Beginners Guide to Redeeming Points – United Airlines (and Star Alliance)

Beginners Guide to Redeeming Points

 

Let me clarify something that many beginners don’t know or don’t understand. If you have miles with one Star Alliance airline member, you can redeem those points for an award ticket on ANY Star Alliance carrier, subject to availability. That means your United miles can get you reward tickets on Asiana, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, Thai Airways, or any other of the 27 members of the Star Alliance. Your United miles can get you from Seoul to Hong Kong on Asiana Airlines, for example.

There are quite a few different ways to earn points in a Star Alliance mileage program, and the easiest for Americans is with United Airlines. You can earn them with the United MileagePlus Explorer card (no, this is not an affiliate link) or any card that provides Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points (Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold/Plus, etc.). The Chase UR cards offer the ability to transfer those UR points into United miles, so keep this in mind if you need a Star Alliance flight.

To drill home the point, you have access to those same award flights if you have US Airways miles (which you can earn through their credit card), Singapore Airline miles (which you can transfer from American Express points), or Aeroplan (also from Amex). Again, there are lots of options to get Star Alliance points.

So let’s say you want to book a round-trip Business Class ticket from Los Angeles to Seoul and have 120K United Airlines points. Here’s what you need to do:

STEP 1: Go to United.com and search for availability

  1. I suggest searching one-way at a time because it’s easier to find flights that way. Once you know what flights you want, you can book both flights at the same time with a round-trip booking.
  2. You should click “My Dates are Flexible” in case there are no flights available on the date you choose. This will skip directly to a two-month calendar that will show you when flights are available.
  3. Select “Award Travel” at the bottom.
  4. Select your departure and destination airports, the month, and click “Search.”
As you make your selections, the search box will change from what's on the left to what's on the right. Just click search when you're ready to see some flights.

As you make your selections, the search box will change from what’s on the left to what’s on the right. Just click search when you’re ready to see some flights.

STEP 2: Pick a date that works for you

The calendar will be highlighted with different colors. Since you’re interested in Business Class in this example, you want to view only the dates highlighted in Green or Blue. Let’s say that January 15th is the date you choose. Click on that date.

Pick a date that works for you. I'm choosing January 15th for this example.

Pick a date that works for you. I’m choosing January 15th for this example.

STEP 3: View the available flights

You will see flights broken into three sections in this order:

  1. Nonstop flights regardless of carrier.
  2. Flights with at least one stop including at least one segment on United.
  3. Flights with at least one stop with all flights on foreign carriers.

Each of these sections will tell you if flights are available in Economy, Business, and First Class. You will also notice that each service class is broken into two columns: “Saver Award” and “Standard Award.” You should only be interested in the Saver awards.

Most people will want to pick a nonstop flight and only the Asiana flight has an award seat available in Business Class, so I’m going to pick that one (it’s 60,000 miles for the one-way plus $77.50 in taxes). Note that whether or not Business Class on that particular flight is worth it is a completely separate (advanced) topic since seats vary from carrier to carrier and even airplane to airplane within the same carrier.

This is a truncated list of the available flights. I'm going to select the only nonstop Business Class option.

This is a truncated list of the available flights. I’m going to select the only nonstop Business Class option.

STEP 4: Do the exact same for your return flight

Follow the exact same steps for your return flight from Korea to Los Angeles. I’m not going to show it here since it’s literally the exact same steps.

STEP 5: Once you’ve found both flights, do a round-trip search and book the flight.

Once you go through the award booking and select both flights, you’ll be taken to the “Review Trip Itinerary” page that will show you the final cost of your flight. In this example, flying to Asia with United miles in Business Class is 60K points each way plus taxes.

Note that I didn’t have enough miles in my personal account when making this post. United offers to let me purchase the extra 9,249 points for $350, or a rate of 3.8 cents per point. That’s a TERRIBLE deal, so don’t do that. If I did have enough points, my total cost would be the 120K points plus $121.10 in taxes and fees.

Also, I was charged an extra $75 since the first flight was within 21 days of booking and I do not have Elite status with United. If I booked more than 21 days in advance the taxes and fees would have been $46.10.

The total for this example would be 120K miles plus $121 in taxes and fees. DO NOT buy extra miles at the rate they offer!

The total for this example would be 120K miles plus $121 in taxes and fees. DO NOT buy extra miles at the rate they offer!

STEP 6: Enter passenger information and you’re done!

That’s it! Simply enter the passenger information and your award ticket will be booked.

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What if I have American Express Membership Rewards Points?

As I mentioned at the start of this post, having points with any Star Alliance carrier’s program will enable you to book flights on any of the Star Alliance carriers. If you happen to have a ton of Amex points, you’re in luck. Singapore Airlines and Air Canada Aeroplan are one-to-one transfer partners of Amex, so you can book those exact same flights using your Amex points!

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

STEP 1: Search for your flight

We already did our search using United.com in the above example, so we know exactly which flights we want. You should write down the dates and flight numbers of the flights you want to make booking easier later on.

STEP 2: Transfer your Amex points to your Singapore Airlines account

I won’t go through the entire process with images since it’s pretty self explanatory already, but I’ll explain the steps below.

  1. Login to American Express and Click on “Rewards” at the top.
  2. At the bottom left, click on “Points Summary.”
  3. Click on “Use Points” and then “…more Travel.”
  4. Click Transfer Points.
  5. Select Singapore Airlines and link your account if it isn’t already.
  6. Transfer as many points as you need to. Based on the Singapore Airlines award chart, you’ll need 175K points for this example. Note that this is NOT worth it unless you have tons of Amex points. As you saw above, it’s only 120K United points for the same exact award!

STEP 3: Call Singapore Airlines to book your award

Unfortunately, Singapore Airlines partner awards cannot be booked online as with United miles. You can get the same exact flights, but you’ll just have to call in to get them.

Since you wrote the flight numbers and dates down earlier, just call (213)-404-0301 and you can book your flights. Note that Singapore Airlines will charge different (likely higher) taxes for this award. So that means you’ll be charged higher points and higher taxes/fees than booking with United points. I do not recommend booking this type of flight using Amex/Singapore Airlines points unless you’re ultra-rich in Amex points.

 

AEROPLAN

STEP 1: Search for your flight

Aeroplan  has a pretty decent award booking website. You can search either using United.com or directly with Aeroplan, but I find that United.com is more user friendly. Once you know your flights, you can go to Aeroplan and find the same flights to book.

  1. Log in to your Aeroplan account.
  2. Under “Use Your Miles” click on “Travel.”
  3. Enter your search parameters and click “Search.”
Search for the exact same dates as we did for United.

Search for the exact same dates as we did for United.

STEP 2: Transfer your Amex points to Aeroplan

Again, pretty self-explanatory.

  1. Login to American Express and Click on “Rewards” at the top.
  2. At the bottom left, click on “Points Summary.”
  3. Click on “Use Points” and then “…more Travel.”
  4. Click Transfer Points.
  5. Select Aeroplan and link your account if it isn’t already.
  6. Transfer as many points as you need to. Based on the Aeroplan award chart, you’ll need 125K points for this example. Much more reasonable than Singapore Airlines!

STEP 3: Book your flight

Thankfully you can book online through Aeroplan’s website. You’ll be able to find your flights after you click “Search” in Step 1 above. It will summarize your purchase to show 125K Aeroplan points are required, but there are going to be hefty taxes and fees.

Aeroplan charges a very expensive fuel surcharge on almost all award tickets. They recently changed their website to no longer show these fees and taxes unless you already have the points in your account, which really sucks for us. Unfortunately there’s no way around it, except that the fuel surcharge is not charged on all airlines. Some of those airlines include United, Turkish, EgyptAir, Scandinavian, Brussels, and South African.

If you do decide to book through Aeroplan, all you’ll need to do is enter your passenger information and your tickets are booked.

Aeroplan is lame since they no longer show taxes/fees unless you have the points in your account.

Aeroplan is lame since they no longer show you the taxes/fees unless you already have the points in your account.

Congratulations!

You now know the basics of booking Star Alliance award flights. If you need more information or feel like you want more advanced topics, you can click to the articles below.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Do you have to pay for the tax separately? Not included with pts redeemed. Pls. Clarify.

    • Travel Summary says:

      Hi Anne – Yes, taxes are paid in addition to the points. If you have points with the American carriers (i.e. United, American, US Airways, and Delta) the taxes are very minimal, under $100 total for the round trip. Other programs, such as Singapore Airlines and Aeroplan noted above, pass along much more in taxes and fees and you can see charges from $250 all the way up to $1K in addition to all your points. It really depends on 2 things: 1) what program you’re booking the award with, and 2) what airlines you’ll fly on the award.

      If you have a specific redemption in mind, let me know and I might be able to ballpark the taxes!

  2. GREAT POST!!! I love breaking it down to simple.

    I wish there was a better directory of topics across the board. What happens is sometimes, months after a post I’m looking for information – lets say – on the basics of a progrram. I have to spend a lot of time googling around till I find a good post.

    now, that would be a project!

    • Travel Summary says:

      Thank you! I’ve had the same problem and attempted to create a repository of information similar to what you’re referring to, but it’s much easier said than done. Instead I’ve decided to just create beginners guides that will hopefully be useful and can be found in one place.

  3. This was super-helpful. I was looking on United.com for award flights to Peru for a South American trip. I would have saved so much time if I’d had this handy. Saving this for future reference.

  4. Hi, I’m a newbie with my first weird United Award. We only have enough miles for a one-way back home (we are paying to go to Asia). Here’s what we want to do: PEK>ZUR (23 hours)>VIE (23 hours)>IAD for 32,500 miles pp. All the individual segments are available, but when I add more segments than PEK>ZUR…it gives me an error. Do you know how I can book this weird award without incurring the fee for calling? Thanks so much for any help.

    • Travel Summary says:

      Hi Lively – edit: See Amol’s response below, I was mistaken with what I wrote earlier!

      I’m not the best at complex redemptions like you’re attempting, but I suggest asking Ben from One Mile at a Time on this page: http://boardingarea.com/blogs/onemileatatime/need-award-help/. He’s usually pretty quick to respond and if he can’t help you, then it probably can’t be done!

    • Your award is PEK-IAD, which allows routing via Europe. As long as your stopovers in ZRH and VIE are 23h59m or less, it’s a valid routing. The website hiccups a lot so calling in is the best way to go. Put your PEK-ZRH or PEK-ZRH-VIE on hold (whichever one allows you to hold, and do it with the “pay by phone” option, which will hold it), then call in to say that you want to add ZRH-VIE and VIE-IAD to the award. It should reprice, and agents follow what the computer says — ask the agent to keep it on hold, then go back online and ticket it there.

  5. Julianna says:

    This post is amazing! Thank you for the help!

    Is there a place where I can find how many miles it takes to go to certain areas. For example if i have 80,000 miles where would my options be? Or, as an alternate – if I have a certain place in mind, like Boston to LA or even Hawaii – how many miles would I need to have to book trips? Is there a table or something that exisits and I just can’t locate it?

    • Travel Summary says:

      I don’t know of a tool that can tell you how far you can get with 80K miles (though I believe some are being developed), but I can definitely point you toward the United Award Chart. Click the link below and you can select the region you’re departing from and where you want to go, and the required number of miles will display at the bottom of the page (note this won’t show exact taxes). Alternatively, you can simply do a quick search for that particular award on United.com as I showed above and it will show the miles and exact taxes required.

      http://www.united.com/web/en-US/apps/mileageplus/awards/travel/awardTravel.aspx

  6. Thank you, this is very useful.

    But I do want to point out that perhaps you should put a quick note about some cases when having non-United miles can be valuable/necessary.

    I believe that Singapore’s first-class/suite award inventory isn’t accessible to other airlines anymore (not sure about all routes but for my IAH-DME route, it makes no sense to redeem business class award as first-level is only a bit more expensive). In that case, having SA’s KrisFlyer miles is the only way to go. SPG finally changed SA to 1:1 ratio (well, 1.25 if you include 5K bonus for every 20K block transferred) and you can transfer miles from regular AMEX Membership points.

    Also, I’d read that Lufthansa/Swiss don’t release first-class award space to partners until 2 weeks out (or less) so that makes it impossible to book an advanced trip in first-class. LH’s program Miles & More is also a transfer partner of SPG at 1:1 ratio and there is a Barclays card with a sign-up bonus for M&M.

    • Feel silly for replying to myself but since no edit function is available, what the heck :)

      Forgot to add that booking through Singapore’s site gives a 15% discount when it comes to miles. No help when booking their partners, of course, but a nice chunk of miles savedif you want to try their premium-class product.

      • Travel Summary says:

        Thanks for pointing this out. Yeah, Singapore is not available for booking in Business or First class on any desirable (i.e. long-haul and nice planes) routes. Having Amex points is the only way to go if you want first/suites class, but they are expensive even despite the 15% discount.

        An alternative would be to purchase Avianca/Taca miles at 1.5 cents each. While still expensive, it’s still much cheaper than other miles or than booking with Singapore directly AND you have access to Singapore Business Class on long-haul routes, including the A380.

        Lufthansa first is only available to United at the 15 day mark, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any Swiss first availability. Business is a little easier to come by. But no doubt, having actual Miles & More miles gives you A LOT more access!

        • Thank you for your response! Didn’t know Avianca/Taca had access to business class in SQ but I will keep it in mind :)

          I suppose I’m lucky that Houston-Moscow route is relatively cheap — I sent my mom first-class a month ago for 57,375 points one-way (after 15% discount). Theoretically, that works out to 45,900 SPG points given 1:1.25 ratio. In practice, transferring 60,000 SPG points converts into 75,000 KF miles which are just enough for 1 first-class + 1 economy redemption (plus $850 or so in taxes+fees for RT). Given SQ quality and the fact it’s the only direct flight from Houston to Moscow, I’d gladly pay 2-2.5 cents per SPG point and would still feel like I’m getting a good deal (guess I’m not a hardcore mileage expert).

          One thing I absolutely loved about dealing with SQ award process is flexibility and no silly fees. There were no charges for close-in booking, no charges for changes made by midnight of the day before departure (i.e. less than 24 hours), and even a last-minute changes are ~$75 (can do it up to 4 hours before departure).

          In contrast, BA policies are not nearly as friendly (second leg of her trip was with S7 using Avios). I suppose it’s still cheaper than some other companies but for every change they’d deducted $60 (or 65, I forget) and had a strongly enforced no changes within 24 hours of departure policy. Thankfully, every change cost me $9 because that’s how much taxes+fees were but it still hurt.

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  8. Mike Bloomberg says:

    To the author of the article: what do you base the following statement on? “If you have miles with one Star Alliance airline member, you can redeem those points for an award ticket on ANY Star Alliance carrier, subject to availability.”

    The FAQ section of Star Alliance’s website says the following:

    “Q. Can I transfer miles or points between Star Alliance airline member programmes?
    A. No. Once you have earned miles / points in one programme, you are not able to transfer that balance to another programme within the alliance. All programmes remain independent.

    Q. Can I combine miles or points for free tickets?
    A. No. Miles / points cannot be combined between Star Alliance airline frequent flyer programmes.”

    • Travel Summary says:

      It’s true that you cannot transfer miles between different Star Alliance accounts. You can, however, book a flight on ANY Star Alliance member airline from any Star Alliance account. Your miles in a United account can book award flights on Turkish Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Air New Zealand, and all the others (subject to availability). You don’t need to transfer the miles to another account – the miles can be redeemed directly from your United Airlines account.

      Similarly, a person with miles in their Turkish Airlines account can book award flights on all other Star Alliance member airlines. Each airline will have a different award chart and different award rules, and possibly even different availability. Since each airline has different award charts and rules, it makes sense that they also not allow you to combine points between accounts (not all points are created equally).

      This isn’t a perfect analogy, but think of it like real-life currency. US Dollars and Turkish Lira are both currencies specific to their respective countries, and thus they are not worth the same amount.

  9. This is an excellent post! Thank you so much for your time and effort!

    Just one question:
    When I have miles/points lets say from Lufthansa and want to book a flight with United using the Lufthansa miles/points – can I directly do this through the United booking system or do I have to engage in any regard with Lufthansa membership guys before?

    Best,
    Axel

    • Travel Summary says:

      You’ll have to book through Lufthansa’s Miles & More program. The rule is always that you have to book using the award chart and rules of the program you have the points with, so the same rules I outlined here may not apply.

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