Should I Use Miles or Dollars?

Many people jump to using United Miles tickets immediately whenever they have accumulated enough frequent flyers miles to book a trip to that exotic destination they have been longing for.  However, before you book, you should make sure you are getting fair economic value for those miles.  After traveling for decades and accumulating literally millions of frequent flyer miles, I’ve gained a lot of experience maximizing the value of my frequent flyer miles.  The most important rule is to never use your miles if you aren’t getting a reasonable conversion.

So the question is, what are your United Miles worth?  There are different answers to this question for different folks (depending on what kind of travel they do), so I will outline a couple thoughts to arrive at what your own personal “value of a frequent flyer mile” should be.

These are the key questions:

  1. Do you generally have a high degree of travel flexibility or do you generally need to travel on specific dates?  If you have flexibility, you should value your miles assuming you need 20,000 to 25,000 frequent flyer miles for a domestic ticket.  If you have little schedule flexibility, you should assume something higher, possibly as high as double that rate (40,000 to 45,000)?
  2. Do you travel domestically or internationally?  International travel tends to be better for getting the most value for your miles.
  3. Do you travel in economy class or business or First Class?  Redeeming award travel in upgraded cabins gives you a much higher conversion rate on your miles since a First Class ticket booked with cash has a very high price.

At the low end of the range, inflexible domestic Economy Class travelers should look at the value of their miles as a ~$400 to ~$500 ticket divided by an assumed need of ~40,000 United Miles to book a ticket.  This would imply a value of ~$0.01 per mile.  Anything less than this and you should just book your ticket through Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline.

At the high end of the range, international travelers in First Class should consider the value of their miles as being ~$10,000 or more (the value of a First Class ticket to Asia or Europe) divided by ~150,000 miles which would give a value of ~$0.07 per mile. 

So if you know you have some domestic travel and some international travel coming up, you should generally book your domestic travel with cash (through Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline) and save your miles for that international trip.

I hope this helps travelers out there – remember, always maximize the value of your frequent flyer miles by knowing when cash is the better option!

Can I Pay for a Ticket With Miles and Money?

If you don’t have quite enough United frequent flyer miles, one way to stretch the miles you have is to use a Miles & Money Award.  These types of awards allow you to combine MileagePlus miles with cash to get an award ticket.  Even if you have enough miles, you should consider these types of tickets as they might a good value.  You can frequently use miles and money to substitute $0.01 or less for a frequent flyer mile which is a very good conversion ratio.

There are a few limitations to the Miles and Money award option.  Miles and Money awards are only available on Saver Award tickets and only for certain Economy seats.  select United Economy® class roundtrip Saver Award tickets.  In addition, these tickets only work on United- and United Express-operated flights (i.e. these can’t be used on StarAlliance partner flights).  No stopovers are allowed. 

These tickets can be booked on mileageplus.com or united.com through the online portal.   If the ticket option exists, it will show up after your search.

Here is the summary for the value of Miles & Money tickets depending on the route.

Within the continental United States:

  • 25,000 miles, or
  • 10,000 miles plus ~$100 in cash
  • Implied value of a mile = ~$0.007

Between the United States and Europe

  • 55,000 miles, or
  • 30,000 miles plus ~$320 in cash
  • Implied value of a mile = ~$0.013

Between the United States and Asia:

  • 65,000 miles, or
  • 35,000 miles plus ~$500
  • Implied value of a mile = ~$0.017

Between the United States and Australia:

  • 80,000 miles,
  • or 45,000 miles plus ~$500 in cash
  • Implied value of a mile = ~$0.014

In all of these instances, by paying with some cash, you’re effectively purchasing miles for ~$0.01 to ~$0.02 per mile.  This price is very reasonable and will help you maximize the utility from your United Miles.  So when you can, definitely consider using Miles & Money to book your award travel.

Where Can I Go With 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 or more United Miles?

For the most intrepid travelers, a common question I get is where can I go with 20,000 or 30,000, or 40,000 miles?  This is a question that’s not easily answered using a flight search engine since it asks you for a destination (which is exactly what you’re looking for!).  So here is a simplified guide that gives you your options depending on how many miles you have to use:

Economy Class Saver Awards (Roundtrip)

20,000 Miles

  • Most continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations

30,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations

40,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Central America

50,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Northern South America

60,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Northern South America
  • Southern South America
  • Europe

70,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Northern South America
  • Southern South America
  • Europe
  • North Asia
  • Japan
  • Oceania (Fiji, Tahiti!)

80,000 Miles

  • All continental United States, Canada, and Alaska Destinations
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Northern South America
  • Southern South America
  • Europe
  • North Asia
  • Japan
  • Oceania
  • Middle East
  • Central/Southern Africa
  • Northern Africa
  • Australia/New Zealand

I hope that helps jog your thinking around where to go with that mileage balance you’ve accumulated.  Remember, no matter where you’re traveling, double check your mileage rates against what you can get with a cash ticket on Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline.  If you’re ticket is less than $0.03 times the number of miles you’re going to use, just use cash and save your miles for next time

How Many United Miles Does It Take to Fly to New York?

The most common question I get is how many United Miles does it take to fly from the United States to [Insert Destination Here].  The rules are way too complicated as I’m sure you have gathered by now.  Here is the simplified version for travel from the United States to other destinations within the United States. 

For flights within the United States (that’s the continental United States and doesn’t include Hawaii and Alaska), there are two types of awards and two or three cabins of service.  The two types of awards are Saver awards and Standard awards.  You should think of Standard awards as “full-fare” similar to a full-fare regular ticket (with a price to match!).

Here are the current rates for one-way travel:

  • Saver Award / Economy Class: 10,000 to 12,500 miles for one-way travel
  • Saver Award / Business Class: 25,000 miles for one-way travel
  • Saver Award / First Class: 35,000 miles for one-way travel

One of the great things about the United Mileage Plus program for using United Miles is the ability to use mileage for a one-way trip at a reasonable price in miles.  For roundtrip domestic United States (continental United States), the United Miles required is simply double the one-way travel requirements.

Here are the current rates for round-trip travel:

  • Saver Award / Economy Class: 20,000 to 25,000 miles for one-way travel
  • Saver Award / Business Class: 50,000 miles for one-way travel
  • Saver Award / First Class: 70,000 miles for one-way travel

It is important to compare these rates to the rates that you get on a travel search engine like [Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline].  My rule of thumb is that if I can travel with cash for $0.03 or three cents per point instead of using my miles, it’s better to use cash rather than use my precious United Miles.  That means, if I can find a coach one-way ticket for less than $300 or a roundtrip ticket for less than $600, I’m probably going to use [Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline] rather than using my miles.

Since you can use miles for one-way travel, you can piece together a “multi-city” itinerary that goes through three or more cities at a very reasonable rate.  For example, it is possible to go from San Francisco to Houston to New York and back to San Francisco for as little as 30,000 miles if all three flights are available in Economy Class with Saver awards.  On many other airlines, an itinerary like that could cost north of 60,000 or more miles.

In the event that Saver awards are not available, “full-fare” Standard award tickets are the backup option.  These are much more frequently available, but they come at a hefty price (in United Miles).  

Here are the current rates for one-way travel on Standard tickets for United Miles:

  • Standard Award / Economy Class: 25,000 miles for one-way travel
  • Standard Award / Business Class: 50,000 miles for one-way travel
  • Standard Award / First Class: 70,000 miles for one-way travel

And here are the current rates for Round-trip travel on Standard tickets for United Miles:

  • Standard Award / Economy Class: 50,000 miles for roundtrip travel
  • Standard Award / Business Class: 100,000 miles for roundtrip travel
  • Standard Award / First Class: 150,000 miles for roundtrip travel

If you are limited to Standard rates, then it becomes much more likely that you can find a better cash deal for a flight on a travel search engine like [Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline].  Using the same $0.03 cents per point rule of thumb, if I can find a coach one-way ticket for less than $750 or a roundtrip ticket for less than $1,500, I’m probably going to use [Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline] rather than use up United Miles.

This summary is pretty much all you need to know regarding booking flights within the United States.  There are of course exceptions and the success you have with finding tickets at the Saver mileage redemption rate will vary, but before you start planning out all of your travel details, this should be a great start.