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United Moves to Spend-Based Mileage Earning: An FAQ

In the least surprising announcement in quite some time, United is matching Delta and moving to a spend-based mileage earning program. To help you whine and complain in the best way possible, I’ve pulled together this FAQ:

Q: WTF?
A: You know how you used to earn miles based on the number of miles you flew? Yeah, that’s not going to happen anymore as of March 1, 2015. You’ll earn miles based on how much you spend (which really makes them points, not miles). If you have no status you get 5X the cost of the ticket; Silver gets 7X; Gold gets 8X; Platinum gets 9X; 1K gets 11X. This does not affect how many PQMs (what used to be Elite points) you earn.

Q: That’s on United tickets?
A: Yes, and on codeshare tickets issued by United (that would be ticket numbers that start with 016, if you care about that level of detail).

Q: What about fare class bonuses?
A: That’s built into that multiplier noted above.

Q: What about if I fly on a different Star Alliance carrier and I bought the ticket on that carrier’s website, but I credit to United?
A: Then you’ll earn the same way you were earning before.

Q: So, is this the worst thing that could ever happen?
A: No. Eliminating the program would be the worst thing. Or the best – I’m not really sure. In any case, United now joins Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America in having spend-based programs. The world is going in that direction, and I would be shocked if AA didn’t roll theirs out once they’re further along with the US Airways integration. They have bigger fish to fry.

Q: Shouldn’t I just earn on a different frequent flyer program if I fly United?
A: Sure, but then you won’t earn Elite status on United.

Q: Son of a bitch!
A: I know

Q: Does anyone actually benefit from this change?
A: Actually, yes. If you fly a lot of short-haul where flights can be expensive, then you may make out like a bandit. I used to fly $1100 tickets between Cleveland and White Plains. As a Gold member, that would earn me 8,800 miles a week. Damn! Also if you (or more likely your business) is flying you on international business class tickets, you’ll be racking up the miles. Well, up to 75,000 miles per flight. So yes, if you fly on a $9,000 ticket and you’re 1K, you will only (“only”) earn 75,000 miles for that ticket.

Q: F- this, I’m going to fly Delta, at least they’re investing in their product.
A: Go right ahead. Good luck redeeming those miles.

Q: Crap, you’re right. AA here I come!
A: If you want to redeem to the Caribbean and Latin America, fantastic! Good luck redeeming non-fuel surcharged award tickets to Europe or Africa.

Q: Crap again.
A: I know…things have changed, deal with it. UA is still a pretty good option for redeeming coach-class awards just about anywhere in the world.

Q: Isn’t it a little weird that you can easily manufacture miles through credit card spend, but actually earning miles through butt-in-seat flying, especially on cheaper tickets, is difficult?
A: Yes. But the airlines are basically now saying that if you’re flying on the cheapest fare buckets, we’re happy to have you seek out cheaper alternatives. Just give us your full-fare business. It’s not an insane strategy.

Q: At this point, aren’t people so angry and annoyed with UA management that there’s little they could do that people would be happy about?
A: Fixing a broken merger is difficult, and it’s more difficult when basically every airline around you is thriving. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

Q: So what are you doing in response to this?
A: Me? Nothing. Delta miles are useless. AA is a possibility, I guess, but I really do think that United’s miles (because I’m willing to redeem for coach awards) are the best option available. I’ll stick with what I’m doing and manufacture points through credit card churning.

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  1. Q: At this point, aren’t people so angry and annoyed with UA management that there’s little they could do that people would be happy about?
    A: Fixing a broken merger is difficult, and it’s more difficult when basically every airline around you is thriving. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

    Q: As you noted a few months back, investors aren’t happy. Is this a sign of a dying airline?

    • I don’t think they’re dying – the industry has been so consolidated that I can’t imagine United failing. But I think they’re going to have to very seriously consider shrinking themselves. I don’t know the financials to this level of detail, but I’d be shocked if getting rid of the Denver hub weren’t the right move. Staying out of the way of discounters seems to be the best option for everyone, and having Frontier & Southwest as major competitors there makes me think there are better ways to deploy those assets.

      At some point I’ll write up my thoughts on what I think they have to do….

  2. Changes You’re Going to Like | Traveling To… - pingback on June 10, 2014 at 1:34 pm
  3. Why not just manufacture spend/churn/buy Avianica miles? LAN, Flying Blue are good options in coach. I cannot think of a single reason to step on a United Plane post March 15th. You could reasonably fly the cheapest airline if you value $ or Virgin/JetBlue/Alaska if you want better service/seats. That’s not even counting Southwest which some people love(not me).

  4. What l care about most is status; i.e., choosing the least bad seat. Plus, my miles/dollar ratio is dead even, so this shouldn’t appreciably impact the miles I earn. Plus, if I really wanted miles, I could open a credit card or two. I’ll keep flying UA and keep using cash-back cards.

  5. This sure puts a damper on mileage runs. So much for calculating cpm on UA flights any more. Now we, or our companies, have to dish out the money for our status. No surprises here.

  6. For those of us who fly United Express short-hauls, we are applauding this change. A $456 round trip from GSP-EWR used to net 1188 miles for a non-elite member. Now it’s 2280.

    Even GSP-IAH, which averages $379 still minimally comes out even.

    It’s hard to find a trip to Europe for under $1,000 so that comes out even as well.

    Yes it puts a damper on mileage runs but does status really mean as much anymore? Certainly doesn’t to me as credit cards take care of checked-bag fees and boarding priority to grab the overhead bin space. All of the mid-level statuses are useless on most occasions for upgrades. So unless I was going for 1K status I am completely fine with these changes.

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