Here's How Many Miles You Need to Get a Free United Flight

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Despite the sprawl and reach of its MileagePlus program, United’s rewards system is relatively straightforward.

United has the distinction of having launched the first modern frequent flyer program, way back in 1972. These days, fattened by the merger with Continental Airlines in 2011 and belonging to the international multi-carrier group Star Alliance, United’s MileagePlus is a sprawling program.  

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For that reason, there’s a lot to be said about MileagePlus. We don’t have the time, space or inclination for that. Instead, let’s explore one of the most basic questions anyone asks of a frequent flyer program -- how many miles does it take to earn a free United flight?

Earning points at United

Before we turn our attention to redeeming miles, we should devote a few words to earning them. As befits an extensive program, there are many ways to earn MileagePlus miles. Here are some of the more common:

Booking flights -- United is happy to reward you for buying tickets not only for its qualifying flights, but also those of the 28-member Star Alliance, as long as said ticket is booked through United. There is an upper limit here; MileagePlus member earnings are capped at 75,000 miles per ticket.

The number of miles awarded is based on one or several factors, depending on the flight. Chiefly, these are:

  • The fare
  • Flight distance
  • Fare class
  • Status of MileagePlus customer (Member, Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, Premier 1K).

Booking hotels -- United has a pack of partners not only in the air, but on the ground. In partnership with the programs of big hotel chains like Marriott, Radisson, and Hyatt, MileagePlus miles can be earned through stays at those hotels.

Earnings rates vary. Booking a stay at an Andaz hotel earns 500 miles per stay, while a booking with boutique chain aloft hotels will earn 2 miles per $1 spent.

Shopping or dining at MileagePlus Partners -- Purchases made through United’s MileagePlus Shopping and Dining portals can rake in the earnings. As with the partner hotels, these rewards vary -- a Macy’s buy, for example, pays out at 2 miles per $1 spent, meanwhile a purchase of meat at Omaha Steaks will earn 3 miles per $1 spent.

Taking complementary (and competing!) transportation -- United is the partnership king of frequent flyer programs. It’s got deals with car rental agencies (Hertz and Thrifty, to name two), airport transfer operators (SuperShuttle and ExecuCar), and even Amtrak, all of which earn MileagePlus miles at varying rates.

Using credit cards -- Like most big U.S. airlines, United has its own line of travel credit cards like the United Explorer, which earn either miles or cash back on purchases. Generous transfer rates from certain outside travel rewards programs can rack the miles up quickly if they’re transferred to your MileagePlus program. This includes cards like Chase’s Ultimate Rewards .

Buying, gifting, or transferring miles -- Miles are currency, so why not buy and transfer them like dollars or euros? Here’s how they trade:

  • Buying. Members pay a flat base rate of $0.035 per mile, and the minimum for any buy is 2,000 miles. Miles are available in increments of 1,000 up to 100,000 at most, and in increments of 5,000 with a cap of 150,000 (this is also the annual maximum a member can buy).  A 7.5% tax recovery fee is added to the purchase price.
  • Gifting. Is there a special someone willing to purchase miles for you? Lucky soul! As with the above, this generous person will pay a flat base rate of $0.035 per mile to make you happy, under the same conditions.
  • Transferring. You can either give or receive miles with another program member. Cost per mile: $0.015, plus a $30 processing fee tacked on to the transaction. Miles can be transferred in 500-mile increments between 500 and 5,000, and in 1,000-mile increments up to 100,000, the annual maximum transfer amount.

How many points you need for a free United flight

Thankfully, considering that its operations cover many corners of the globe, United’s miles awards setup is more or less straightforward. The cost in miles of a bonus ticket depends on the part of the world from which you’re originating, and where you’re going.

It also depends on which type of awards you’re shelling out for. There are two:

Saver Awards -- These are the basic Awards, which according to United are “capacity-controlled and may not be available on certain flights where demand is high.”

Everyday Awards -- You’ll have to spend more miles for these, but you have a better shot at grabbing exactly the flight you want; they offer, again in United’s words, “expanded availability.”

This regional rewards setup is particularly advantageous when considering long-ish flights in big regions, like the mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada, although the lowest award spend -- the 10,000 mile Saver in economy class -- limits this region’s bonus ticket to itineraries 700 miles or less each way.

Here is the chart for base United travel awards for flights in the mainland U.S. Tallies are for one-way tickets.

Economy 10,000 Saver Award
Economy 12,500 Saver Award
Economy 32,500 Everyday Award
Business 25,000 Saver Award
Business 50,000 Everyday Award
First 35,000 Saver Award
First 70,000 Everyday Award

Source: United.

If an Alaska destination is one of the stops (but not both), MileagePlus members will need to pay an additional 5,000 miles each way for a Saver Award, and 10,000 miles each way for an Everyday Award.

You can also go quite far in Europe on a United bonus ticket (again, not for the lowest-tier Saver Award, which limits you to nonstop flights 800 miles or less in distance). Here is the table for inter-continental flights there:

Economy 8,000 Saver Award
Economy 15,000 Saver Award
Economy 30,000 Everyday Award
Business and First 25,000 (+10,000 for First when both classes are offered) Saver Award
Business and First 55,000 (+15,000 for First when both classes are offered) Everyday Award

Source: United.

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