Over the past few years I've accumulated enough MileagePlus miles on United for a reward. I've never used miles before, and was wondering how to use them to get the most out of them. Is simply booking a reward ticket through United.com the best way to go? Or is there a more strategic way to spend miles?
For most Frequent Flyer programs, and especially for United Mileage Plus, the best use of miles is to use them for flights.
United's mileage flight cost is based on regions (with one exception which is distance based for flights less than 700 miles), so there are definitely some flights that are better value than others.
Firstly, there's 2 tiers of flights - "Saver" and "Standard". Saver awards are half the cost of Standard awards, but availability is limited, where Standard awards are available on any flight where seats are available for sale. Obviously this makes Saver awards a better option, but if you're looking at booking a ticket on a near-full flight, a Standard award still might be a good option compared to buying a very expensive paid ticket!
Next there's the class of ticket. You can book Economy, Business or First class tickets with miles - with Business or First being an amazingly good deal, especially for International. Business Class tickets cost only about 60% more than Economy, and First are only twice the Economy price. If you compare that to paying with cash, where business will normally be 3-10 times the economy price, and first even more, it's a great use of miles.
With the exception of flights less than 700 miles, all flights are priced in terms of regions. eg, anywhere in the US to anywhere else in the US is 25,000 miles return as a saver economy award. If you were to pay cash, that could cost you anywhere between (say) $150 and $1500 - obviously the best use of miles is when the flight is selling for a much higher price.
International flights are when things can become great value. eg, a return trip to Australia from anywhere in the US is only 80,000 miles in economy - only about 3 times the cost of a round trip within the US.
The region-based pricing, along with the ability to have a stopover on a return trip means that you can build some fairly good trips. eg, I recently flew San Francisco to Sydney, then Brisbane to Bangkok, to Singapore, to Hong Kong, and then back to San Francisco - all in Business class, on 4 different airlines, for only 135,000 miles. That's the same number of miles it would have cost to fly to Sydney alone - but due to the region concept I was able to come back via Asia for the same price as returning direct! Return bookings allow for one stopover and one open-jaw.
You can also book one-way awards, which are especially useful if flights are expensive in one direction, but cheap in the other. When comparing paid v's redemption flights, most people work on miles being worth about 2-3 cents each - if it's cheaper than that, just pay cash, otherwise consider using miles. eg, if a flight will cost 12,500 miles (one-way economy saver award), and you can buy it for $125, then pay cash! However if the same flight will cost $400 (ie, 3.2 cents/mile), then it's a good opportunity to use miles.
UPDATE: A few months ago United changed the prices for some of it's award flights. The biggest change was that some awards on "partner" airlines, especially in business/first class, now cost more than the United equivalents. Most everything above still holds, but in terms of best value for points, premium cabin flights on United airlines now work out cheaper than premium cabin flights on other partner/Star Alliance airlines.
I just did some basic math based on current united pricing.
Booked 2 months out, a round trip economy ticket from Seattle to Hawaii is $540, and lowest first class is $1,650.
Per milage cost is as follows (round trip) super saver: 45,000 miles (~83 points per dollar) standard economy: 90,000 miles (160 points per dollar) first class: 180,000 miles (109 points per dollar)
Now this is based on the cheapest ticket I could find and cheapest miles I could find for the flight 2 months out so it may not be equal for more expensive flights.
Then, I noticed on the redeeem miles page, you can get a $25 restaraunt.com gift certificate for 500 miles, or a $100 gift certificate for 2,000 miles, which works out to 20 points per $, which looks significantly better than flights.