United Airlines has become much more generous this year in selling miles, providing both more lucrative promotions and (as far as I can tell) loosing the criteria so that more people get matched to the best offer. Before the year is up you can now take advantage of a 4-day sale that offers a 100% bonus that brings the price down to just 1.88 cents per mile.
You must buy between 30,000 and 75,000 miles to earn the largest bonus; purchases less than 30,000 miles get only 50% more. Maxing out this offer for a total of 150,000 miles (including bonus) will cost $2,625 plus a 7.5% tax.
You should never pay the usual price of 3.76 cents per mile unless you really need a few extra miles to book an award. Most miles are worth, at most, about 2 cents each. I’d put United’s miles closer to 1.7 to 1.8 cents each. And while that makes it seem that you’re still paying too much, at 1.88 cents per mile I think there’s some leeway to buy the miles you need for an award rather than pay for the ticket. It really depends on the fare.
Domestic tickets in economy class cost just 25,000 miles round-trip. At 1.88 cents per mile, you would be better off buying miles through this promotion than paying for a fare that cost $470 or more. I’ve used awards on occasion for expensive transcon routes or when I need a last-minute ticket, as in the case of a funeral or a missed flight. Award space is often pretty good on short notice, though a $75 fee does apply if you book within 21 days of departure. (If you have elite status the fee may be reduced or waived.)
International tickets are usually an even better use of miles because you can buy miles and book yourself into business class for something close to the price of a coach ticket. This is highly dependent on what fares are like when you search.
For example, a round-trip business class ticket to Japan is 130,000 miles on United Airlines, and a similar award to Europe is 115,000 miles. That means it would cost $2,444 or $2,162 to buy the miles for a business class award ticket to these markets, plus some taxes and fees. (United doesn’t collect fuel surcharges on any award.) Coach might be between $800 and $1,600, so yeah, it’s more, but you’re probably paying less than you would for business class. Award tickets also permit a free stopover on round-trip itineraries so you can visit more than one city.
Check out United’s award chart for more information on pricing, and read my earlier post on United award routing rules for details on how to go about searching for award space. Next to Alaska Airlines, they’re one the more flexible mileage currencies available, and award space is still relatively easy to find compared to, say, American Airlines — although this is highly route dependent.