Which Frequent Flyer Program Should You Ditch United For?

With United moving to a revenue-based frequent flyer program for mileage-earning next year, customers flying on ‘cheap’ fares will earn fewer miles for their flying.

I have to put cheap in quotes though because the break-even point for earning miles is 20 cents (the minimum requirement to earn elite status is only 10 cents..!). If you’re paying less than $900 or $1000 on a cross country flight, you lose out.

United has told folks that the total number of miles awarded will stay the same but that hardly makes sense simply because their revenue per passenger mile is substantially lower than yet.

Elite frequent flyers will probably ‘suck it up’ and keep flying United and crediting their miles to MileagePlus even though they may earn less, since elite benefits matter and United probably has a schedule which matches their needs.

But occasional United flyers not chasing their status can fortunately consider crediting miles to another frequent flyer program, a United partner, that may be more rewarding for them.

S.B. writes,

On June 11 you posted “New Game Plan for Non-Elite Flyers That Travel on United” in response to United’s announced move to revenue-based mileage accrual early next year. It was extremely helpful. But since then, one of your four recommended solutions — Avianca Lifemiles (which arguably was your MOST strongly recommended solution) — has significantly changed and complicated its program (as you’ve also reported).

You noted that Aegean is good primarily for earning status, not for mileage-earning “except for cheap short hops” and there aren’t many good ways to add to/top-off Aegean accounts other than flying on Star Alliance flights. You also noted that KrisFlyer miles disappear 3 years after they were earned, and so an infrequent Star Alliance flyer who doesn’t accrue enough mileage for desired award flights for himself and his wife within 3 years of his first KrisFlyer mileage deposit — even with transfers from Ultimate Rewards or SPG points — is risking flushing his miles.
That leaves, of your four suggested solutions in June, Aeroplan. How do you compare it to the changed Lifemiles program?

Great questions. Air Canada’s Aeroplan have mile that expire after 7 years, which I’m cool with miles don’t expire as long as you have activity in your account every 12 months.

Some award prices are cheap (US-Western Europe) and others pricey, they only have one-way awards to and from the US and Canada — you can’t use Aeroplan to book a one-way from Bangkok to Hong Kong for instance. But their routing rules are generous with two allowable stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw on a roundtrip award, and the option to fly 5% more than the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ between your origin and destination.

But they add fuel surcharges to half of their 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.

They also don’t credit all United fares at 100% of flown miles, only W fares and above. (That’s actually the same as with Avianca’s Lifemiles.)

Customer service is much much much better with Aeroplan than dealing with Lifemiles on the phone (Lifemiles is better over email if you can wait 24 hours for a response), and the Aeroplan website is better too.

Personally I like Singapore Airlines Krisflyer because of full mileage earning on United’s discount fares and the ability to transfer in points from Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and now Citi Thank You Points – despite the 3 year expiration of points.

So it shouldn’t be hard to get enough points into an account for an award, whether an award on Singapore itself (where availability is fantastic) or even for United domestic awards.

I’m optimistic about the future. I’m actually betting that we see a new Star Alliance frequent flyer program in the next couple of years that offers full mileage-earning on United and doesn’t add fuel surcharges to award redemption. And I’m betting that happens without a new airline joining Star Alliance, even.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Aeroplan mile no more expires after 7 years
    Your miles will not expire as long that you have activity every 1e months

  2. I’m very excited about the revenue based program, as I fly short haul flights. I’ll be coming out ahead whether I fly leisure or business, so now I’ll be spreading my flights out to United and Southwest instead of just Southwest. I think this program will be great for the majority of business travelers, maybe not so much for businesses…

  3. What about those of us who fly *A partners exclusively (no UA metal), maintain *G status elsewhere and credit to UA just for the ease of accrual via non-airline partners and ability to redeem on *A partners? I can’t really find a particularly good option for that kind of profile, and besides the new earning rules don’t apply to partner flights.

  4. @Sean,

    I’m in the same boat and to be honest I don’t have much intention of changing my ff strategy. As long as UA keeps accepting partner airline flights at actual miles flown, the value proposition doesn’t seem to change much.


  6. Aero plan miles expire very rapidly without activity in your account. SQ miles expire too, pretty quickly.

  7. Its misleading to write that Aeorplan doesnt expire. It expires if theres no activity in 12 months. Hence why it may be a terrible program for the occasional traveler. Also all the shopping partners online seem to be canadian versions of major retailer so not sure how someone in the US could keep the status without actually flying.

  8. transfer in 1000 miles from amex membership rewards every 12 months, credit an online purchase through their shopping portal, credit a car rental, whatnot… united/american expire after 18 months. alaska is 24…

  9. Basically there are no *A partners that make sense for the occasional non-elite flyer due to hard expiration dates. Some people don’t even take 1 flight a year so AC is out, not to mention the fact that deep discount fares (the ones these people fly) don’t earn jack on AC. SQ is out because occsional flyers don’t earn enough in 3 years to get those nice TPAC business class seats.

    Really your advice should be for people to consider Virgin, Jetblue for the better product, AA if the price is right, or even WN for short haul. Given the product quality, UA flights don’t make sense anymore for the occasional non-elite bargain basement traveler. Even this 1K won’t be buying discount tix for my family on UA.

  10. @ Boraxo – well put!

    Great topic, but seriously, why stick with United unless for convenience. If you want elite benefits, simply get the United credit card that gets you the checked bag and more importantly boarding group 2 (or you can try and fly 50k miles on the new plan – good luck with that in 2015).

    In the end, there are enough ways to do manufactured spend coupled with credit card perks that one should figure out what flight is easiest, quickest, cheapest, etc. for their needs and fly that airline versus trying to stay loyal to one for the elite status which end the end really gets you very little unless you are at the very top of the program and you spend a lot of money.

  11. I think those corporate frauds at UA will live to regret this decision. It’s a ridiculous plan. I really hope they change the name as it’s not really a frequent flyer program anymore. It’s a fraud. there is nothing loyalty based about it. I have been with them since 1990 and I have already started moving across to OW with AA and QF. I’m even on IB for the first time next month. So goodbye UA you frauds, you thieves, you bloody rip-offs.

  12. @Boraxo: “Some people don’t even take 1 flight a year” – I don’t think they are the audience of this post.

  13. Given the product quality, UA flights don’t make sense anymore for the occasional non-elite bargain basement traveler.

    Why’s that? OK, so the rebate is reduced if you credit to UA. People fly LH on 50% earning fares all the time. People fly on 10% earning fares on SQ.

    If you have a nonstop on UA with good timing and a one-stop on AA that has lousy timing at the same cost, you’re really going to let maybe an extra 500 miles in AA’s program outweigh convenience? What’s the notional value of that, maybe $10?

  14. As someone who doesn’t fly paid tickets domestically that much, and will be a million miler by sometime next year, I’m contemplating staying with United MP, forgoing chasing PQDs which I can waive to platinum with cc anyway and trying to exclusively fly Star carriers. If I understand the new rules correctly, this means I can still earn distance based miles. This bizarre program change apparently is encouraging me to never fly on their metal.

  15. I’m thinking of joining ANA’s FF as it’s the airline we prefer to fly to Tokyo even tho we can fly non-stop on UA. Is there an advantage to this in light of UA new policy next year?

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