United Airlines Reward Cards, Time To Eject?


When other frequent travelers hear that I live in Denver, they presume I must be a frequent traveler with United. The truth is that I once was, but I no longer am. It was both their reputation for poor service, as well as my personal experiences that caused me to swear off the airline and their frequent flier program.

Their Latest Offer, 40,000 Miles

Now, United has been offering 30,000 miles or even 40,000 miles as a sign up bonus for it’s rewards card. It appears that the 40,000 miles card is a targeted offer. You get 20,000 as a sign up bonus when you spend $750 dollars, and another 20,000 on your first anniversary. The annual fee of $60 is waived your first year.

Will United Last Another Year?

Mark Ashley, over at the Upgrade Travel Better blog, mentioned back in September that United has purchased oil futures, known as hedging, when oil was at it’s highest point. His conclusion is that United has been raising fees as oil prices have been plummeting in order to cover up it’s bad bets on the market and shift its losses to its customers. Now, travel expert Peter Greenberg suggests that United is loosing money so quickly, it might not last much longer.

Ashley agrees, and suggests it is time to get rid of empty your MileagePlus account immediately. His suggestion is to book reward travel on United’s partners, who would almost certainly honor reservations that have already been ticketed.

Even If They Survive, Is It Worth It?

Their program is being seriously devalued at the start of next year, with fees and “award co-pays” rising almost as fast as I can write about them. Here is an article in the Consumerist about a lifelong fan of the once great airline. He documents his struggle to use an award ticket. Ultimately, the fees charged exceeded the value of the “award,” and he, like myself, has committed to never flying them again.

If you are unlucky enough to fly with them, here you can expect flight attendants who rudely refuse to assist passengers or worse. In my final experience flying on United, my wife and I were lied to repeatedly and treated like second class passengers because we were traveling on award tickets. It was an eternal struggle just to get them to seat my wife and I together, and this was the service we received from their international business class!

My Latest Attempt To Use My Remaining Miles Fails

With 14,000 miles left in my account, I attempted to find an award, any award that can be redeemed for some value. The best award I could find, was a two day free car rental at National. I found this award page that showed four different rental companies that I could redeem an award for. I first made my reservation at National, but there was no award code listed on the web page. I wanted the code for the reservation before I confirmed the award, as all rentals aren’t eligible, and United’s web page makes clear that once the award is redeemed, it cannot be returned.

I called United and was eventually given some code that the people at National had never heard of. By the way, I love calling United. First the automated system asks you for you MileagePlus number, then you speak with a person. The first thing the person always asks for is, surprise, your MileagePlus number! I always tell them that the number is the same one I just entered, but they persist.

I called United back again, explained the situation, and was given a completely different explanation. They told me that the award is redeemed after the rental and then a refund is given. Finally, I decided to just redeem the award and try get rid of my miles while I still could. Only then was I informed that this offer was only available to elite members, something that their “customer service” people wouldn’t tell me no matter how many times I gave them my non-elite MileagePlus number.


There are many reward travel cards offered by many airlines. When choosing a card, you are making an investment in both the continued survival of the airline, as well as in the value of the award you hope to receive. When the airlines service is so remarkably poor, and their survival is in doubt, it is time to cash in your miles and find a new reward card.

Editor’s Note: – Even if you fly United, you can still earn frequent flier miles that are part of the Star Alliance program. For this reason, (if you fly United), you would inevitably better off getting a card like the Starwood Preferred Guest or allows you to transfer miles one on one for most airlines to other Star Alliance Partners.

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3 Responses to “United Airlines Reward Cards, Time To Eject?”

  1. marilyn Litman Says:

    I had been planning to go to CT On the 31st of Aug to Aug 3,2009 to attend my 45 class Reunion. Aug 1 is also my birhtday. I used 50,000 miles so that I could get a free trip.

    Just a few minutes ago I recievied an e-mail that not enough people responded and so they are canceling the event.

    Can I get my miles back please. I am so sorry about this turn of events.

    Thank you in advance for any assistance you may provide.

    Marilyn Litman

  2. Mark Gwilliam Says:

    Great post, thanks. It seems that UA have lost the plot.

    In the last ten years, I have learned numerous lessons managing my own businesses and consulting to my clients (I have also worked for several large financial institutions) and by far the single most critical lesson is ensuring that customers stay happy. The logic for this is watertight.

    Marketing consultants will tell you it costs anything from more to gain a new client than maintain an existing one. According to some, reducing customer defections by as little as 5% may result in more profits of between 25% and 125%

  3. Denos P. Marvin Says:

    Hi, Jason: I’ve just read your 2008 post about the probable Ch. ll
    event for UAL.> > Only two weeks ago, using our mileage plus points, my wife and I booked for May, 2010, RT’s to Norway with UAL. From Frankfurt to Bergen we’ll be flying Lufthansa. I gather from your article I could have done all the flying on Luftansa from the git go. Right? Also, a few weeks ago UAL was offering 30,000 MP’s if you recommended a visa card purchase to another person, and that new account person would receive mileage in the thousands as well. Are they still offering that deal and if so might you provide me with a link?

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