Introduction

For higher flyers, United Airlines arguably offers the greatest potential for enhancing your travel experiences and flying higher. Not only is it the best among the Big 3, it’s also one of the best in the world. That might come as a surprise; if you can forgive the public relations disasters of the past year, you’ll be treated to substandard accommodations across all cabin classes throughout the fleet, and dreadful Basic Economy if you buy the cheapest possible ticket. So why does United receive such high praise? Because it has one of the best loyalty programs in the industry. With decently priced awards and good amounts of availability, plus access to Star Alliance carriers, United grants its loyal account holders access to some of the best opportunities out there. It makes higher flying so much more lucrative, and more importantly, so much easier.

Key Facts

  • Name: United Airlines
  • Code: UA
  • Website: www.united.com
  • Domestic Hubs: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver International (DEN), Houston Intercontinental (IAH), Los Angeles International (LAX), Newark Liberty (EWR), San Francisco International (SFO), Washington Dulles (IAD)
  • Destinations: 342
  • Alliance: Star Alliance
  • Loyalty Program: MileagePlus
  • Loyalty Tiers: (1) Premier 1K, (2) Premier Platinum, (3) Premier Gold, (4) Premier Silver

Three Notable Features

  • MileagePlus: United’s loyalty program is one of the best of its kind in North America, second only to Alaska Air’s Mileage Plan. Earnings rates are generous, and unlike American AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles, the currency has valuable and practical uses. Prices for award tickets are competitive, and availability at the saver level is consistent. If you’re willing to be flexible with your trip dates, you’re likely to always be able to find cheap redemptions on United and its Star Alliance counterparts. As is the case with Alaska Airlines, MileagePlus plays a huge role in its owner’s business model. The program is designed to attract new customers to fly United, whereas other carriers treat them merely as added bonuses for returning passengers. The United management prioritizes a strong loyalty program and appropriately invests a lot in it. Higher flyers can take advantage of the opportunities that come from that in order to elevate their travels in ways that are unfeasible elsewhere.
  • Star Alliance Member: While United itself isn’t a particularly exciting airline, it has a number of renowned Star Alliance partners. Thanks to frequent flyer miles and the MileagePlus program, higher flyers have the ability to redeem their United points for much more glamorous experiences, like First Class on Thai Airways or Lufthansa.
    thai first class.jpg
    Thai Airways First Class
    lufthansa first class
    Lufthansa First Class

    Fuel surcharges are hardly enforced on partner award tickets either, and when they are, they’re usually pretty reasonable. The perks that come with status on United are also fully reciprocated by its partners. In practice, this means that you’ll have a consistent trip from start to finish, and when you add in benefits that come from the “Move Under One Roof” initiative, you (and your bags) won’t have to worry about missing a connection.

  • Coming improvements: United’s current business class product looks like this:
    United Polaris First Review
    Business class on a United 777

    Sure, those seats are nicer than what you might get in Economy Class, but when they’re compared with counterparts and competitors, like on American…

    american airlines business class
    Business Class on an American 777

    …Or on Delta…

    delta new business class a350
    Business Class on a Delta A350

    …Or on Singapore…

    singapore business class
    Business Class on a Singapore 777

    …It’s clear that United lags behind the pack. While American, Delta, and Singapore have their cabins in a spacious 1-2-1 configuration, United opts to cram double the amount of people in, using a 2-4-2 layout instead. The seats are only marginally wider than those in the back of the plane. Thankfully, United will catching up quick with its new Polaris product. It was introduced late last year, and will be expanding to the entire long haul fleet in the coming years.

    united polaris
    Polaris Class, coming soon to the entire United fleet!

    Obviously, this represents a huge step up, and United will also be working to rejuvenate the airport experience too. Polaris lounges, which feature complimentary gourmet meals (available a la carte or buffet), will soon be coming to a number of hubs and replacing the tired, mediocre United Clubs.

    united polaris lounge dining.png
    Polaris Dining

    United frequent flyers have a lot to look forward to in the coming years; their trips are going to get a lot more comfortable. The new seat and service model looks to be competitive not just in North America, but in the entire world.

Three Notable Drawbacks

  • Mediocre travel experience: Polaris Class, since its debut in December 2016, is receiving stellar reviews. That said, more than six months later, you can only fly the new Polaris seat on two routes: San Francisco to Hong Kong, and Newark to Tel Aviv. Next month, a third will be added between San Francisco and Taipei. As for the rest of the long haul fleet, you’ll have to wait several years before all of United’s 777s and 767s are refurbished to feature it. Until then, get ready for more seats like this…
    united old business class
    Business Class on the United 787, as shown here, isn’t as bad as it is on the 777, but it doesn’t compare to the alternatives

    And food like this…

    united old business meal.jpg
    Meh.

    And lounges like this…

    united old lounge.jpg
    OOH! Crowded and uninspiring!

    If you’re used to United, then that means more of the same for a few years while United installs its new products. For those looking to fly United more, you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed by what you find. Thank God for the other Star Alliance carriers…

  • Scammy Basic Economy: United started offering a new type of ticket this year for budget minded passengers, the Basic Economy fare. It’s like regular economy, but with heavy restrictions, such as no overhead luggage, no seat selection, and worst of all, no mileage accrual. Despite that, this was touted as an improvement because, to use executive marketing-speak, it enables consumers to choose exactly what they want on board and it makes United more competitive with low cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit.
    united sucks artwork.jpg
    Flying in Basic Economy Class is about as much fun as flying on this plane

    In reality, this is an opportunity for United to jack up the prices of standard Economy Class tickets. That isn’t some extraordinary claim either; fares haven’t actually been lowered in any of the markets that United serves, but a non-Basic Economy seat costs more than it did last year. Hypothetically speaking, imagine you could fly between two cities for $200 in July 2016. In July 2017, a Basic Economy ticket on that same route would also cost $200, but you could upgrade to standard Economy for 10% more. I know airlines need to make money, but…….

  • Fewest hubs of the Big 3: Compared to American and Delta, United doesn’t have as many hubs. It has 7, while its competitors both have 10 apiece. While this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things, it does make it slightly more inconvenient to consistently travel on United, especially if you live outside one of its hub markets. You may have to travel a little bit further, or make a connection if you live in a smaller town or in the South. Being loyal and earning status happens to cost a little bit more than it otherwise would, and you might not have access to as many amenities at your home airport. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that United is also undertaking a flight reorganization project at its Houston base, and depending on how well it goes, it could be coming to the other airports. As the system adjusts, there might be issues with delays, cancellations, and missed connections — beware!

Three Special Opportunities

  • Good award availability: Unlike the other two carriers in the American Big 3, United usually releases a boatload of award tickets priced at the saver level. If you are willing to be flexible with your travel dates, so give or take three days around your intended departure date, you’ll be able to find seats for almost any itinerary. Simply go to United’s website and search for the trip you want. You’ll be presented with a calendar, and the dates with solid lines through them means that there are saver tickets in Economy for sale, and dotted lines signify saver availability in premium cabins. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying on one of United’s premier international routes or some obscure domestic hop, you’ll have options.
    united mileageplus award availability sfo-tyo
    Award availability on United flights between San Francisco and Tokyo, one of the carrier’s premier routes. Note that January 6th is the only day without any saver redemptions.
    united mileageplus award availability sce - abq
    Even between two seemingly random airports, State College (SCE), Pennsylvania and Albuquerque, New Mexico (ABQ), there’s consistent award space.

    If you were to compare your options between United, American, and Delta, you’d certainly find saver level tickets on all three carriers. However, United more often than not has the most options available. It makes higher flying that much easier.

  • Free Stopovers & Open Jaws: MileagePlus allows a lot of unique booking options on its award tickets as part of its new Excursionist Perk. Introduced in October 2016, it allows higher flyers to travel outside of their home regions, stop and explore one destination, and then continue on to another one. From there, they can fly home. Even though there would be three legs as part of that trip, you only have to spend the miles required for two of them; the first intra-regional flight is free.
    united was-waw-mad-was excursionist perk
    You can book this routing on a single United award ticket, and the leg between Warsaw and Madrid would be free!

    When people redeem miles for an Excursionist itinerary, it’s usually just for a shuttle flight within the region. That said, there are some rather notable loopholes! Tiffany over at One Mile At A Time wrote a great analysis of what’s possible with the perk (you should read it if you want to learn more!), and let’s just say that you can get really creative if you want…

    united was-waw mad-was syd-akl excursionist perk.gif
    United doesn’t mandate where the free intra-regional flight must occur. The above itinerary is permitted by MileagePlus, Sydney to Auckland routing and all!

    There is so much untapped potential for higher flyer adventures thanks to this perk, and you don’t have such opportunities on most other carriers.

  • Partner redemptions: United charges more for partner awards than it does for its own — transatlantic business class costs 57,500 miles on United metal and 70,000 on Star Alliance metal for example — but it’s still a fair trade off. You can fly a product that usually sells for more than $20,000 in exchange for a chunk of MileagePlus points. Because the alliance is absolutely stacked with elite airlines, you have that many more opportunities to enjoy one of the best travel experiences in the world. All of the perks you’re entitled to as a United customer still apply, so you can utilize Excursionist benefits while redeeming saver award tickets. It’s just another example how easy, and fun, United MileagePlus makes it to be a higher flyer.
    swiss business class
    Use United MileagePlus miles to fly Swiss Business Class to and from its Zurich hub!

    There are just so many things you can do; enjoy!


As is the case with the other airlines, United has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While it’s one of my favorites, that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes United unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.