I’ll never fly United again.
That was a oft-expressed sentiment following United’s recent inept handling of an involuntary bump. That’s no great challenge for infrequent flyers, or those whose allegiance is to another airline. But for (former) United loyalists, who have amassed scores of miles in the MileagePlus program, it’s easier said than done.
The most obvious strategy is to use MileagePlus miles for flights on partner airlines. Both through its participation in the Star Alliance and through bilateral marketing relationships, United has earn-and-burn agreements with almost 40 other airlines, allowing program members to redeem miles for flights pretty much anywhere in the world.
Of course, if you’d planned to use your United miles for flights within the U.S., the partner option is of little help. It might be possible to use Air Canada, by constructing an itinerary with a connection in Canada, but the sacrifice in time and convenience would be a significant negative consideration.
For shorter domestic trips, you might consider redeeming miles for a rental car from Hertz or one of the other MileagePlus rental-car partners. And then use miles to pay for a hotel stay at your destination. Those are both options with MileagePlus, as with most full-featured loyalty programs. But it turns out they’re not very attractive options.
From a value standpoint, mileage-program members will almost always get the best return-on-investment when using miles for flights. That’s because of the underlying economics: Giving away seats that otherwise would have gone unsold is much cheaper than giving away products or services that the airline must purchase on program members’ behalf. So, while you’d typically get an effective return of around 1.2 cents per $1 spent when redeeming for award tickets, you’d likely get less than half that when redeeming for car rentals, hotel nights, or merchandise.
As an example of the merchandise option, an Apple 32GB iPad, which retails for $329, can be had for 41,200 United miles. That amounts to .8 cents (eight tenths of a cent) per redeemed mile. That’s mediocre value.
As it turns out, the best value for MileagePlus miles is to be found with magazine and newspaper subscriptions. Again, the underlying economics are the story here. Publishers make most of their money from ad sales, rather than from subscription fees. Accordingly, they’re happy to heavily discount subscription prices to maintain robust subscriber bases. So you can redeem 1,200 miles for a full year’s subscription of Time magazine, which would normally cost $30. In that scenario, you’re getting 2.5 cents per mile, twice what you’d get when redeeming for most flights. Good value, certainly, but how many magazine subscriptions can you manage?
And lastly, as do other airline programs, MileagePlus allows members to donate their miles to charity, including the American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Dream Foundation, Make-a-Wish, and so on.
So yes, there are many possible uses for United miles, other than flying on United. Personally, I’d opt for a business-class flight on Lufthansa to Europe, and a subscription to Wine Spectator. Your mileage may vary.
Reader Reality Check
Have you taken the “Never Fly United” pledge?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.