Alternatives to UA Mileage Runs: United Choices

United Choices is a program to give you ways to redeem your United miles for other, more valuable benefits. Not necessarily at a good rate of return, but still things that are more valuable and especially to those who have more miles than what they know what to do with. I’m really not sure if this is the correct name for the program, but United Choices is as good as anything since that’s the URL address where you can learn more about the different options.

The one catch is that you can only redeem miles earned through spend on a co-branded United credit card. You also have to have the miles in your MileagePlus account. But… (and this is an important “but”) it doesn’t matter if you cash out your MileagePlus account and then build it back. The tally of miles earned through United credit card spend remains.

What it basically says is, you’ve earned 50,000 (or whatever) miles through credit card spend. You may use 50,000 of the miles in your MileagePlus account toward this program. If you don’t have those miles, you obviously can’t spend them. If you have many more, you are still capped at 50,000.

But let’s say you have 50,000 earned through a United credit card and have 100,000 total in your Mileage Plus account because you earned some more through travel. Then you redeem all 100,000 for some award flights. Then you earn another 50,000 back through travel. Your Choices balance remains intact, and you can now use them again. It isn’t until you spend your miles through the Choices program that the balance ever decreases. It’s sort of an invisible accounting system with a vague resemblance to the Flight Points balance in the Citi ThankYou Rewards program.

You can use your miles earned through the Choices program to pay for three things: a credit toward the cost of United revenue flights, a credit toward your credit card’s annual fee, or a conversion into Premier Qualifying Miles (basically a credit toward the cost of buying them).

MileagePlus redemption screenshot

A credit toward the cost of revenue flights works just like using ThankYou points or Ultimate Rewards points to pay for a ticket through the Chase or Citi travel agencies. The flights will still earn redeemable and elite qualifying miles. But since it’s a United program, you’ll only be able to redeem for United flights. Frankly, I think this is a bad deal unless its a really cheap flight that doesn’t have award space. Usually you can expect about 1 cent per mile. A good award redemption can range from 2 to 10 cents per mile. As for a credit toward the credit card’s annual fee, check back later today when I explain that in more detail.

The real value to some people is the opportunity to exchange their redeemable miles through the Choices program for Premier Qualifying Miles. If you have lots of RDM and not a lot of spare cash, this may make more sense than the Premier Accelerator program I described yesterday. The catch is you can only buy up to 5,000 PQM. Premier Accelerator has no cap but charges very high prices.

A few people confuse the Choices program with Flex EQMs from the old Presidential Plus credit card. This was Continental’s version of the United MileagePlus Club Visa before the merger and offered the chance to accrue elite qualifying miles that could be redeemed when you knew you would fall short.

People who already have this card have been grandfathered in, but new people cannot apply. And although they have been grandfathered, Flex EQMs cannot be used to earn Premier 1K status. They can only be used to earn up to 75,000 elite qualifying miles per year, the threshold for Premier Platinum. There is no restriction on using the Choices program to earn Premier 1K, and it is offered to all United credit card holders. This is why Choices is potentially more valuable, but you could combine it with Flex EQMs if you have that option and only want Platinum status.

Don’t forget that several United credit cards earn multiple miles per dollar spent. It isn’t like you need some huge amount of spend to earn enough to use the Choices program. The United Club card earns 2 miles on United purchases and 1.5 miles for every dollar on everything else. The United Select (another card no longer offered, but grandfathered for some) earns 3 miles for every dollar on United purchases. The United Explorer card earns 2 miles per dollar on United purchases. I have 40,000 miles in the Choices program, and I’m really not a heavy spender with either of my two United credit cards.

Premier Status redemption screenshot

The cost is 10,000 redeemable miles for every 1,000 Premier Qualifying Miles, with a cap of 50K for 5K. That sounds like a horrible ratio, even though redeemable miles are easy to get. If you value your miles at 2 cents each, it’s just like paying 20 cents per mile, which is comparable to Premier Accelerator. But it works for some people.

Think of it as the bonus for spending $33,334 on a United Club Visa, although you won’t have any miles left after redeeming them. Yes, that’s a lot of money. Hilton wants you to spend $40,000 a year on their cards to earn Diamond status, and this is only getting you 5% of the way toward top-tier status on United. But those of you who specialize in racking up spend on credit cards may find a way to make this work. If you have a lot of reimbursable United travel and have a United Select card to pay for it, then it’s only $16,667 of spend.

Sadly, I don’t see the new United offering many new credit cards that come close to the benefits they used to provide. I am glad at least that the Choices program remains an option for those who hold both new and old United credit cards.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • Ryan from MA

    A little confused. So if I earned 50,000 through credit card spend I have two sets of 50,000 one i can use towad award flights and another in the Choices program OR is it one or the other

    • Scottrick

      You can only redeem the miles in your MileagePlus account. But you can redeem up to 50,000 of them through the Choices program. Not all of them even if you have more you earned through travel.

      Imagine you have two columns, one for Choices and one for your MileagePlus account. If you earn a mile through a CC, add one to each column. If you earn a mile through travel, just add one to MileagePlus.

      Now when you redeem, if you redeem a mile through Choices, deduct a mile from each column. If you just redeem for an award ticket, deduct a mile only from MileagePlus.

      You can run your MileagePlus balance to zero without affecting your Choices balance. But you can’t redeem any points through Choices unless you have credit in both accounts. So if you run the MileagePlus balance down, you’ll have to earn some back. But you can earn them back any way you like as long as you still have a positive balance in the Choices program.

  • BFrankley

    This seems like such a poor value that you should only be mentioning it to warn us away. No?

    • Scottrick

      It’s not a good value. But it’s a decent offer if you are a person with more miles than cash. I’ve seen people waste their miles on far worse deals (think of the shopping catalogs that let you buy an iPad for 100,000 miles or something like that).

      I suggested this workaround partly as a way to show that it is still possible to buy a United Club membership with miles, something that many airlines still permit but United took away. By doing it this way, you can also get some other great cardholder benefits besides just the club members. And third, it provides a way for everyone to get a club membership for roughly 50K miles. Many other programs that still allow you to purchase a membership with miles require more than 50K if you don’t have top-tier status.

    • Jamie

      On the contrary, it’s an exceptional value if you find yourself 1776 miles short of what you need for the 1K mark, with tens of thousands of Flex PQMs on hand that don’t do you any good and no time to take another trip between now and the end of the year. ;-)

  • Jamie

    I really can’t thank you enough for posting this. The link you give to the Choices redemption page either doesn’t exist off of the main United page at all or is well hidden, and this opportunity is not mentioned by anyone at United (especially in cases where you’d expect it to be offered, like when they’re telling you that your thousands of Flex PQMs are worthless for 1K status).

    • Scottrick

      You’re welcome! Choices is a nice program. It isn’t the best value, but as you pointed out below, it has benefits that can’t be found anywhere else (including the ability to buy Club membership with miles via a United Club annual fee credit).

  • Dan

    Scott, great article! I know it’s been almost a year since you’ve written this… Did United get rid of the “Elevated Status” option under the “United Choices” for 2013? It seems that only “Air” and “Annual Fee” options remain. Thanks for your input.

    • Terre Harrison

      I just got off the phone with United and they said the option to purchase PQM is not available anymore. She told me that it might come back as a promotion towards the end of the year but as of right now, it’s not an option :-(

  • Paul

    Good article. I hope the opportunity to redeem comes back. I will keep an eye out, or notify us!