I got an email yesterday from a FFU Reader who asked:
I just got the United MileagePlus Explorer Card and in the Card Brochure it says that one benefit of the Card is that I can get any seat, any time with my miles. Yet when I call United and ask them about this, no one has any idea what I am talking about. Do you know how to redeem this benefit?
This is a great question and actually a topic I have been meaning to cover for a long time.
This benefit of being able to get “any seat, any time with miles” is called United Choices.
And to my knowledge, it isn’t something that either Chase and United actively promote anymore, although it can be extremely useful in select situations.
What Exactly Is United Choices?
Unfortunately for the Reader, the United’s marketing language makes it sound like with the United Credit Card you can magically get an Award Seat anytime, even if United.com is showing no Award Availability.
While this is somewhat true, you aren’t actually getting an “Award Ticket” that costs a fixed amount of miles.
United Choices is basically the ability to purchase a Revenue Ticket with your United Credit Card and then get reimbursed for the ticket by paying with your miles.
If that sounds confusing, I’ll explain more below, but basically it is very similar to Capital One or AMEX, in which they allow you to “Pay With Points” for your ticket.
This means there are no Blackout Dates because you can purchase any United Ticket you want and pay for it with Miles, hence “Any Seat, Any Time With Miles”.
Unfortunately that does not mean that it will still cost the same amount of miles, compared to booking a regular Saver Award Ticket via United.com.
I have used United Choices once in the past, so I will use that as an example to illustrate how this program works.
In Fall 2010, I decided to go visit 2 of my Cousins in Paris over Thanksgiving.
Coincidently, I was around 8,000 Miles short for re-qualifying for United Premier (Silver) status.
I had 60,000 United Miles from signing up for the old United MileagePlus Card, so I was originally just planning on using those for an Award Ticket to Paris.
Unfortunately, using Miles for an Award Ticket does not earn you any Elite Qualifying or Redeemable Miles, so if I did an Award Ticket, I knew I would not re-qualify for Status.
At the same time it was Thanksgiving, so fares were considerably high and it was hard to justify spending $900 to fly to Paris on a Wednesday evening and come back on Sunday.
Thus I decided to just go ahead and use miles because to be honest, Silver Status wasn’t worth spending $900 when I could go for free on miles.
Unfortunately again because it was Thanksgiving, there was no 60,000 Mile Saver Award Availability.
At that point, I thought just about not going until I literally stumbled across this United Choices program.
By using my Chase United Card and purchasing any United Ticket I wanted, United would reimburse me for my ticket at a ratio of 1 Cent per 1 United Mile.
So instead of being at the whim of Award Availability (in this case there was none), I was able to pick a direct flight to Paris after work on Wednesday and one that returned Sunday evening.
The flight was around $900 and because it was a real Revenue Ticket that I was purchasing from United.com, I would earn the 8,000 or so Elite Qualifying Miles I needed to re-qualify for United Premier Status!
So after I found the flight I wanted on United.com, I simply purchased it on my United Card.
After my flight was completed, I went to United.com/Chase and selected the “Air – Redeem Now” link.
It asked me to enter my Credit Card Transaction information, and how many Miles I wanted to redeem.
Even if you don’t have enough Miles to cover your entire Ticket Price, you can split it up and still get Credit for the amount of Miles you currently have.
So if your ticket was $900, and you only have 60,000 Miles ($600), then you would simply put in $600 and United will give you a Statement Credit for that amount.
I redeemed 60,000 United Miles (in the photo above I only have 30,000 miles in my account as of right now), so at 1 Cent per 1 United Mile, Chase credited me with $600 on my United Credit Card Statement and deducted 60,000 Miles from my United account.
What is hilarious is that because I used my United Card for the ticket purchase, I actually earned 2x United Miles on the purchase as well as 8,000 Elite Qualifying Miles and Redeemable Miles, all for only $300 out-of-pocket (-$900 Ticket + $600 Statement Credit)
This was really a steal because taxes and fees on an Award Ticket to Europe typically are $100- $150, so for an additional $150, I was able to pick out the flight that worked best for me, earned miles for my purchase, and earned miles on my flight that helped me earn Elite Status for the following year!
When To Use United Choices
If you are reading and wondering why everyone doesn’t use United Choices for every flight, since you can earn miles on your “Award Flight”, the truth is that United Choices is really only useful in specific situations.
The reason for this is because United is reimbursing you at a fixed rate of 1 Cent per 1 United Mile.
While this sounds good, when you redeem an Award Ticket the normal way on United.com, you can normally get anywhere from 2 to 5 Cents per 1 Mile, depending on what Cabin Class you are flying.
The reason for this is because on normal Award Tickets, United has a set amount of miles that you have to pay.
So for an Saver Award to Europe, it will cost you a flat 60,000 United Miles. The amount of miles needed doesn’t go up because the price of a Revenue Ticket on that exact same flight went up.
Therefore sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use United Choices because the normal Fixed Mileage Award Ticket is actually a better value.
For example, if you had 60,000 Miles in your United account and a Revenue Ticket to Europe during the Summer costs $1,500, it doesn’t make sense to use United Choices because you would still have to pay $900 out of pocket, whereas you could just redeem your 60,000 Miles via the normal process and get the entire flight for free.
That being said, the times when it is useful to use United Choices are when the Revenue Ticket Cost is below United’s Fixed Saver Award Cost.
We know that via United Choices, you can get reimbursed at a ratio of 1 Cent per 1 Mile , so we will use that as a baseline.
Domestic Award Ticket
Since we know that it takes 25,000 Miles for a Domestic Award Ticket, using your baseline of 1 Cent per 1 Mile, we know that any fare we find below $250 is an excellent opportunity to use United Choices.
Domestic Flights are the most likely to be prime candidates for United Choices because United charges a flat rate for travel anywhere in the Lower 48.
This is great if you need to go from NYC to LA and the fare is $500, however this can be a rip off if you just need to go a short distance like from LA to Seattle and the United Revenue Ticket is less than the cost of a Award Ticket (25,000 Miles = $250).
In those cases where the Revenue Ticket is less than the cost of using Miles, I’d always suggest using United Choices because it will save you Miles and earn you Miles at the same time!
So in this example I pulled, United wants 25,000 Miles for a Award Ticket from LA to Seattle but the United Revenue Ticket is only $210.
Since $210 is less than 25,000 Miles ($250 when converted at 1:1 ratio), I’d recommend United Choices because it would save you 4,000 Miles and you would get to earn miles on the flight!
European Award Ticket
Amount of Miles Needed For Economy Saver: 60,000 Miles
Use United Choices If Fare Is Below or Near: $600 – $800 (factoring in taxes)
Sub-$600 fares to Europe are rare these days, but if you can find them, then United Choices is a steal because you will actually save miles and earn Elite Qualifying Miles.
So if there is a $500 fare to Turkey (which I have seen often), if you did United Choices, it would only cost you 50,000 Miles (as opposed to the normal 60,000) and you would earn 8,000 EQM which technically then brings your out of pocket cost to only 42,000 (50,000 – 8,000), so almost 18,000 Miles less than a standard 60,000 Mile Saver Ticket!
As you saw in my Thanksgiving Paris example, even if the Revenue Ticket to Europe is more than $600 (60,000 Miles), United Choice can still be a great value because for an extra $100 or $200, you can earn 8,000+ Elite Qualifying Miles and Redeemable Miles.
Asia Award Ticket
Amount of Miles Needed For Economy Saver: 65,000 – 80,000 Miles
Use United Choices If Fare Is Below or Near: $650 – $1000 (factoring in taxes)
Fares to Asia are normally around $1,000 depending on when and where you are going, so United Choices can be an excellent tool to use.
My family goes to India often, so a normal fare is around $1,000.
An Economy Award Ticket to India costs 80,000 Miles + $150 in Taxes.
So by purchasing a Revenue Ticket for $1,000, for only $50 extra (80,000 Miles aka $800 + $150 in taxes = $950), you could earn 16,000 Elite Qualifying Miles and Redeemable Miles on your flight!
When United Choices Does Not Work
United Choices is pretty useless for Premium Award Travel because of the 1 Cent per 1 Mile redemption policy.
A Business Class Ticket to India costs either 120,000 Miles or around $5,000.
If you were to do United Choices and redeem 120,000 Miles, you would only get $1,200 back, so the $5,000 ticket would still cost you $3,800 and 120,000 Miles which is not a good deal..
If you just redeemed 120,000 Miles the normal way, then you would just pay the taxes on the flight.
There are a few limitations to United Choices so make sure you check them out before making your Revenue Ticket purchase.
1. Has to be a United Flight
Although this is a no-brainer, I am sure there are people who buy a cheap Jet Blue fare and then try to get United to reimburse them.
The best way to avoid any confusion about this policy is to just purchase your ticket directly from United.com.
This way you can also get 2x Miles on your purchase via your United Card.
2. Can Only Use Miles Earned On The United Credit Card
This rule is really stupid but you can only use United Choices for Miles earned by your United Credit Card.
I currently have 180,000 United Miles (if you include Ultimate Rewards), but only around 60,000 were earned from the United Credit Card.
So I can only get reimbursed for those 60,000 from the United Credit Card and not the full 180,000 United Miles I have.
If you check United Choices, it will tell you what your “United Choices Balance” is.
As you saw in my Thanksgiving example, you can buy a ticket worth more than your United Choice Balance and get reimbursed just for that portion.
Also Credit Card Sign Up Bonuses do count towards your United Choices Balance.
Hopefully if you weren’t familiar with United Choices before this article, you are now.
As I stated earlier, while it does have it’s limitations, United Choices can be an excellent tool to save you miles on your next United Award Flights.