Is Mileage Plus worth it anymore?

I remember when I first made 1K about five years ago, I could never have enough miles. The redemption levels for awards were incredible and there was no Starnet blocking. I went to Australia for 90,000 miles in business class on Air New Zealand, I went to Europe for 100,000 miles in first class on Lufthansa, and I went to Asia for 90,000 miles in business class on Singapore Airlines. Simply put, United rocked.

Over the years I’ve become smarter. I’ve diversified my miles, and I’m happy about it. I just redeemed 126,000 ANA miles for my brother and his girlfriend to fly from New York to London in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. I’m about to redeem 240,000 Aeroplan miles for two Star Alliance first class tickets from the US to Asia via Europe both ways. All these awards come without “fuel surcharges” and there’s no blocking of partner award inventory.

And now I look at my United account. I have around 400,000 United miles, something I never thought would be the case since I’m a firm believer in earning and burning. I like to have enough miles in my account for two first class tickets to where I want to go, but never more, since miles devalue just like cash sitting around not earning any interest.

But what can I burn my United miles for? Not only does United block partner award inventory, but they also have some of the highest redemption rates among their competitors. If I want to go to Europe I can get a much better deal with ANA or Aeroplan, and if I want to go to Asia I can get a much better deal with Aeroplan. A first class award ticket to most places in Europe is a mere 100,000 Aeroplan miles, and when flying Star Alliance carriers there aren’t any fuel surcharges. That’s 35,000 miles cheaper than United!

But seriously, what the heck am I going to use my United miles for? I’ve been saving them to go to India, since that’s the one region that didn’t get “enhanced” in the Mileage Plus changes at the end of last year, but how can I get there? Certainly not on Lufthansa, where United has just about every flight blocked nowadays. Swiss? Good luck.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to think the only real way to redeem United miles is for United flights. Maybe Australia in first class on United? Or South America in business class on United?

Don’t get me wrong, there are still some decent options, but when I really think about it, Mileage Plus is an average program at best now, and except for flight miles, I’m not collecting any further miles with them.

The only issue is, as far as US carriers go, no one else is really better. It goes without saying that Delta and Northwest aren’t better. USAirways has a good award chart, but I just don’t trust it will stay that way. I can’t trust an airline that gets rid of elite bonus miles. American? In theory nice, but the fact that they just about got rid of international stopovers greatly devalues the program for me. Furthermore, going to Europe is just so impractical with them. I prefer to redeem miles for first class on premium airlines, which leaves British Airways. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to fly British Airways between the US and Europe on an award using American miles, which means I’d have to route through Toronto. That means two stops and a really short transatlantic flight, which isn’t desirable.

United, you’ve really ruined a great thing. I hate to add this quote which I’ve heard at many airline union rallies, but it seems rather relevant:

“We don’t want to kill the golden goose. We just want to choke it by the neck until it gives us every last egg.”

United, you’re killing the golden goose which is Mileage Plus….

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. Is it possible to route via Mexico City for the BA transatlantic segmentsr? That’s a 10 hour flight.

  2. Lucky, So what airline is your current preference for crediting Star flight miles to? I currently credit all Alaska partners (Delta, American, Air France, etc.) to Alaska’s program. But don’t know where to dump Star miles, since I’m as frustrated with United as you are.

  3. The main problem that is driving MP devaluation is how easy it is on UA to earn flight miles. AC and NH are much less generous with flight miles (unless you are in paid premium cabins), both for GMs and elite members.

    Let’s say that in 3 flights on UA you can earn the same amount of miles as 4 flights on AC or NH, but on United premium awards are 30% more. Then it’s about a wash, which puts UA about in line with its competitors.

    In terms of CC or partner offers, no argument to bank elsewhere if you’re spending a lot a year. But for me personally, since my yearly CC spend and partner miles accumulation is rather low, it doesn’t really make sense to try and bank elsewhere because it takes so much longer to get to an award threshold.

    I tend to think diversification is only worth it if you’re hitting your goal threshold in the alternate program about once a year.

  4. Or, maybe the era of flying for no reason other than to game the system and earn as many miles as possible as cheaply as possible is over.

    If the airlines can increase the revenue per mile earned by attrition of an undesireable segment, it’s probably better for the airlines in the long run.

    Maybe it’s time for a new hobby.

  5. @ Gene — It’s possible in theory, but I’m betting it exceeds the MPM from most places in the US. I know I couldn’t do that from TPA, but maybe it’s possible from the west coast.

    @ Ken — I’m still crediting all flight miles to UA. Later in the year I’ll probably dump some miles in my bmi account to requalify for Gold (which I’m finding to be quite valuable as far as lounge access goes), but United is still the best thanks to the systemwide upgrades.

    @ andrewwm — Valid point, but then look at programs like bmi, where you earn 100% miles on most coach fares, and substantially more miles than you would at United for premium fares. They seem to be doing just fine.

    @ Mike — I’m not sure who’s talking about a free lunch here, but sure ain’t me. Interestingly enough Aeroplan is a separate company from Air Canada, yet they have one of the most lucrative award charts and are partners with American Express Membership Rewards. I can assure you that’s not the case because they’re trying to be nice, but rather because it makes business sense. United *is* losing business due to their crappy policies.

    @ Eric — I don’t think so. This has been the most “profitable” year yet for me as far as the mileage world goes. If anything the trend is heading in the opposite direction.

  6. > But what can I burn my United miles for?

    RCC memberships for family and friends? 🙂

  7. Wait a second. You’re a UA 1K who has accumulated a boatload of miles and you’re not using your UA miles for partner air travel. How is that them killing the golden goose? It seems, rather, that they’ve got you right where they want you. You continue to fly UA since the US competition sucks and can’t redeem your miles on anyone except UA. Until there is a better alternative (and AA might be better particularly with their one-way awards now), I don’t think they’re doing anything stupid.

  8. @ Scholar in Training — I’m not using my miles at all at the moment. I won’t use my United miles until I see a good use for them, and you can bet it will be on a partner. My post is simply pointing out that the only decent (if you even want to call it that) redemptions are on United metal.

    Have they got me where they want me? I don’t think so. We spend about $200K/year on credit cards, and not a dime of that is going to a United Mileage Plus Visa. If it weren’t for Starnet blocking and the prohibitively expensive awards you could bet we’d be using Mileage Plus Visas. Similarly, no other partner activity is being credited to United. I really don’t think that’s what United wants.

    My point is there *are* better alternatives for credit card and partner activity, but just not for crediting miles. Overall their elite benefits are still decent, which is why many people stick with them, but as soon as they tamper with those you can bet people will be running away.

  9. I too have stopped using my Mileage Plus Credit Card and am using almost exclusively my Starwood Amex Card. I am still crediting my miles to United but only to make 1K this year for the SWU since my company only pays for coach to Europe. If I can exceed 100K this year I’ll probably diversify into the other airlines.

  10. What do you do with SWUs, if you never fly UA internationally?

    And this may be very personal info, but how do you spend $200K a year on credit cards? Mortgage and rent and etc.?

  11. It is too bad UA has raised redmeption levels and implemented Star blocking which makes Saver award redemptions very difficult. In fact, United used to make a good amount of Saver awards available, but they changed this a few years back, and it is just as difficult to find UA premium C & F saver awards as it is on Star partners especially to regions like Australia.

  12. @ Britinva — Perfect strategy. The SPG Amex is FANTASTIC, and crediting 100K to UA is a great idea for the SWU’s.

    @ David — I have friends and family that need SWU’s, so they get them. As far as CC spend goes, my family owns a business and we’re able to pay with CC for many of the products we need to order. That and we also put all personal spend on CC’s.

    @ chitownflyer — Well said!

  13. I think you make some good points here — MP is a decent program if you’re flying United (E+, SWUs, etc.) but it’s not a good place to horde miles in.

    One solution which nobody’s mentioned is Continental. If they do not implement *net blocking or change their award chart, once they enter *A they could offer some of the advantages of US with (presumably) less risk.

    Also, BA offers flights to LHR from YVR, I don’t know AA MPM rules but at the very least you could nest an ex-SEA (or similar) award with a cheap domestic ticket and get a long flight on a decent airline

  14. Ben, I couldn’t have put it better myself. We have flown United exclusively for over a decade, and have had their MP Visa card for about the same time. No longer. The card just renewed, so we will hold on to it for another year, but after that we are cancelling it. In the meantime, we are shopping for a new rewards card. Any ideas? FWIW, we rarely stay at hotels.

    Best,
    Despina

  15. Despina,

    The American Express card and membership rewards enables you to earn points and then transfer them to many different airlines such as Air Canada and ANA which have some of the better premium class award redemption rates. For 120K (transfer Membership Rewards points to AC Aeroplan), one can redeem an AC Business-First class premium international award that allows flights and stopovers in both directions: almost making the award close to a RTW. Ask lucky for further info and details on other airlines, as lucky is the master at all things concerning points.

  16. @ Despina — Most agree that the best CC out there is the Starwood American Express card, even if you rarely stay at hotels. What’s cool about the Starwood AmEx is that you can trasnfer your SPG points to most airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, and if you transfer 20,000 points you get a 5,000 point bonus. That means you’re basically earning 1.25 points per dollar, which is unbeatable.

    You can see a full list of their transfer partners here:
    http://www.starwoodhotels.com/preferredguest/account/starpoints/transfer/airline_partner_list.html

    As you can see, Aeroplan, ANA, American, etc., are all on the list.

    As chitwonflyer mentioned above, another good option is just a plain old American Express card which earns Membership Rewards points. What I like about the Membership Rewards program is that you can transfer miles from your Membership Rewards account someone else’s frequent flyer account, which is great for “topping off” accounts.

  17. Regarding the golden goose… is it United who was getting the eggs, or you? Somehow I don’t think that having 30 million Luckies as MP members would make it a very profitable program for UA. 😉

    (and no, I am not exactly what UA is after either since I don’t pay for premium seats, but I also limit my purchase of cheap tickets to what it takes to reach my status goal, 1K this year… time’s money for me, too).

  18. In my albeit limited experience, FRA/BLR first class cabin is usually empty. I’d have to think that on short notice you could get F saver awards on LH between FRA and India.

  19. Hi All:

    United is happy to advertise with their miles. I’ll tried to get a flight from Hawaii to Germany 5 mounth in advance, but was not able to get one in saver category.
    First time I made the mistake to choose standard and could only go to Frankfurt. Next time I was a little smarter to choose business class for just 10000 miles more, because I had the same problem that there was no way to get a saver seat.

    With a mom of 87 years, I have to go once or twice a year. But I am also happy to say that some miles are better then nothing. If anybody out there who does not want the miles – you can dump them on me alohapuu@yahoo.com
    Aloha
    Puu

  20. @ mre5765 — While LH releases those award seats, UA typically blocks them, unfortunately. 🙁

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