0.6 cents or so.

If you acquired those miles by using a credit card, earning one mile per dollar charged to the card, getting 0.6 cents per mile amounts to a 0.6 percent rebate—a notably weak value proposition when there are cash rebate cards that return 1 percent or more.

In short, while non-flight awards and unrestricted awards are options in theory, in practice they must also pass a value test.

The Promise: Delivered or Not?

We have the ad campaign, and we have United’s evidence in support of the ads’ claims.

What we don’t have is an answer to the question: Are Mileage Plus members having an easier time redeeming their miles for the awards they want, as the ads suggest?

I don’t know. And the data that United and other airlines make public are insufficient to resolve the issue. So the best I can do is put the question to our readers.

Of course, an informal poll won’t provide a definitive answer—we are unlikely to get enough responses to attain a high level of statistical certainty. But the more input we get, the better the results will reflect the real-world experience of Mileage Plus members.

So please, weigh in with your judgment as to the usability of United miles.

Reader Reality Check

Are you satisfied, or not, with the choice, availability, and value of Mileage Plus awards?

  • Alan

    As long as United continues to engage in the practice of StarNet blocking, this campaign is a crock of s***.

  • chris

    No its all talk, Ive tried several times to redeem miles and there is always an issue , a block on seats, whatever .

  • steven

    United miles are pretty much the worst i have ever experienced. I travel on cx to Asia monthly and can always get a r/t 1st class ticket thru AA. On UA i too can always get a 1st class ticket ..The difference is i need to use twice as many ua miles to get the award. Sorry United but we are not fooled by your advertisement

  • Jim

    I’m in the habit of redeeming my eligible Mileage Plus miles for mile-per-cent credit back on United tickets I’ve purchased; i.e., if I paid $250 for a RT ticket, it costs me 25K miles to get the refund. This way I at least also get miles for the flight itself. I would only use their miles for upgrades, but an upgrade-eligible coach ticket can be VERY expensive–with no guarantee I’ll even get the upgrade. So I just do what I can.

  • bob

    Another point of view. I always use UAL miles to get 1st
    class tickets sfo-europe. They are velued at $15000
    and cost 150000 miles, ie, 10 cents/miles.
    so the value of your miles is your choice.

  • Doug

    The charge for the ticket if you don’t book far enough ahead of time! Last time I checked it was a$100 added on if it was within a week, that sucks.

  • jmat

    as long as I purchase upgraded business class seats at least 4-6 months ahead, I have no problem using UA miles. Attempts to get upgraded coach seats within less than 3 months: all upgradeable seats are “sold” – on waiting list, which seldom clears! So, what good are UA miles when I have to plan 6 months ahea?

  • Tim Winship

    Doug – United no longer charges a “rush fee” for award tickets booked within 21 days of departure.

  • RJBob

    For years, I’ve carried large mileage balances with both United MP and Delta SkyMiles. Time after time, I’ve found it far easier to find reward tickets at minimum levels via United. The Choices program is another nice feature for those with a Chase MP credit card. The Delta SkyMiles program is a cruel joke, in my opinion.

  • John

    After they change their mileage expiration a few years back and took 20k from me, I will never trust the United program again. They are theives. Every program has given me back miles in similar circumstances. Every program is head and shoulders above United.

  • Gary

    I moved from NYC to West Palm Beach, FL. United seems to have removed PBI from its list of airports served by Mileage Plus program. So I have to buy a ticket from someone else to fly to NYC to get a free ticket from them to NRT.

    However, that is still better than Delta’s program which seems to have no low mileage seats to Europe anytime from now to one year in advance.

  • Jim G

    At the moment I live in the Far East. Most of the time I use the miles to ferry children (mine and their friends) around – so it’s almost always restricted coach. So far this year I’ve booked 5 US(non hub)-Singapore tickets – including 2 at Christmas, 3 domestic r/t, 2 SIN-NRT, and 1 US-Canada. Not always my first choice of times, but always got the dates and the tix. And it’s far easier to earn UA miles than AA miles. BTW – when I can’t find a UA flight (not a problem this year) I look for a Star Alliance flight. As with the comment on Cathay for AA, it’s almost always possible to find an alternative on a Star Alliance carrier (and sadly, in coach it’s usually a better flight). If you spend the time to speak to an agent, you may also end up with a hybrid. Last year I brought my sister and family from MSP to Singapore via a UA/SQ combo connecting in Shanghai. UA also routed my wife last year on a SIN-SAT via Beijing on an SQ connection with a UA return though HKG – all on an economy saver award. I won’t speak to the value of the miles, but with a little planning and flexibility I rarely have an issue in getting tickets.

  • Paul

    I agree with Tim. Wife and I planned a trip to Europe for September 2010 to pick up a 2011 Audi on European delivery. I bought economy tickets with upgrade (using miles) to business class in January! I asked my mom if she wanted to go with us and by the time she said yes three weeks later, all upgrades to business were gone so I got her into Economy Plus both directions. I also found calling United reps helped get the upgrades but found when I called the 1K desk I got upgrades for $400 less per person for my wife and I than using the normal UAL number. Why? Shouldn’t the upgrade prices be the same? All three of us will travel together in coach to ORD (no first upgrades were available IN JANUARY booking) and United seems never to offer direct flights in upgrades. So we WERE all in the same row from SFO to ORD. United changed the departure time in SFO by four minutes then all three of us ended up in three different rows. That required another call to United so we could all be together. So no, the UAL upgrade program using miles is not easy, you must plan way to far in advance and you must constantly check the site for your records to make sure nothing has changed.

  • donh

    This was once the gold standard program/airline years ago.It is a tainted program at best today
    Why?Simply availability.When I was a 1k united made seats fairly/within reason/ available to all members.
    I fly only those airlines where my mile currency has value by being able to book at lowest level in this case the saver award.
    United has manipulated the inventory and restricted international redemptions with Star Net blocking.At the end of the day United has sucked the life out of its program .When One is able to get partner awards like Air New Zealand they are 15,000 to 20,000 miles more than the same Qantas One World Award for the same destination.What are they smoking?

    I cant wait to burn all my miles in their program that I have left
    They are only foooling themselves.My 30k a year in revenue as a 100k flyer now goes to competing airlines/programs.They don’t get it anymore and their customer service is dreadful compared to the stellar service they offered years ago.The fact that the call center is India(nothing against India just that this call center iscluless) is the final crushing blow to this once great company of seasoned professionals.
    United done with them!One of the greatest American companies turned tragic

  • Bret

    United saying if a seat is available you can get it via award is simply another lie. But then that’s what United is best at. They lie about why the flight is late, they lie about why their flights are cancelled… always want to say it was weather so they aren’t responsible when it was actually a mechanical. They lie about being able to upgrade flights using miles, They lie about status meaning something..etc..etc..THIS HAS BECOME THE WORST MOST CORRUPT AIRLINE IN THE COUNTRY.(sort of like our gov’t)

  • Brian

    I’ve been waiting for 7 months to get an upgrade award to business class for my flight to Australia in October. I have checked the available seating and it is wide open. I understand that United would prefer to sell a full price business ticket but it is no comfort to those of us that don’t want to travel economy and can’t afford the ridiculous price for business class seats.

  • Rob

    Being a 1k for United is not worth it at all. Limited miles for flying on star alliance flights, no upgrades, no access to first class lounges overseas, no real personalized service, usually no award seats available is the reality. I spend tens of thousands of dollars on the airline annually and having the global services or whatever their highest tier make you a second-class citizen is ridiculous.

    They had a HUGE campaign to announce their new international business class seats something like TWO years ago and they still have the ancient seats on a flight I just took from washington to tokyo. also ridiculous.

  • Peter

    I am a UA 2MM flyer. In recent times there has been a real scarcity of saver international awards, particularly in Business class. This will get worse when Continental completes its takeover of UA.

    Further, it’s not worth using “standard awards” in my opinion. Better to use your miles for Star Alliance awards, although UA blocks many of these. So in summary, MP is not as great as UA would have you believe.

  • Bob

    No problem using UAL miles at the last minute for flights from IAD (Dulles) to SFO. And the best thing is, you can book Saver awards (readily available) for one way flights at 12,500 miles. This is a good thing, because it leaves you the option to do your return flight on Virgin or Jet Blue (which also allow one-way bookings) for one way awards or a discount fares depending on who offers up the best deal for the date/time you want to fly.

    Its excellent to have three carriers competing for your business! As for the rest of UAL’s awards program, I can’t comment.

  • calmnsense

    Americans have been historically fairly spoiled by the US airlines’ pretty generous policies on miles & redemption. Sorry to say so people but try living in Europe for awhile where oftentimes cheapest tickets accrue ZERO miles, there is little availability to upgrade with miles and capacity is every bit as restricted as US carriers’ seats. Taken on a global basis, then, I think United is doing a pretty fair job altho I do worry about the merger as Continental was a damn good competitor that kept others on their toes. Also, the 1k/Premiere Exec phone lines are still in the US and those operators are the best in the business, IMHO.

  • ANT

    I have tried recently and have gotten the award I’ve wanted but not with the routing I’ve wanted. The trade-off was ok as I wasn’t in despereate need to get there and non stop.

  • pua

    I’ve tried to get Washington Dulles to ANY place in Europe, business class, a year in advance and NO luck. United wants us to use our miles but NOT for travel!

  • Dave

    It may be easy to get a coach ticket with miles on UA, but don’t try to use miles to upgrade a coach ticket you purchased! 4 months in advance I was told there was only 1 seat available on all my flights even though the UA web “flight details” showed only 1 seat had been purchased on all the flights. Apparently they are keeping all the inventory available for sale and then giving anything left open to 1K flyers for free. Sucks if you’re not a 1K.

  • June

    I am a big fan of the United Mileage Plus Program. It is the only program where I have been able to get seats in Economy on their Saver Program. I have used over 1,400,000 miles over the last 10 years to travel with my husband to Paris, Japan, London, Australia,Egypt, Vietnam, Spain, China, Israel, Nova Scotia and various places in the US, including New York, Boston and Orlando. I have tried unsuccessfully to use my award miles on Delta and American.

  • Bill R

    I like United’s FF program is great.
    I think that most of the people that complain have unrealistic expectations and are not flexible.
    United has treated me very good over the years.
    I just booked 6 RT tickets from ORD to LAX, using 15K miles and $85.00 per seat – I like this option as it can strech out my miles.
    I was leary about the new upgrade policies – I am very happy with them – I get upgraded MORE frequently now!

  • Gene

    Perhaps the best benefit of mileage programs is to redeem on partner carriers. With United’s open admission to Star Blocking (i.e. blocking of certain partner carrier’s available awards when there is award inventory) flies so blatently in the face of their ad campaign. You can get some partners, but good luck to you if you actually want seats on the best partners. Sure if you want to pay double for seats on United, but you can also do this with pretty much any airline for the last available seat.

  • Donna

    I used to get Safeway United ff miles and then stopped getting them; I called Safeway and United many times and they said they would re-instate them, and they never did, so finally I gave up.

  • Joey G

    As a regular flyer on United and most other airlines, I have always had much greater success redeeming miles for flights on United (and also on Continental) than any other airline. I’d put American in 2nd place. Every time I try to redeem miles to fly Delta or US Airways, I can’t find a seat anywhere in the inventory. With recent website upgrades that allow United Mileage Plus redemption for US Airways and Continental flights online, I’d concur that United does a better job of rewarding its travelers than the other major airlines.

  • DAS

    On a recent trip (3rd week July 2010) from Kansas City to Puerto Vallerta we used American down and United back. American’s fees were $135 and United’s was $45 for for 2 ecomony seats so United was best there. Both charged 17,500 miles for each seat.

  • chris

    I live in Europe. The amount of miles for awards to the Americas has been highly increased by United since Decembrer 2008. MP is far for beeing the best program. Example?

    American Airlines :Europe to Mexico off peak : 40.000
    United: Europe to Mexico (no off peak rate offered): 65.000 !!!!

    Yes United is helping me to use my miles…by asking more miles for a trip than its competitors…

  • Dehydrated

    I do not like the Mileage Plus website redesign. It no longer allows you to see flown flights summary, segments and their associated mileage credit and bonuses. This makes it harder to verify the airline has appropriately credited my account and to track miles.


    All United Premiers & frequent flyers,
    help bring back the United logo and dump the
    CO globe! Sign the petition here!

  • J Daniel

    I’m a 1K member.
    The Number of miles to fly someplace continues to get high, but you still only get 1 mile per miles flow ( 2 on united if your gold or 1K).
    A poor return for your loyalty.

  • Irene

    No problem using UAL 4 weeks in advace in Nov.I use my miles in busines DTW to Germany 105K miles all the way with Lufthansa. In Dec.(13-20) Delta charged me 45K(not upgraded)DTW/JAX. A’m happy wih UAL.