The United Airlines MileagePlus program is known for having great promotional offers and comparatively valuable miles, but you probably already know that if you’re a frequent flyer.
And if you often use your miles to lessen the cost of flights or upgrade for free, then you probably also know that additional miles are available for purchase if what you’ve earned through flights and card purchases isn’t enough.
But before you go buying miles, be sure you know what you need them for and exactly how many you need. This will help you determine whether there is a cost savings in purchasing the miles with cash. This involves researching factors such as what miles can actually get you in terms of trips, rewards and/or upgrades as well as what restrictions may apply when redeeming miles. These are all ever-changing and could mean the difference between saving money or losing money.
Purchasing United Airlines miles, like any other airline miles, is rarely beneficial to a consumer’s wallet, but if you familiarize yourself with how these frequent flyer points are priced and what their actual value is, you can take advantage of opportunities to save money in ways you might not otherwise have thought.
In this post you'll learn:
When is it a Good Idea to Purchase United Airline Flight Miles
United Airlines flight miles should only be purchased when the math makes sense and there is a clear ROI.
This could be when United Airline miles are being sold at incredible discounts (such as now) or when you need a small amount of miles to top off a reward or trip and purchasing the mile difference is cheaper than paying for it with cash.
Here are a few times when buying miles makes good sense and could save you money.
When United Airlines Offers Promotions or Discounts
For example, right now, United Airlines is giving customers that purchase miles an 85% bonus. This means that the entire balance of your purchase will be matched up to 85%, which effectively makes every mile worth 1.85% as much as it normally is.
This may change your calculus on whether or not it’s a right time for you to buy miles, especially if you already had a trip or upgrade in mind and are most of the way there on points.
Keep your eye out for United Airline bonuses like this. A 100% United Airline mile match bonus was also spotted earlier this month.
They come often and can either be available for anyone online or direct offers to you specifically (usually via direct mail). They’re usually “flash deals” which can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.
The percentage is usually a tiered offer that looks something like this:
- purchase 5,000 to 14,000 miles: receive a 30% bonus
- purchase 15,000 to 39,000 miles: receive a 50% bonus
- purchase 40,000 miles or more: receive a 100% bonus
When Buying Miles to Get a Free Ticket or Trip
Everyone wants to fly for free, and one way to do this is to use your miles. Flights through United Airlines and its partners can be purchased with enough points. Award pricing tends to fluctuate wildly like any other ticket pricing, but you can always check what the exact cost in miles will be when booking a flight.
Just select the “Book with miles” when searching a flight and see what the going rate is for your desired ticket. Is your current miles balance almost enough to cover it, or not even close? What is the current price of miles? Always ask these questions. At the end of the day if it’s not cheaper to purchase the miles to get you to your award than it would be paying the difference in cash then it’s simply not worth it.
United Airlines requires that you purchase at least 2,000 miles per transaction. Pricing is variable. You can buy miles in increments of 1,000 all the way up to 150,000 as long as you do not exceed the annual max of 175,000.
The current cost of United Airline Miles is $35 per 1,000 or 3.5 cents each. As you can tell from the chart below, it gets pretty pricey pretty quick when you pay full retail.
Current Cost of United Airlines Miles
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When Buying United Airline Miles to Upgrade Your Seat
If you want to experience more luxurious flying without your bank account experiencing the depletion of luxurious flying, you may want to look into a seat upgrade using your miles – and buying a tad more to get you there may be worth it.
Both United and Star Alliance flights are eligible for seat upgrades paid for with miles, and MileagePlus members that qualify for Premier status—the highest level of loyalty with United, based on your activity and points—have access to great upgrade availability with more perks than other members.
A seat upgraded to a higher fare could cost you upwards of 20,000 each. You may choose to upgrade with miles when selecting fare preferences when booking a flight or after a flight has been booked, but you are not guaranteed upgraded seats until you pay for them.
Those that fly regularly through one airline probably shouldn’t “waste” their miles on a seat upgrade, or their money on miles to be used for this purpose. There are ways to squeeze more monetary value out of miles, and there are easier ways to earn miles. But, if you have miles saved up and are willing to pay a little extra to close the distance for an upgrade, you could buy miles for much less than the full cost of the upgrade in dollars.
When is it Not a Good Idea to Buy United Airline Flight Miles?
Buying United Airline Miles at full price is almost always a bad call.
Don’t let this carrier’s clever advertising and appealing miles redemption selections trick you into throwing away your money on miles that aren’t worth what you’re paying for them.
Make sure to calculate the value of each mile as precisely as you can and always plan ahead when you intend to purchase them for yourself or others.
When the Math Doesn’t Work
If you’ve ever purchased miles from any airline at their full price, you almost certainly lost money. It’s just one of the ways that airlines profit. This is why purchasing more miles or points only makes sense when there are promotions going on or when you already have most of what you need (think 80% or more) to upgrade a seat or buy a ticket.
Get into the habit of calculating the cost per mile for every United Airlines flight. What is it if you buy miles and use those and what is it if you just buy with straight-up cash? More often than not, straight-up cash will be cheaper. But if miles are discounted and/or you have most of what you need already in your account, then, by all means, buy the miles.
Watch Out For Fees For Transferring United Airline Miles vs. Getting Them Directly
Miles make a great gift for people often in the sky but beware of United Airlines’ transfer and processing fees. Buying miles as a gift is a great gesture, but it might lose you money.
MileagePlus miles can be transferred between two accounts, but not without incurring considerable extra charges. For every 500 miles you transfer from your own account to the account of another MileagePlus member, you will be charged $7.50 and $30 per transaction for processing on top of that.
Remember these transfer fees when purchasing miles for others, and consider gifting them directly to their account instead.
The Ticket You Wish to Purchase With Miles May Not Even be Available
Picture this: you’ve planned a whole trip out and budgeted the costs down to the cent, only to find out that the ticket you planned to purchase with miles isn’t available. Don’t let this happen to you—scout awards seats well before booking a flight. They sometimes go fast and are given on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Check the availability of award seats early on in your trip planning process. Being a frequent flyer doesn’t guarantee you tickets that can be purchased using miles, so you should never buy additional miles before looking into this.
If you fly United Airlines often enough to consider buying extra miles, you probably already have a decent stash of them in your account. And if this is the case, you are a great candidate for purchasing more when it saves you money. Pay attention to rising and falling rates and any hot deals that might pop up, and you give yourself the best possible chance of spending less on your miles than they are worth. But most important of all, know what you want! You should never just purchase miles to purchase miles, even if they’re on sale. You should always have a reward, trip or upgrade in mind so that you can do the math to be sure there is an ROI in it for you.
MileagePlus miles no longer expire, so if you do end up buying a little more than you need or you make a purchase that might not have been as well-informed as it could have been, your balance won’t go to waste.
United Airlines miles are fairly valuable and can be used in a lot of ways, but in the vast majority of cases you’re better off earning them indirectly through flights and credit card transactions rather than purchasing them directly through the airline.