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Is United's the World's Most Rewarding Rewards Program?

When airlines advertise their loyalty programs, the marketing message typically focuses on a program's earning side.

But United has just launched an aggressive new ad campaign that flips that approach. Rather than touting the ease with which Mileage Plus members can accumulate miles, United's new ads promise that the miles will be easy to actually use.

Among the ads' copy lines:

  • "The mileage program that wants you to use your miles"
  • "Miles that hate staying home on weekends"
  • "Miles that get you where you want to go ... even at the last minute"

Of course, it's easy enough to boast good intentions—talk is cheap.

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But United backs up those purported intentions with a solid roster of program features designed to give Mileage Plus members expanded options for mileage redemption. Among them:

None of the above is unique to United. But taken together, they represent as impressive an array of redemption-friendly award options and program rules as can be found in any airline program.

Choice, Value

Choice is one thing, value another.

In a recent survey of alternative award options, I found the value of United miles redeemed for merchandise to be well under 1 cent per mile. When redeemed for free hotel nights, the miles were sometimes worth a penny apiece, but usually less.

For reference, the average value of a mile redeemed for a 25,000-mile restricted coach award is around 1.2 cents. Since that's by far the most popular award, it's a value that consumers use, consciously or not, as a benchmark when assessing other award options.

United's ads also push the availability of unrestricted awards: "Miles with the clout to book any open United seat. Guaranteed. With a Standard Award, if there's a seat for sale, it's yours for miles."

But Standard awards are twice as expensive as restricted awards, so the per-mile value plummets to 0.6 cents or so.

If you acquired those miles by using a credit card, earning one mile per dollar charged to the card, getting 0.6 cents per mile amounts to a 0.6 percent rebate—a notably weak value proposition when there are cash rebate cards that return 1 percent or more.

In short, while non-flight awards and unrestricted awards are options in theory, in practice they must also pass a value test.

The Promise: Delivered or Not?

We have the ad campaign, and we have United's evidence in support of the ads' claims.

What we don't have is an answer to the question: Are Mileage Plus members having an easier time redeeming their miles for the awards they want, as the ads suggest?

I don't know. And the data that United and other airlines make public are insufficient to resolve the issue. So the best I can do is put the question to our readers.

Of course, an informal poll won't provide a definitive answer either—we are unlikely to get enough responses to attain a high level of statistical certainty. But the more input we get, the better the results will reflect the real-world experience of Mileage Plus members.

So please, weigh in with your judgment as to the usability of United miles.

Reader Reality Check

Are you satisfied, or not, with the choice, availability, and value of Mileage Plus awards?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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