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United MileagePlus Rewards: Everything You Need to Know

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Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying.

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Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying.

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In summary, you could say that United MileagePlus is slightly better tuned for solo travelers since it offers limited free bags, but at the same time, its tiers are easier to reach if you’re only buying tickets for yourself. 
And just like Game of Thrones, MileagePlus may be maddeningly complex at times–but as soon everything “clicks,” you realize just how rewarding it really is.

About the author

Chris Butsch is a two-time author, keynote speaker and credit card nerd helping Gens Y and Z build better lives through financial fluency and positive psychology. His writing has been featured in Fortune, Fortune Recommends, Forbes Advisor, U.S. News, ConsumerAffairs, Money Under 30 and Investor Junkie. Chris got his start in 2015 when he decided to quit his corporate job, travel to 41 countries and ask 1,000 people what happiness means to them. In 2019 he did a TEDx talk revealing his findings, and still speaks to college students today through a partnership with CAMPUSPEAK. Chris lives in Atlanta with his partner Holly and his rescue pup, Joy.


Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying.

Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

In terms of complexity, United’s MileagePlus program makes A Song of Ice and Fire look like Clifford the Big Red Dog. The program has four total currencies to track (miles, PQP, PQF and PlusPoints), over two dozen perks at the silver level, and when it comes to earning rewards, well, here’s a direct quote from United.com:

For ticket numbers beginning with numbers other than 016, MileagePlus members will earn Premier qualifying point(s) equal to the total award earned for the flight divided by 5 if you’re flying on a preferred partner. 

Needless to say, MileagePlus isn’t quite as streamlined as Southwest Rapid Rewards or even Delta SkyMiles have become these days. But once you get over the learning curve, you’ll find a loyalty program that might be even more rewarding than its far leaner contemporaries.

So let’s decipher United’s MileagePlus program in 2024 starting with the basics.

What is United Airlines’ MileagePlus program?

MileagePlus is United Airlines’ loyalty rewards program. In other words, it's the airline’s answer to Delta SkyMIles, Southwest Rapid Rewards and Alaskan Airlines’ Mileage Plan.

On the surface, United MileagePlus looks just like the rest of its competitors. As you book flights with United and its various partners, you’ll earn “miles” (aka points) which you can later cash in for flights, upgrades and other awards. In addition, some of the miles you’ll generate will count towards higher status tiers like Premier Silver and Premier Gold, where you’ll unlock handy perks like free checked bags, priority boarding and more.

But like a good George R. R. Martin novel, United MileagePlus gets far more complicated after the intro.

United MileagePlus: Pros and cons

Pros

  • You can earn Silver Premier status after earning just 12 Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) and 4,000 Premier Qualifying Points (PQP), which is faster than both SkyMIles and Rapid Rewards.

  • Premier Silver unlocks one free checked bag plus 7X miles on United purchases, which is 40% more than you’d get as a base United MileagePlus member (5X).

  • Premier Gold unlocks two free checked bags, Group 1 boarding and upgrades up to 48 hours prior to departure.

  • Co-branded credit cards have generous welcome bonuses.

Cons

  • Requires a degree in cryptography to fully understand.

  • Silver Premier unlocks a free checked bag for you–but not your companion(s).

  • Determining how many miles, PQP, PQF and PlusPoints you’ll earn with each flight can get confusing.

  • Flights with United partners and affiliates may generate PQP and PQF at varying rates, if at all.

  • Co-branded credit cards don’t award automatic status, although some generate 25 PQP with every $500 in purchases.

MileagePlus Points Explained

While most loyalty programs have one or two types of “currencies” to track (e.g. points, miles) United has four in total:

  • Miles are the foundational currency of MileagePlus, used to purchase additional flights, upgrades and more (see How to redeem MileagePlus points below). As a base member, you’ll earn 5X points per dollar spent with United and its various partners, and your earn rate increases with each status tier you reach.

  • Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) are strictly used to track your progress towards your next status tier. You’ll earn PQPs flying with United and its partner airlines, and the amount you generate will be based on the cash portion of your fare excluding taxes and fees, usually at a rate of around 1 PQP per dollar spent. You can also earn 25 PQPs with every $500 in purchases made with select United-branded credit cards.

  • Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) also apply towards status, and are awarded at a rate of one PQF per segment flown with United or a partner airline.

  • PlusPoints are like United’s “super points.” You’ll earn 40 PPs at Premier Platinum, 280 at Premier 1K and another 20 for every 3,000 Premier qualifying points (PQP) you get beyond 18,000. PlusPoints are mostly good towards upgrades, with a jump from United Premium Plus to Business costing 10 PlusPoints and the leap from United Premium Plus to United Polaris costing 30.

Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about PlusPoints until you reach the upper echelons of United fandom. Until then, “miles” are your main source of currency and the other two just count towards status.

So let’s discuss how to earn those miles, how to redeem them and what they’re worth.

How to earn MileagePlus miles

United offers a litany of ways to earn miles:

  • Fly with United or United Express

  • Fly with Star Alliance or other partner airlines

  • Stay with select partner hotel groups including Marriott, IHG and Villas of Distinction

  • Rent cars with Avis and Budget

  • Use a United Airlines-branded credit card like the United℠ Explorer Card or UnitedSM Business Card

You can also score a few extra United miles through United’s retail partners (aka MileagePlus shopping), purchasing vacation packages, select purchases with Theragun and more. But for the most part, you’ll probably be racking up miles using one of the five main methods listed above.

Of those five, perhaps the best and most “efficient” method of earning miles is to apply for a United-branded credit card. We’re fans of the aforementioned United Explorer card because it offers a 60,000-mile welcome bonus, charges $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95) and waives your first checked bag–so you don’t have to wait for Premium Silver status to score that valuable perk.

How to redeem MileagePlus points

Once you’ve amassed a nice pile of miles, what can you spend them on?

United offers a wide menu of redemption options, ranging from the obvious (flights and upgrades) to more intriguing fare like Apple products and broadway tickets.

Here’s a quick summary of the menu:

  • United flights and upgrades (including a Money + Miles option, if you’re shorthanded)

  • Hotels, rental cars and cruises

  • Checked baggage fees

  • TSA PreCheck application or renewal fees

  • United Club memberships

  • Airport dining at select restaurants and bars at Newark Airport and Houston Intercontinental Airport

  • Inflight dining and Wi-Fi

  • United merchandise

  • Apple products

  • Gift cards

  • Magazine and newspaper subscriptions

  • VIP experiences and broadway shows

You can also buy, transfer or give miles away, and in some cases, even convert them to Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs).

But let’s be honest; you’re probably not saving up your United miles for a pair of tickets to Wicked. Like most travelers, you’re probably going to swap them for flights, upgrades and the occasional overpriced can of Pringles mid-flight. When you do, how far will your miles go?

A consensus value of a single United mile is around 1.2 cents, so you’ll be getting plenty of, well, mileage out of your hard-earned miles.

Now that you’ve got a grasp of how United’s “points” work, let’s look at the status upgrades you have to look forward to.

MileagePlus partner redemption

Before we move on and chat about status, here’s a quick summary of how MileagePlus works with United’s various partner airlines.

In short, you can both earn and spend MileagePlus miles with airlines in the Star Alliance network. Plus, once you earn MileagePlus Premier Silver and Premier Gold status, you’ll be entitled to Star Alliance Silver and Gold benefits, too, with the highlight being airport lounge access at Gold.

In addition to vanilla miles, you’ll earn PQF and PQP on flights with these airlines as well. With preferred partners, you’ll earn 1 PQP for every 5 award miles. With MileagePlus partners, it’s 1 PQP for every 6 award miles.

Preferred partners

  • Air Canada

  • Air China

  • Air Dolomiti

  • Air New Zealand

  • All Nippon Airways

  • Austrian Airlines

  • Avianca

  • Azul Brazilian Airlines

  • Brussels Airlines

  • Copa Airlines

  • Discover Airlines

  • Edelweiss

  • Eurowings

  • Lufthansa

  • SWISS International Airlines

  • Virgin Australia

MileagePlus partners

  • Aegean Airlines

  • Air India

  • Asiana Airlines

  • Croatia Airlines

  • EgyptAir

  • Ethiopian Airlines

  • EVA Air

  • Juneyao Air

  • LOT Polish Airlines

  • Olympic Air

  • SAS

  • Shenzhen Airlines

  • Singapore Airlines

  • South African Airways

  • TAP Air Portugal

  • Thai Airways International

  • Turkish Airlines

Phew. We warned you that MileagePlus wasn’t exactly a picture book in terms of simplicity. Anyways, let’s get onto the fun stuff: status.

MileagePlus Status Explained

When you show fealty to United, you don’t just earn “Silver” or “Gold” status–you earn Premier Silver and Premier Gold.

Sounds extra… shiny, but let’s have a look at each tier–and how hard you have to work to earn them–to find out just how much “luster” this program has.

How to earn MileagePlus status

As hinted above, there just two ways to attain United MileagePlus status:

  • Earn enough Premier Qualifying Points (PQP)

  • Earn enough PQP and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF)

To reach Premier Silver, for example, you’ll need at least 12 PQF and 4,000 PQP or just 5,000 PQP.

If all that sounds complicated and you just want to skip the line to Premier Gold, well, there’s bad news: Not even United’s most elite rewards card–the United Club Infinite card–offers instant status (although it does grant 25 PQP for every $500 you spend).

In other words, there aren’t really any shortcuts to earning status through MileagePlus. Unless you sit on the board of United, you’re probably going to have to work your way to Premier Silver.

Is it worth it? Well, let’s look at what you can earn.

MileagePlus status tiers explained

To its credit, United has an extremely detailed chart showing the ridiculous quantity of benefits you unlock at each tier. However many you think it is, we promise it’s more; even Premier Silver unlocks 28 different perks ranging from instant upgrades to CLEAR Plus discounts.

To simplify things a bit, we extracted the highlights from each tier:

  • Premier Silver - 12 PQF and 4,000 PQP or 5,000 PQP 

    • 7X miles per dollar spent on United, United Express and select partner airlines

    • 1 complimentary checked bag

    • Priority check-in

    • Group 2 Priority boarding

    • Instant upgrades to premium cabin on Economy tickets for Y or B class fares

    • Complimentary Economy Plus for you and one companion at check-in

    • Preferred seating for you and up to eight travel companions

  • Premier Gold-  24 PQF and 8,000 PQP or 10,000 PQP 

    • 8X miles per dollar

    • 2 complimentary checked bags

    • Group 1 Priority boarding

    • Instant upgrades to premium cabin on Economy tickets for Y, B or M class fares

    • Complimentary Economy Plus for you and one companion at booking

    • Complimentary Premier Upgrades 48 hours before departure

  • Premier Platinum - 36 PQF and 12,000 PQP or 15,000 PQP 

    • 9X miles per dollar

    • 3 complimentary checked bags

    • Complimentary Economy Plus for you and eight companions at booking

    • Complimentary Premier Upgrades 72 hours before departure

    • Better award availability in select premium cabins

    • 40 PlusPoints

  • Premier 1K - 54 PQF and 18,000 PQP or 24,000 PQP 

    • 11X miles per dollar

    • Pre-boarding

    • Complimentary Premier Upgrades 96 hours before departure

    • CLEAR Plus membership fee waived

    • 280 PlusPoints

Circling back, is it worth all the effort to earn Premier Silver? Or would another airline’s loyalty program be more rewarding by that point?

Is United MileagePlus status worth it?

We certainly think so.

Even at its least-shiny (most dull?) status, MileagePlus rewards you with a free checked bag ($35 savings each way), priority check-in, 40% extra points per dollar spent (7X vs. 5X), instant upgrades, complimentary Economy Plus for you and a companion and literally 23 extra benefits. Honestly, that’s worth it for the checked bags alone.

Part of us wishes there were faster ways to attain status, such as applying for a premium United credit card. But at the same time, the lack of shortcuts helps to keep the program more exclusive–and mathematically, increases your chances of being upgraded.

How MileagePlus compares to others

Compared to the likes of Delta SkyMiles and Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus stands out in a few minor ways–some good, some bad.

Bad news first: United MileagePlus is one of the stingiest loyalty programs when it comes to free checked bags. Sure, you’ll get one free checked bag as soon as you reach Premier SIlver–but your companion won’t, meaning they’ll still be paying $35 each way. If you had Silver Medallion status on Delta, both you and up to eight of your travel companions would get free bags each way. For its part, Southwest offers two free checked bags with each ticket–regardless of your current status.

So if you have a big family traveling to Paris this year for Christmas (Home Alone-style), United might not be the loyalty program for you.

That said, one of the minor advantages with MileagePlus is that its reward tiers are a little closer together and easier to reach. You can reach silver-equivalent status with United in just a dozen one-way flights, provided you also generate 4,000 Premier Qualifying Points while doing so. By contrast, you’ll need 20 segments or 35,000 points with Southwest and Delta doesn’t care about your segments at all (you’ll need 5,000 Medallion Qualifying Dollars to reach Silver Medallion).

The takeaway

In summary, you could say that United MileagePlus is slightly better tuned for solo travelers since it offers limited free bags, but at the same time, its tiers are easier to reach if you’re only buying tickets for yourself. 
And just like Game of Thrones, MileagePlus may be maddeningly complex at times–but as soon everything “clicks,” you realize just how rewarding it really is.

About the author

Chris Butsch is a two-time author, keynote speaker and credit card nerd helping Gens Y and Z build better lives through financial fluency and positive psychology. His writing has been featured in Fortune, Fortune Recommends, Forbes Advisor, U.S. News, ConsumerAffairs, Money Under 30 and Investor Junkie. Chris got his start in 2015 when he decided to quit his corporate job, travel to 41 countries and ask 1,000 people what happiness means to them. In 2019 he did a TEDx talk revealing his findings, and still speaks to college students today through a partnership with CAMPUSPEAK. Chris lives in Atlanta with his partner Holly and his rescue pup, Joy.


Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com