This post is part of a four-part series. In Part 1, we looked at the mechanics of the United Mileage Plus program. In Part 2, we looked at the chart and rules to find valuable awards. In Part 3, we valued specific Mileage Plus awards. In Part 4, I’ll put a number on one Mileage Plus mile.
In this post, I’ll explain why I value one United Mileage Plus mile at 1.81 cents, but your value will be different. To start I’ll go back to the values for the redemptions I found in Part 3. To find your value, you’ll need to start with your possible redemptions. My redemptions:
- LAX-FRA//FRA-ARN, CPH-FRA-LAX (B) 1.93 cpm
- HRK-VIE-AMS-IAH-LAX (E) 1.84 cpm
- LAX-HNL//HNL-GUM, GUM-NRT-LAX (E) 1.76 cpm
- LAX-SYD-AKL (F) 1.63 cpm
- LAX-IAH//IAH-LOS, LOS-IAH-LAX (B) 1.62 cpm
- PIT-LAX (E) 1.52 cpm
I’ve put in bold redemptions I would still consider doing now that I’ve run their values. These range from 1.62 cents per mile to 1.93 cents per mile. Here’s where the math stops and the estimation begins. We want to get a single number, so pick a number from inside the range of great redemptions. Base your decision on which redemptions you’re most likely to make and which will take the bulk of your miles. I’ll pick 1.84 cents per mile. I think most of my trips with United miles in the next few years will be to Europe because that’s the best use for United miles. I’ll use my other miles to go elsewhere.
The last step is to make adjustments to the figure you’ve chosen based on how the rules of United Airlines’ program differ from paying with cash and how you value these differences. We need to do this because when we value Mileage Plus miles in cents per mile, we are putting a cash figure on a mile, thus comparing the program to cash. We talked about the rules of the program in Post 1. Here are the relevant differences between booking with Mileage Plus miles and cash:
- (Double) open jaws and oneways don’t cost extra with United miles. They usually do with cash. Advantage United. I value this flexibility in routing quite highly because I like my trips to include several cities without backtracking.
- Stopovers are permitted anywhere en route. If you try to add a “stopover” on a cash itinerary, it almost always prices as the sum of two tickets, which is much more expensive. Big advantage United.
- United charges a close in ticketing fee of $75 within 21 days of departure. Of course, there are no close in ticketing fees with cash, but prices tend to go way up. The Mileage Plus price goes up too. Too close to call.
- When there’s space, United’s awards cost the same every day of the week. It’s often most convenient to fly Friday or Sunday, but paid tickets cost the most those days. It’s great to be able to book awards any day of the week for the same price. There is definitely a pattern of better award availability midweek, but it is not as pronounced as the ticket price increases on weekends. Slight advantage United.
- Cancelling a cash ticket costs $150 for most airlines. Cancelling a United award ticket costs the same. Wash.
- While United availability is good, and its partner availability is also good, obviously availability with cash is better. Every flight is available with cash, only a portion are available with Mileage Plus miles, at least at the Saver level. Huge advantage cash.
Availability is fine on United compared with other programs, but cash obviously has much better availability, which is the major drawback of all (non-fixed-value) frequent flier programs. To me, the benefits of Mileage Plus awards over cash listed above are less valuable than the one major drawback of United awards compared to cash. I love being able to book Fridays, Sundays, oneways, open jaws, and stopovers, but the fact that awards aren’t always available when I want them hurts the value of United’s miles like all miles. For that reason, I will lower my 1.84 cents per miles valuation that I came to above to 1.81 cents per mile.
If you prefer roundtrip vacations to one place, flying midweek, and have no flexibility in when you can take trips, you should lower the value of a Mileage Plus mile drastically at this stage. If you really like openjaws, stopovers, and oneways; flying on the weekends; and have total flexibility in when you can take trips, you may even want to raise your value of a Mileage Plus mile at this stage. Again this is a stage for personal valuation and estimation.
Understand the United Airlines award program, understand its strengths, find good awards for you, value those awards, and finally adjust that value for how cash and Mileage Plus tickets differ. Do that, and you’ll be able to put your own value on one Mileage Plus mile. And best of all, do all that, and you too can know how to fully exploit the Mileage Plus program.
I value one Mileage Plus mile at 1.81 cents.