Star Alliance – United Airlines Mileage Plus

United Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world. However it doesn’t seem to have a very popular frequent flyer programme, if the admittedly US-focused comments on Flyertalk are anything to go by. But since we looking for a Star Alliance frequent flyer programme, we certainly can’t skip Mileage Plus.

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I first noticed United Mileage Plus when it was widely reported to be the first programme to introduce minimum spend requirements on the airline itself in order to attain status. (along with the mileage requirement) Although this doesn’t actually apply to residents outside of the United States, I think it does show how ruthless the management of United Airlines are when it comes to ensuring that their loyalty scheme rewards those who spend lots of money with United, rather than flying lots of miles with a Star Alliance partner. But let’s take a closer look anyhow…

Status

Mileage Plus has 4 levels of status: Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K. All except Silver qualify you as Star Alliance Gold. So, at least 50,000 miles per year to retain Gold status.

However, if you have status with another airline, you can request a Status Challenge with United. Details are posted on the United website. With a challenge, your account will be upgraded for 90 days and you have that time to complete the following on United or Copa airlines:

  • Silver – 7,000 miles or 8 segments
  • Gold – 12,500 miles or 15 segments
  • Platinum – 18,000 miles or 22 segments

You need to keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, you will want to reach the qualification target AFTER 1 July of any year, as that gets you status for the remainder of the current year as well as the next. Second, if you are aiming for Platinum, but end up with, say, 10,000 miles, it is entirely at United’s discretion whether to even let you have the Silver status you met the target for. Thirdly, reaching your target on United only is going to require an awful lot of flying in the US. (18,000 miles would require flying something like LHR-JFK-LAX-JFK-LAX-JFK-ORD-LHR in economy so it won’t be cheap) And finally, you almost definitely will only ever be allowed to take one challenge, so choose your timing carefully to ensure you are successful, and also that you definitely want to have Mileage Plus as your main Star Alliance programme, so that you have a shot at re-qualifying for status.

For those without status, Aegean is obviously easier to obtain. If you do have top-tier status, then a Turkish Airlines status match is more straightforward. Where this might be interesting is if you managed to get a challenge from BA Silver to United Gold, in which case you would end up with Star Alliance Gold for fewer miles than with Aegean…

Earning Miles

When it comes to earning miles with Star Alliance partners, again you must look at each partner individually. However, without having done a comprehensive analysis, it appears that United Mileage Plus gives you 100% miles for qualifying fares and 0% otherwise. This differs from some other programmes, where a deeply discounted economy fare is likely to get you at least 25% credit. I’m not sure, but it might be a case of win-some, lose-some with economy fare classes…

As is to be expected with a major American frequent flyer programme, all of the major hotel and car rental chains are partners of Mileage Plus. Check out my hotel chart for details. To avoid the horrible 2:1 conversion rate with Starwood Preferred Guest, you can choose instead have your SPG stays credit directly to Mileage Plan at a 1:1 rate – you obviously lose the 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 20,000 Starpoints by doing it that way…

United Airlines does have a credit card for UK residents, but it is poor value at the moment. No sign up bonus and 1 mile per GBP spent (as opposed to the more common 1.5 miles per GBP for airline-specific cards). AVOID, unless a sign up bonus comes along…

Spending Miles

The redemption chart can be found here. There aren’t really any sweet spots that are easily apparent.

You do have the ability to spend more-or-less double the miles to get additional award availability on United Airlines. However, given the relative poor quality of their business and first class offerings, you probably won’t want to do this.

There were also many reports stating that United were refusing to book redemptions on Star Alliance partners, particularly in premium classes. This policy seems to have ended with the merger in 2011 with Continental Airlines, but there’s no guarantee that the policy won’t return, or that it will be possible to book space that the ANA tool promises…

You will also pay quite high fees to change or cancel award bookings, so be warned…  You will also have substantial “co-pays” if you want to upgrade your seat using miles.

Mileage Expiry

At least United’s mileage expiry policy isn’t too bad. Miles expire 18 months after the last activity in your account. It should be easy enough to avoid mileage expiry by buying something cheap in their shopping portal for example.

Conclusion

Yet another programme with serious flaws. Although you can keep your miles from expiring quite easily, you also will need to build up a serious pile of miles through flying (on relatively expensive tickets) in order to get enough for a good redemption – Starwood doesn’t help and the credit card options are weak as well. So looks like another programme to avoid completely.

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