United frequent fliers to get miles based on ticket cost, not distance

United will change the way travelers accumulate frequent-flier points. Beginning in March, the awards will be based on the cost of a ticket, not on the distance flown.
(Alan Diaz / Associated Press)

Beginning next year, United frequent fliers will accumulate awards miles based on the cost of a ticket, not on the number of miles flown.

United‘s change is good news for those who buy expensive tickets (read: wealthy fliers and business travelers, especially those who fly at the last minute) and not so good for leisure travelers, who tend to be more price-driven.

The move will take effect March 1, 2015, according to its website. United is one of the largest carriers serving Los Angeles International Airport.

United follows in the footsteps of Delta, which recently announced a similar move to its SkyMiles program. The programs, in fact, are so similar, said Brian Kelly, whose website the Points Guy helps people navigate this complex world, that it appears “United basically copied and pasted Delta’s program … almost word for word.”


It’s important to note, Kelly added, that although United is following Delta, Delta also doesn’t implement its changes until 2015.

United’s website says this: “As of March 1, 2015, the award miles you earn on most United and United Express tickets will be based on your ticket price (that is, base fare plus carrier-imposed surcharges) instead of the distance you fly, so members will be rewarded for their travel spending on United. And when you have Premier status, you’ll earn even more.”

But what of the lowly leisure traveler who often accumulates his or her miles based on credit cards and a few trips per year? Is it worth it to try to get low-level elite (or Premier) status?

United earlier this year changed the “cost” of getting a flier ticket — that is, more points for the same ticket — so “when it comes to flying, don’t go out of your way to do a mileage run just to hit silver status,” he said of the lowest level of elite on United. “Save the money, fly on the carrier that has best price and on-time performance,” he said.


And service.

“I’ve been an advocate for elite status,” Kelly said. “The airlines are making it harder and harder to justify loyalty because [they keep] slashing … benefits.”

You might be better off being loyal to an airline that doesn’t charge huge change fees (Southwest) or allows free checked bags (Southwest or JetBlue) and whose regular seats are roomier than some upgraded seats on other carriers (JetBlue), he said as he cited those airlines.

And you might also be better off accumulating “convertible” points — that is, points that can be converted to airline miles on any airline. Among the credit cards that provide such miles, he’s a fan of American Express, Starwood hotels and Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Follow Hamm on Twitter at @CatHamm

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