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This post is part of a four-part series. In Part 1, we will look at the mechanics of the United Mileage Plus program. In Part 2, we’ll look at the chart and rules to find valuable awards. In Part 3, we’ll value specific Mileage Plus awards. In Part 4, I’ll put a number on one Mileage Plus mile.

United miles have a reputation among mileage collectors for being the most valuable mileage currency around. United, now completely merged with the former Continental, is a member of the Star Alliance, the largest alliance in the world, so its miles can be used for booking awards on dozens of airlines. Many people also tout United’s availability, route network, and generous award ticket rules. In this series, we’ll look at all these claims and others. We’ll value specific awards, and we’ll finally put a value on one Mileage Plus mile to see if United’s currency really is the most valuable. Here are the rules and facts of the Mileage Plus program:

1. United Airlines has a region-to-region chart, which can be found here. (It also has a round-the-world option which will not be considered in this series.) A region-to-region chart means that instead of having to calculate the number of miles for an award from your origin city to your destination city, say Atlanta to Rome, you merely figure out how many miles you need for an award from your origin region to your destination region, in this case North America to Europe.

There are two things to familiarize yourself with on the charts: The first is the zone definitions, which can be found here. Check the zone definitions to know which countries are in Northern South America and which are in Southern South America, for instance. The second is the business/first column. It doesn’t matter what the airline calls the cabin. If it’s called “first,” but it’s on a two-cabin plane, the redemption costs this lower business/first column. Only first class on three-cabin planes gets the highest first class award price.

2. United awards can be booked oneway for half the price of roundtrip awards. In this, they are similar to American, but better than US Airways or Delta. Oneway awards cannot include a stopover.

3. Roundtrip awards can be open jaw or double open jaw and can include one stopover en route. An open jaw ticket is one in which the arrival city of one leg does not match the departure city of the other leg. An example would be flying LAX-SYD, but returning MEL-LAX.

A double open jaw would be something like LAX-SYD, but returning MEL-SFO.

4. There are two types of awards. Saver Pass awards are the lowest cost in miles. They are capacity controlled, so there are not Saver awards available in every or even most cabins and flights. Easy Pass awards generally cost about double what Saver awards cost. However there is almost always availability in every cabin on every flight to snag an Easy Pass award.

To have a multisegment award price as a Saver, every segment in that direction must have Saver space.

Example: You want to fly LAX-IAD-RIC in economy class. For this to price at the Saver price of 12,500 miles, there must be Saver inventory on both flights.

5. Travel can be booked on any Star Alliance airline. Travel can also be booked on the following non-Star Alliance partner airlines:

  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Cape Air
  • Copa Airlines
  • EVA Airways
  • Great Lakes
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Island Air
  • Jet Airways
  • Qatar Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic

Although not all flights are available on non-Star Alliance carriers. For instance mainland US to Hawaii flights cannot be booked on Hawaiian Airlines planes with United miles.

6. There is no booking fee for booking awards at United.com, which has a reasonably good award search engine. And many of United’s partners are available on United.com. If you call United to book, though, a booking fee of $25 per ticket will apply whether or not the award was bookable online.

7. There are other fees associated with award tickets. A complete list is here. Some lowlights include a $75 fee to book an award within 21 days of departure; $75 to change your origin or departure city; $150 to cancel your award and redeposit the miles; and $75 to change a cabin, award type, or operating airline of a segment.

Some of the preceding fees are reduced or eliminated if the member whose miles were used has United status; see the linked list for complete details.

United does not charge to add, change, or delete a connection as long as the change happens more than 21 days before departure. Within 21 days, such a change will incur a $75 fee, again less if you have status with United.

8. All travel must be completed within one year of the booking date.

9. United has good availability domestically, and many of its partners have good availability too. Availability is a big strength of this program in all classes of service, especially to Europe where the Star Alliance dwarfs its competitors. United itself has good availability to Australia, but if you want to go anywhere besides Sydney or Melbourne, there aren’t any good options. To Latin America, availability is very good from Houston flying the former Continental routes. And hopefully with the addition of Avianca and Taca, availability within Latin America will improve.

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