The largest alliance by far is Star Alliance. The alliance was founded on May 14, 1997 among five airlines across three continents: Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and United Airlines.
We’ll be focusing on United Airlines and their mileage program called United MileagePlus for now as these miles are easily accessible for most people here in the United States.
There are several ways to earn United miles. The first way is of course to fly with them. However unless you are a big spender that isn’t very lucrative. United doesn’t award miles based on miles flown, instead it is a combination of how much you paid for your ticket plus any elite status you may have as shown in the chart below:
The next option is to earn miles is through credit cards. Chase bank offers several co-branded credit cards that award United miles based on dollars spent on the card. They also offer cards with offer Ultimate Rewards points which can then be transferred to United Mileageplus if you have certain premier credit cards. Lets assume that you diligently met your sign up bonus and are now sitting on a nice cache of miles. How can you use them?
Well, the first thing to know is that these miles do not directly equate to distance. It is 2,454 miles from Newark Airport to Los Angeles International. This does not mean that you need to redeem 2,454 miles for that flight. In reality it is much more.
Most airlines have award charts which are charts that show how many miles you’ll need to travel from point A to point B. These are usually broken up into regions to allow for easier understanding. These amounts are usually fixed for set periods of time. Every so often these amounts will increase when the airline devalues their program.
Looking at United’s award chart here we see that it costs 12,500 miles one way to go anywhere in the mainland US, Alaska, and Canada.(You’ll likely have to open the image in a new tab or just Google United award chart, still figuring out image sizing)
Therefore if one wanted to fly from Newark to Los Angeles it would cost them 12,500 miles at the Saver rate. The keen observer shall notice that there is a column for the Saver rate and a column for the Standard rate. The Saver rate is what you should focus on as it’s cheaper one. Usually most flights will have a few seats at the Saver rate meaning that a lower number of miles is needed to redeem them. The Standard rate is often double the Saver rate but it is often more readily available. I don’t recommend using the Standard rate unless you really have to since they often require a considerable amount of miles.
I will follow up soon with a post going through some of the sweet spots within the United award chart. These sweet spots are redemptions that are considered undervalued or provide a lot of flight time for miles redeemed.