Your guide to the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program

By Chris C., October 16 2015
Your guide to the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program

With generous priority security and boarding privileges for its frequent flyers and even free upgrades to first class for entry-level Premier Silver members, United MileagePlus is a rather complex frequent flyer program, but one that’s worth getting your head around.

Through United’s Star Alliance membership, elite travellers can enjoy perks not only with United but also with other alliance members such as Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Air Canada, so here’s how to make the most of MileagePlus.

United MileagePlus 101

Naturally, you can earn United MileagePlus miles when travelling with United Airlines and its regional arm United Express, but you can also earn miles when flying with any Star Alliance member.

In Australian skies that includes Air Canada, Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA (from December), Asiana, EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways and Thai Airways.

Further across the globe, Star Alliance members Adria, Aegean, Austrian, Avianca, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, Egyptair, Ethiopian Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Swiss, TAP Portugal and Turkish Airlines also serve up United miles in the air.

Rounding out the program’s global reach, Aer Lingus, Aeromar, Air Dolomiti, Azul, Cape Air, Edelweiss, Germanwings, Great Lakes Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air, Jet Airways and Silver Airways are too mileage-earning partners.

United MileagePlus is free to join via the United website, so make that your first step and attach your membership number to your next flight with any of the airlines above to start earning miles in the program.

Those miles will remain in your account provided that you use MileagePlus to earn or redeem miles at least once every 18 months: any less frequently and your entire balance is forfeited, but can be reinstated for a fee ranging between US$50 and US$2,500 depending on your previous mileage balance.

How to earn United MileagePlus status

Beginning as a new ‘non-elite’ member, you’ll work your way through the Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K tiers as you begin to travel more frequently, with the highest of high flyers also having a shot at an invitation-only Global Services card.

Your progress is calculated through ‘Premier qualifying miles’ and ‘Premier qualifying segments’, while members from the USA also need contend with ‘Premier qualifying dollars’ but from which Aussie residents and those from countries outside the US are exempted.

Let’s break that jargon down: Premier qualifying miles (PQMs) reflect both the physical distance of your flights along with the type of ticket you hold, but aren’t ‘miles’ that you can swap for a free flight: think of them more like status credits as we have in Australia.

You’ll earn 1.5 PQMs for every mile flown in first class, business class and on the highest-priced economy tickets (Y & B fares) with United, and 1 PQM per mile on all other United economy tickets. PQMs can also be earned on Star Alliance airlines at varying rates.

Premier qualifying segments, on the other hand, serve to count the number of flights you’ve taken with United and across the Star Alliance. In a similar fashion to PQMs, first class, business class and the top economy (Y & B) fares earn 1.5 segments per flight while others earn one segment for the same.

As ‘segments’ don’t take into account the length of the flight, it allows frequent flyers who don’t fly far, but still fly often, to build up status.

Whatever that status may be, it reflects your travel each calendar year (January to December) and is valid until the end of January, two years after you qualify.

For example, reach United Premier Platinum in November 2015 and you’ll hold onto that tier for the remainder of 2015, throughout 2016 and then through the end of January 2017. Your status from February 1 2017 will then reflect your flying in the 2016 calendar year, and so on.

Just to note: flights taken with United’s non-Star Alliance partners, such as Hawaiian Airlines and Aer Lingus, only accrue typical United MileagePlus miles (essentially, ‘points’ for free flights), not PQMs, PQSs or indeed PQDs for US residents which pave the way to the higher membership tiers.

United Premier Silver: Star Alliance Silver

After reeling in 25,000 Premier qualifying miles or 30 Premier qualifying segments you’ll have your first taste of elite status with a United Premier Silver card.

For starters, you’ll be on the upgrade list to business or first class on most of United shorter flights – excluding on p.s. Premium Service routes such as Los Angeles to New York – and failing that, can nab an extra legroom seat in Economy Plus at check-in if one is available.

You’re also eligible for an upgrade when booking a full-fare Y- or B-class economy ticket, and will earn seven (redeemable) miles per US$1 spent on United flights: up from five miles on the same for non-elite members.

Premier Silver also promises Premier Access: that’s priority check-in, security screening, boarding, baggage handling and telephone assistance, along with the ability to book a seat on an already sold-out flight and a free 1x23kg baggage allowance on United, even when the ticket is carry-on only.

Rounding out the privileges are various fee waivers, reductions and priority access when making frequent flyer award bookings, and global Star Alliance Silver status providing priority standby and waitlisting on other Star Alliance airlines when hoping to catch an already-full flight.

United Premier Gold, Platinum: Star Alliance Gold

With either 50,000 PQ miles or 60 PQ segments you’ll move up to Premier Gold status, which an increased 75,000 PQ miles or 90 PQ segments sees raised to Premier Platinum.

Both tiers are higher in the pecking order for free upgrades on United’s own flights and allow complimentary selection of Economy Plus seats from the time of booking – consider that your ‘safety net’ should an upgrade not clear or be available.

But for times when you’d like be certain of an upgrade, Platinum members also receive two free ‘regional’ upgrade certificates each year that can be applied from the time of booking on most of United’s shorter flights.

Complimentary lounge access is too provided when travelling internationally, including with Star Alliance partners such as Singapore Airlines, although not domestically within the US: for that, you’ll still need to pony up for a paid United Club lounge membership.

Mileage earning rates are also boosted to eight and nine miles per $US1 spent on United flights for Gold and Platinum members, respectively, and the complimentary United baggage allowance raised to 2x32kg for Gold and 3x32kg for Platinum.

Along with the usual Premier Access benefits on United Airlines, Star Alliance Gold status unlocks many of these across the globe along with an alliance-wide baggage boost of 20kg or one piece, and business class lounge access prior to any non-United Star Alliance flight – be it domestic or international.

United Premier 1K, Global Services

Premier 1K status is earned through 100,000 PQ miles or 120 PQ segments in a calendar year, while the elusive Global Services tier is ordinarily offered by invitation to United’s top travellers… but if you happen to fly four million bum-in-seat miles with United over your lifetime, you’ll wing an invite.

Benefits for Premier 1K build on Premier Platinum with complimentary upgrades approved up to four days before travel, another two regional upgrade certificates credited to your account and an earning rate of 11 MileagePlus miles per US$1 spent with United.

That’s joined by ‘global Premier upgrades’: six one-way upgrade certificates each year to bounce you up to the next class of service on both shorter and long-haul flights – such as economy to BusinessFirst or BusinessFirst to Global First when travelling between Sydney and Los Angeles.

A rarer breed, Global Services members enjoy a more private transition through the airport with access to private check-in lobbies shared only with international first class passengers…

An exclusive United Global Services/Global First check-in lobby. Chris McGinnis
An exclusive United Global Services/Global First check-in lobby
Chris McGinnis

… and on shorter connections, a private luxury car transfer between flights to avoid an embarrassing dash through the airport at any of United’s major US hubs.

Beyond that, Global Services members are invited to use the airline’s Global First Lounges even when not travelling in first class, can pre-board any United flight and are supported by a dedicated team which monitors their itineraries and looks for – and plans around – any potential issues.

Also read: The secret world of VIP travel and private airport lounges

Earning and redeeming United MileagePlus miles

With earning rates based on revenue, a US$6,000 jaunt from Sydney to New York in BusinessFirst – exclusive of any government taxes and fees imposed on the ticket – would serve up 30,000 miles for non-elite members; 42,000 miles for Premier Silver and 48,000 miles for Premier Gold.

On the same, Premier Platinum members would pocket 54,000 miles and Premier 1K 66,000 miles, while the earning rate for Global Services members isn’t shared publicly by United.

To book the same journey with miles requires 140,000 at the more favourable Saver Award rates or a whopping 350,000 for a Standard Award, which is often easier to find across the Pacific.

However, a much better use of United miles is between Australia and Asia – particularly Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong, where a return business class ticket on Star Alliance member Thai Airways is only 60,000 miles, or 80,000 miles in first class:

Finally, United often sells miles in its own program at a significant discount, allowing savvy travellers to fly at the pointy end by buying enough miles to book a business or first class trip, but for significantly less than you’d otherwise pay to reserve those flights the ‘normal’ way.

Read more: Bulk-buy United miles for huge savings on flights

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

24 Apr 2014

Total posts 272

It's not a bad program, I just wish they had a credit card affiliation in Australia. Their Silver benefits put Qantas Silver to shame

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

15 Jan 2013

Total posts 457

I had a mate of mine on this program as he does through work a lot of Travel to the USA.He was lucky no points or mileage were lost when Ansett went under in 2001.

All those tiers but still only Star Gold. 

I really value Oneworld for its equitable tier policy.

As an Executive Platinum with AA,you get the Platinum service with QF, Gold service with BA, Diamond service with CX etc. etc.

As a Premier 1K you get the bog standard Star Alliance Gold service that you share with everyone else. Your Premier 1K status count for nuts when travelling on other Star Alliance members.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Feb 2015

Total posts 3

I have been a member for a few years having been switched over when they merged with Continental.  The redemptions are heaps more generous than Qantas.  They have "saver" redemptions which use half the points of a usual one.  Secondly they don't impose fuel surcharges on redemptions.  Availability seems better than QF too.  In May I booked a redemption from NZ to BKK using Thai for travel at the end of December and it cost me 17,500 pts and NZ$30 in taxes (One-way).  On Qantas no redemption seats around that and taxes/charges over NZ$100 and it would require 42,000 pts.  Fly United... :)


20 Oct 2015

Total posts 1

Regret to say but this article feels like a paid fluff piece for United.  I've flown 2 million miles, 500K United, 500K American, 200K Delta, the rest everyone from Singapore and the other Asian carriers, BA, KLM, Luft, and other European,   United is, in my opinion, doing the worst job for the flyer (unless you're buying the $4000 - $10,000 front seat tickets on a big corporate expense account).  For us small business travelers, the United experience is MISERABLE and what WAS the best FF program in the industry is a sad relic. Narrowest, smallest pitch seats, half othe staff (former United) surly, very aggressive at bumping you off a plane when they are overbooked, etc.  Just flew 15K miles on Turkish Air, Star Alliance, after being told on phone would be same miles and status as United - only to earn only 1506 (!!) miles and no prequalifying dollars.  So I'll finish the year at 30K miles from other trips and still have no status.   Yes, that made me read 5 pages of lawyer written fine print to find the disqualifiers for their Star Alliance Partners buried so deep that it would have taken 30 minutes to find it.  They have taken the concept of frequent flyer - meant to be a bonus for repeat customers - and made it into an irritant.     They are more interested in being in the credit card business - and in selling merchandise for miles (if you calculate the value received for the miles you'd NEVER USE miles for anything other than tickets.   So I find myself wondering just where this article came from?  Sorry about that, Chris.  Darrell Turner, President, Travelview International  

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2555

Not at all a 'paid' piece, Darrell, it's just a guide written for Australian business travellers who may not be familiar with the scheme - so we cover the basics of how it works, tiers and perks etc, in exactly the same objective way as we've detailed for the many similar guides we've written for other airline loyalty schemes. The comments section then allows readers to share their own thoughts and experiences reagrding the scheme, such as you've done, and for which we're grateful.

Etihad - Etihad Guest

04 Mar 2018

Total posts 25

I am trying to use my United Points before they expire, and decided that one of the Gift Cards would be useful. Problem is UNLESS you are a US Resident person,they will not issue them. So I have points that are insufficient for a Flight reward, and cannot see any way to get any value from them. Anyone got any ideas? I have 14,000 points. Tried to gift them to someone else, BUT they want USD to transfer. Does not sound like a good deal to me.

Can one keep points and membership without flying on UA metal? I live in Hong Kong.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Your guide to the United MileagePlus frequent flyer program