Where to Credit Butt in Seat Miles: Flying United Airlines

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In light of the news that American Airlines is changing to a revenue-based award earning structure, and the fact that all three major US carriers now use a revenue-based award earning structure, I am writing a series of posts about when and where you should diversify the award miles you earn through paying for airfare. This post is Part 2, and discusses when and to where you should diversify your award earning when flying paid tickets on United flights. 

“When & Where You Should Diversify Revenue Ticket Miles” Series Index

In March of 2015, United switched to a revenue-based award earning structure that is much like the structure American Airlines’ is adopting come this August.  The amount of United miles you earn flying United flights is based on two things: the ticket price less any government imposed taxes or fees, and the elite status you have with the airline.

A revenue-based award earning structure is worse for folks who fly far, cheap tickets and better for people who fly short, expensive tickets. That is, at least, if we’re talking about crediting miles to United MileagePlus. But it is not obligatory to do that–you can enter your frequent flyer number with any United partner instead.

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In your mind, this fact should pose two questions.

  1. When should I choose to credit my award miles to United?
  2. If not United, then who?

I’m going to dive into both questions here to help equip you with the knowledge to make these decisions in the future.

Note that this post is specifically referencing the award miles earned from flying United flights. The amount of United miles you can earn flying a Star Alliance or other partner airline will be based on flight distance and the purchased fare class. See United’s Airline Partners and Global Alliances page for partner-specific information.

When Should I Choose to Credit my Award Miles to United?

The simple answer to this question: Not when you’re buying a cheap economy ticket, but maybe if you’re buying an expensive premium cabin ticket. United’s revenue-based award earning system rewards those who generate more revenue for United, point blank.

The more correct answer to this question is: when the math works out.

The Math

To figure out how many United miles you’ll earn flying their planes, use the following equation:

Status multiplier x (ticket price – government-imposed taxes/fees) = award miles earned

The status multiplier depends on what tier elite status you have with the airline:

  • 5x– MileagePlus member
  • 7x –Premier Silver
  • 8x – Premier Gold
  • 9x – Premier Platinum
  • 11x– Premier 1k

We know the ticket price is how much united.com tells us the flight costs.

But how can we isolate the government-imposed taxes and fees from that price? ITA Matrix. If you’re not familiar with ITA Matrix, here’s how to use it— it will show you the breakdown of a ticket by base fare, fuel surcharges, and government-imposed taxes and fees.

Look at this breakdown of a roundtrip United ticket between Dallas and Paris:

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.24.16 PM

This is a great example of the kind of cheap revenue ticket readers of this blog would buy, because it’s an example where you might be better off paying for the flight in cash rather than using miles that could be put towards higher value redemptions.

The dollar amounts outlined in the red rectangle are the government-imposed taxes and fees (sum = $129.86). Fuel surcharges are always labeled as either YR and YQ (in this case YQ). Fare 1 and 2 are the base fares in each direction on the roundtrip.

Now we can plug in our equation.

5 x (480.86 – 129.86) = 1,755

So, assuming you are just a normal Mileage Plus member without status, you would earn 1,755 United miles for flying about 9,900 miles on a United plane.

Even if you are a Premier 1k elite, you would only earn 3,861 United miles on this ticket.

But let’s say you purchased a Business Class ticket on the same flight, which costs $6,328.06 (oh yea, now I remember why I collect miles!). Your equation would look like this:

5 x (6,328.06 – 129.86) = 30,991

Then you would certainly want to credit those miles to United, because you cannot beat that crediting to any other partner. It is easy to see how this system rewards those that spend more. But I assume the majority of us will find ourselves with something closer to the first equation’s answer most of the time.

Conclusion

When it comes time for you to make this decision, plug your own numbers in.

When flying a discounted economy ticket:

If you get a number greater than 100% of the distance flown, then stick with collecting United miles. That is the maximum amount of miles you could get crediting to a partner (assuming you don’t have status with any of them.)

If flying a full fare ticket:

If you get a number greater than 150% of the distance flown (if flying economy), greater than 200% of the distance flown (if flying Business) or greater than 300% of the distance flown (flying First Class), than stick with United miles. If not, then credit them to Lufthansa.

Otherwise, read on to see your options for crediting to other partners.

If Not United, Then Who?

Listed below are the award earning structures for some of United’s partners. Loyalty programs that generally lack valuable award redemption opportunities have been left out. What you earn for crediting miles to these airlines is represented by the percentages in the tables below. To figure out the total, you multiply the percentage by the distance flown.

Members of Star Alliance

Copa Airlines

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 6.45.57 PM

Read further detailed info about crediting miles to ConnectMiles here.

Asiana Airlines

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Read further detailed info about crediting miles to Asiana Club here.

Singapore Airlines

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Read further detailed info about crediting miles to Krisflyer here.

Avianca 

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Read further detailed info about crediting miles to LifeMiles here.

Air Canada

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.08.47 PM

Read further detailed info about crediting miles to Aeroplan here.

LufthansaScreen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.12.39 PM

Read further detailed info about crediting miles to Miles & More here.

All Nipon Airways (ANA)

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.16.47 PM

Read further detailed info about crediting miles to ANA Mileage Club here.

Conclusion

Not considering any other incentives you might have for wanting to collect a certain kind of mile (like a particular redemption you have in mind, chasing a status, etc.), the best alternative airline to credit miles to when flying United is Singapore. It offers the highest percentages of distance flown, ranging from 100% for even the low economy fares (which are the most common types people like you and I buy) to 150% for First Class. The next best options are Air Canada, Avianca, Asiana, and Copa. Out of those, it depends on whose miles you value more. Click here to read about the top 11 most valuable miles to me.

The other options listed above offer similar ranges of percentages for distance flown, but with lower tiers for discount economy tickets that range from 0 to 50%. So if you’re flying a discounted ticket, like the one from the example in this post that is categorized as fare class “K”, then definitely choose to credit those miles to Singapore.

If your fare class is not one associated with a discounted economy ticket, then credit your miles to Lufthansa. Any full price fare will earn something in the 150% to 300% of distance flown range depending on whether it is full fare economy or First Class– those percentages blow all other partner options out of the water.

Best Card to Buy Airfare With

Your top choice for buying United tickets with should be the Citi Prestige® Card, since it comes with a $250 Air Travel Credit every calendar year that applies to airfare. If you haven’t used the credit yet, buy the fare with your Prestige, and you will receive an offsetting credit on your next statement.

Even if you’ve already used your $250 credit for this year, the card offers 3x on all airfare purchases, which is a higher category bonus than what United’s co-branded cards offer for buying their own plane tickets (2x).

See my review of the Citi Prestige Card which explains its many components like its annual $250 Air Travel Credit, 40,000 point sign up bonus, access to the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass lounges, 3x points per dollar on air travel and hotels, and a $450 annual fee.

Bottom Line

If you’re like me and only spend cash on the cheapest of airfares, then it is very likely you will not want to credit the miles you earn from flying United flights to MileagePlus due to the program’s revenue-based award earning structure. If you haven’t started an account with Singapore Airlines’ frequent flyer program Krisflyer, then do so today. Out of United’s partners, it is probably the most valuable program to funnel your miles into (unless you’re flying a full fare ticket, in which case definitely credit to Lufthansa!)

If you want to jumpstart that Krisflyer miles collection, sign up for cards that earn you Ultimate Rewards–they transfer to Krisflyer miles at a 1:1 rate.

  • Open an Ink Plus card and you can earn 60,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $5,000 within the first three months of opening the account.
  • Open a Sapphire Preferred card and you can earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 within the first three months of opening the account.

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Great work! A useful additional chart would be one showing which airline club’s miles expire and which don’t, and how to maintain at minimal cost those that have expiration dates (such as United’s link with many restaurants).

    • The way to maintain points facing expiration will always be dining, a transfer in from a transferable points program, or looking at their promotions page for some deal to get a few miles cheaply or free.

  2. Would you comment on not listing Aegean as a crediting option? RT awards on partners in business class are only 21k each way within North America, for example. I know everyone’s opinions are subjective but I’m curious as to what the threshold for “valuable award redemption opportunities” might be for you?

  3. question: I am leaving on a United flight (cheap-code W). United says total distance is 4930, give 4309 in credit.(I do get a few more with my current silver status, but for the sake of the question…and the fact that next year I will probably have no status) I would change to Kris flyer, but it looks like it takes 200000 for even a business class ticket to anywhere from the US. How does one ever get that many points/miles? The branded credit card is only for those who live Asia/Australia as I read it…would it be just transfering AmEx/Chase/Starwood points to Kris? Plus as I read their chart, if you are flying Singapore Air on a cheap K or V code ticket you only accrue 10% miles to Kris..that seems to suck.

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