Here’s the New Game Plan for Non-Elite Flyers That Travel on United

With United’s big announcement that they’re going to revenue-based mileage accrual effective March 2015, there will be some customers who benefit:

  • Short haul flyers who pay high fares. These folks might average more than the 20 cents a mile that’s break-even for year-over-year earning.
  • International premium cabin flyers. Buying very expensive business and first class tickets you can come out ahead — just be sure your ticket isn’t too expensive because mileage-earning is capped at 75,000 miles per ticket (buy two one ways if you’re a full fare long haul business passenger, instead of a roundtrip).

But for folks that aren’t elite frequent flyers with United, who don’t need to credit their miles to United but will still fly the occasional revenue ticket with them, here’s what you might consider.

Other than – of course – another airline. American AAdvantage has said they won’t be making major changes until they complete integration with US Airways. Switch to American (or Alaska, which has considered a revenue-based program) and tell them why you are doing it. If American can make money under the current model they won’t have a reason to switch. And integration with US Airways gives them a reason to wait and see.

If you’re based in Houston or Denver especially your non-stop alteratives to United are limited though.

Flying a transcon between Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, you currently earn 4575 miles roundtrip.

If you’re airfare is less than $915 you’ll earn fewer miles starting March 2015. And if your airfare is less than $457 you’ll earn even fewer miles than crediting the flight to a non-US program that credits 50% miles on the cheapest fares.

So what are the fares like? Here are the lowest fares on United for Washington Dulles – Los Angeles currently. Note the lowest, the W fare (what some programs require for full mileage credit), and the V fare (other programs still).

It won’t make sense to pay for a higher fare in most circumstances just to earn more miles. But if the fares you’re seeing fall into the W bucket a whole world of foreign programs open up for full mileage-earning. And even if you’re lucky enough to be paying less than a W fare, if your fare is less than $457 you’re going to earn more miles still even crediting to a program giving 50% miles on this particular route.

Nonetheless, there’s no perfect alternative for US frequent flyers to crediting United flights to United.

  • Most other programs you can credit to will add fuel surcharges to awards (Avianca’s Lifemiles is an exception)
  • Most other programs you can credit to will give you less than 100% of flown miles earned (although many will give you 100% miles on relatively reasonable W fares)
  • Most other programs won’t give you as many earning options, to pool miles from as many sources, as a US program will.

Still, here’s who you might consider crediting United flights to if you aren’t going for United status.

Singapore Airlines Krisflyer

Singapore allows you to earn 100% flown miles on all United flights. (.pdf)

Singapore adds fuel surcharges to awards. Their website is frustrating — you can only book Singapore’s own flights online, and will have difficulty booking awards in mixed classes of service that way.

But they do offer a 15% discount for online bookings. And there’s really one primary use of their miles — that’s that Singapore offers much much much better award availability on their own flights for their own members.

Sure it’s still tough to get 2 first class award seats on their A380 from US destinations to and from Asia. But it’s not impossible. And suites class between other cities are easier. First (on their 777s) and business class awards have better availability.

If you want to fly Singapore Airlines, which really has one of the world’s best first class products, the way to do it is with Singapore’s own miles. And availability is outstanding.

Award prices:

  • San Francisco – Hong Kong in ‘suites class’ is 70,125 miles one-way.
  • Houston – Moscow in first class is 57,375 miles one-way.
  • New York JFK – Frankfurt in suites class is 57,375 miles one-way.

You can have one enroute stopover on a roundtrip award as well.

Other useful awards:

  • US – Hawaii costs 35,000 miles roundtrip in coach, 60,000 miles roundtrip up front (no fuel surcharges)
  • North America domestic first class awards cost just 40,000 miles roundtrip (no fuel surcharges)
  • North America – Europe is 130,000 miles roundtrip in business class; 160,000 miles roundtrip in first.
  • North America – Middle East is 115,000 miles roundtrip in business class, 150,000 miles roundtrip in first.
  • South Africa is 145,000 miles roundtrip in business class.

American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Starpoints transfer to Singapore. And Chase does too now. That makes Singapore miles among the easiest to get, and easiest to combine with the occasional United flight.

Singapore miles expire after 3 years — not 3 years of account activity, but 3 years after earning. So you need to earn miles, top off via transfers in from other programs, and redeem if you go this route.

Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles

All fares earn 100% miles with Turkish Miles&Smiles

Turkish is great for earning and keeping elite status, status lasts two years, and their award chart is pretty good. But they do add fuel surcharges to awards where those apply to paid travel (you can fly US domestic and South America of course without fuel surcharges).

The downside is that you aren’t going to earn miles from a lot of other activities with Turkish. They aren’t a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Aegean Miles & Bonus

Aegean requires a ‘V’ fare (one class above W) or higher to earn 100% miles on United.

They bonus premium fares well — 300% for United’s first class, for instance.

And they offer 500 minimum miles on United regardless of deep discount fare class, doubling that for business and tripling that for first.

They also offer the easiest Star Alliance Gold status there it. You get 1000 miles for signing up, and if you earn 19,000 more in your first year you’ve earned Star Gold. For life, under current program terms, as long as you credit a flight to the program every 36 months.

That’s what makes the program most interesting. There are some decent awards on their chart but routing rules are restrictive.

Air Canada Aeroplan

Aeroplan credits W fares and higher on United at 100%.

Last year >I called Aeroplan the most devalued program in North America. In some ways that’s good, because they have several transfer partners (e.g. Amex, Starwood) and they have several good awards still and may not have much further to fall.

While Aeroplan adds fuel surcharges onto some partners, you do not pay fuel surcharges for bookings on Air China, Brussels Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian, EVA, SAS, Singapore, Swiss, Turkish, and United, and fuel surcharges are modest (about half what you’d pay on Lufthansa) for LOT.

And awards between the US and Western Europe (Poland counts, for LOT’s outstanding award availability) cost just 45,000 miles each way or 90,000 miles roundtrip.

You’re also permitted two stopovers in addition to your destination, or a stopover and an open jaw.

Avianca Lifemiles

Lifemiles credits W fares and higher at 100%.

When Avianca joined Star Alliance I declared LifeMiles the most generous in the alliance. Since United’s award chart devaluation, that’s likely true.

The program has no fuel surcharges, offers one-way awards which are priced reasonably, and as with this offer they sell miles cheap. They also offer ‘cash and points’ which means that as long as you have 40% of the miles needed for an award you can buy the rest at the time of redemption for just over 1.5 cents apiece.

That said, their call centers are frustrating (although if you can wait a day for a response they’re much better over email) and they don’t permit “mixed cabin” redemption — so if you are redeeming a transatlantic business class award, all segments need to be in business class (including domestic US flights, and intra-Europe flights). And back in May they tweaked some award prices without notice and increased the cash cost of cash and points awards to its current pricing as well. So it’s far from a perfect program!

Still, it’s easy to buy miles cheaply and quite frequently in order to top off an account that’s accruing United flight miles.

So what works best for you?

If you’re not someone who goes for status on United, you need to identify your flyer type to know which program is best:

  • The occasional United flyer, on cheap fares, I think will benefit most from Singapore Airlines Krisflyer with its 100% earning … if their goal is to redeem points domestically in the US (including Hawaii) or to secure award seats on Singapore. Plenty of ways to get more points than just those from flying United!

  • If international awards are the goal, and avoiding fuel surcharges is key then Lifemiles is a good bet if you’re buying more expensive tickets that still come out behind on United (and are willing to buy miles).

  • Otherwise consider Aeroplan if you’re buying expensive tickets but don’t want to buy points, given their partnerships with Amex and Starwood — and then focus on redemption partners that don’t earn fuel surcharges.

  • Finally if you buy the cheapest tickets, can’t avoid fuel surcharges, and don’t want to buy miles for top off, then Avianca’s Lifemiles is your bet.

  • Aegean only seems a good option for earning status and being treated better inflight, not as much for mileage-earning except for cheap short hops (and there aren’t great ways to top off an Aegean account towards an award).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Nice article!

    Re: SQ, doesn’t the expiration date on the miles (even if you have activity) make it problematic for someone who doesn’t fly a lot?

  2. Where would you recommend that those of us who got in on the mistaken UA fare to ICN credit our miles? I care most about redeeming for J or F awards to Europe or Asia if that helps.

  3. Gary,

    I’m surprised at you. The best option was left out of your report. Junp ship to another carrier/alliance. This way, we don’t have to put up with the UA bull.

  4. Thanks for this post. I’m wondering what if I credit the miles from United flights to ANA program? Someone told me that ANA does not charge extra fee if you redeem miles on USA operated flights (United is the only one after US Airways joins OW). Is that true?

  5. Gary: outstanding article. Although I was a bit harsh on you for the Chase Ink nonstop posts, you’ve once again proven yourself as the top blogger, with excellent commentary. Looking forward to meeting you at Advanced FTU next month.

  6. @dhammer53 i reference that closer to the top of the post..!!! But this is “if you’re still going to fly some united, but not chase status, then who do you credit that odd flight to?” it happens sometimes even if you try to avoid it 🙂

  7. @beachfan yes, and i should have been clear on that (as I’ve noted about it in my recent posts on SQ). I was focused on ability to combine points with Amex/Chase/SPG and use right away but that should be noted.

  8. What are your thoughts on lifetime status changing? 60-70% to a million lifetime miles and wonder if I should stick it out.

  9. Does SQ allow you to connect in third regions (i.e. would they allow USA-BKK via FRA/MUC on LH)?

  10. Gary, to qualify for that generous Star Gold status on Aegean, must the required 20,000 miles all be on Aegean flights, or will any Star Alliance flight count that is credited to them? Thanks for a key post at a time of a major paradigm shift.

  11. What about SAA, or “secret” partners? Any other plays?
    Seems like Amex should absolutely court Turkish as a transfer partner. That would make my decision here easy. Otherwise, I’m going with SQ for K- and G-, Aeroplan for W-, and maybe Aegean for a short flight, or an occasional V- (since I already have Aegean Gold and 21k miles sitting there).

  12. With Aegean, are miles accrued all elite qualifying (i.e. if I fly 6,300 in United First will I get the 19,000 I need to get *gold for life?)

  13. Sorry to be dense – why go r/t on Singapore business class from North America to Europe for 130,000 miles plus fuel surcharges instead of United for 115,000?

  14. Hi Gary, I currently fly about 50,000 miles a year on United “P” fares, with other occasional star alliance flights. Great to see that Turkish gives credit on all fares, even on United’s discounted business class P fares.

    What would your airline suggestion be in my case? Thanks for any help.

  15. Gary, what about COPA? A great airline and a United partner. Any deal there for current United flyers?

  16. I’ve seen it multiple times now… the pictures of the AWESOME first class “seats” on Singapore Airlines. i.e BEDS. It really is the dream-come-true in terms of spending your time between point A & point B.

    However, a lot of wasted space in that visual…

    Multiple industries now use “sleeping trailers”… compartments in which the employees sleep between long shifts. The sleeping trailers provide a private bed, climate-controlled, and are darkened except for your private bed area. Make no mistake: the sleeping trailers aren’t luxury space… they are stacked cubicles of JUST A BED and A PERSONAL LIGHT each.

    So, when I see the Singapore Air bed, I think it’s the CATS MEOW. But I also wonder why it has taken so many years to put a bed in a plane, and also why they waste so much space to put a couple beds in 1st class when instead they could stack people (like sardines, like a sleeping trailer) in coach and have MANY happy, WELL-RESTED flyers.

    It really is a nuisance to waste my time sitting on a plane. If I’m stuck there doing nothing, I’d love to do it at NIGHT in a BED while SLEEPING. Nothing irks me more than spending 9 hours flying and then going to a hotel for 7 hrs of sleep.

    My vote is to get rid of seats entirely, replace them with beds, and let me only fly on red-eyes, so I can sleep the entire time in a flat bed and don’t waste a minute sitting in a seat thumbing through SkyMall.

  17. United needs a new leadership team in order to survive.
    We fly 10-12 x/year round trip from LAX to Honolulu and a few mainland flights. We are United Gold and Platinum with extra miles transfers towards our Elite status from our Chase United Presidential Plus master card spending. The reason we fly United is the time schedule, our TSA Pre on most flights, baggage allowance. Hawaiian is our other option but they do not have TSA Pre in Los Angeles. Right now we have 800,000. miles between 2 of us to use up on United. What would your recommendation be for business flier like us? Your valued advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for all your educational info.

  18. Great work Gary. Does Turkish have any sweet spots in their award chart? Also, for Aegean, is the earning year of 19,000 miles for Gold status on a calendar year basis, or does the clock start at sign-up?

  19. I would caution that Turkish is fine but if anything doesn’t go as planned with delays/weather/etc it goes south quickly. In addition, it is a pain to tack on 3-6 flight hours to fly to IST (stop) then back to Europe. Customer service is fair to middling at best. Yes the lounge is nice but I’d rather have those six+ hours in Europe at my destination.

  20. @Carl clock starts at signup with Aegean.

    For Turkish, US-Europe is 45k each way in business, Middle East 47k, Central Asia and North Africa 52.5k, US domestic 2-cabin first 15k (!).. US-North Africa in first one-way 73k..Middle East and Central Asia 69.5k in first.. Europe in first 67.5k one-way…

    Pretty good, huh?

  21. Wow. This reads like a list of why not to deposit miles into a United account. Wonder what damage these changes will cause to United Mileage Plus program if people choose to not deposit to United but other airline programs. United Miles are certainly less valuable as a currency for most people now.

    Certainly happy I cancelled my United Credit Card last year.

    Better to focus spending on Chase Sapphire or similar cards to stay program neutral.

  22. Biggest issue I have with A3 right now is so many UA flights are pricing out in N class for coach and P class for first, which both earn NOTHING with A3. Before it wasn’t an issue, just credit to UA but use A3 for the status, now I’ll have to rethink this strategy a bit, maybe switch to TK for P class, I don’t know what to do about N class though.

  23. I mostly fly TATL to accumulate and redeem awards out of SFO. Based on this posting SQ looks good but with a few drawbacks:

    1. Miles expire

    2. Fuel surcharges on some awards.

    3. TATL awards, especially out of SFO, may be limited? Both on SQ and *A? And you have to call in for *A awards.

    4. Only 25% tier bonuses on SQ and VS flights.

  24. Gary,
    Although I (think I have) scoured the LifeMiles portions of Avianca’s website, I failed at finding an awards chart or any other type of listing of what number of miles are required for C awards to Europe, Asia (HKG), and southern South America from the U.S. (IAD) Was it my ineptitude? Can you point me toward one, or do you have the secret sauce that the rest of us (or some of us) are unable to access? Thanks…

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