I received a letter from a reader who wants to know his options for “breaking up” with United Airlines — including whether it’s possible to transfer United miles out of United MileagePlus and into another rewards program — after what sounds like a truly horrible experience with the airline over the holidays. Here’s the full letter:
During our holiday travel my girlfriend and I missed 2 connections in 2 days on United. While I understand that these things happen, especially in winter, their handling of the delays was incompetent: they tried to strand us in our first connecting airport (Dulles) for 2 days and when we finally got a new reservation, wouldn't re-book us when it became apparent we'd miss our next connection - their policy being, apparently, to always tell you you'll make it. We only made it home when I called the reservations line and escalated to a supervisor. My question concerns "breaking up" with an airline, and what to do with the miles I've accrued with them. I don't have status, but have their branded Explorer credit card. Should I switch to something like a Sapphire Preferred? If so, what can I do with the couple hundred thousand miles I've got with United? Is it possible to transfer them to Ultimate Rewards or another loyalty program? Lastly, is doing so wise or realistic given how few carriers we now have here in the U.S.? Any insight you have is appreciated. Keep up the great work! Thanks, John
First off, I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience. I’ve had one or two of these things happen to me, but never so many at once and during the same trip. You would think they would know how to treat their customers better, especially those carrying their branded credit card.
Now let’s try to address your situation and look at your options by answering a few of the questions wrapped up in your letter.
1. Can I Transfer United Miles Into a Bank Rewards Program Like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards?
The short, simple answer to this is “no.”
I am not aware of nor am I able to find an option for transferring miles out of the United MileagePlus program and into a bank rewards program. It does look like United is testing a new program wherein members can transfer miles to Marriott Rewards, though it’s only for members with elite status, and the transfer would more than likely end up devaluing your miles, as Marriott points simply aren’t as valuable at United miles, with possible rare exceptions.
Points.com does offer a service where you can trade miles with other users, though United miles are not eligable and trades of miles from eligable programs are subject to the terms and fees of the airlines.
The site also has a feature that allows you to transfer points and miles between your own loyalty accounts, though again United is not included and the terms are quite unfavorable in most available cases regardless.
Finally, I suppose if you wanted out of United miles badly enough, you could consider trading them with someone outside of an exchange like Points.com for miles in a different program. But if you do this, you’ll incur some of the highest transfer fees I’ve seen just to transfer the miles. According to United’s website, transferring miles between United accounts costs $15 per 1,000 miles plus a $30 flat fee and accounts can only receive 25,000 miles per year. At this rate, you’d completely lose the value of your United miles.
Generally, transferring airline miles — even between friends or family members — causes you to incur fees. However small these are, they can significantly eat into, or in many cases erase, the value of your miles. Some bank rewards programs, such as Chase UR, do allow no-fee, 1:1 transfers of points between card users, which is a nice feature. But as for whether or not you should switch to a bank rewards card and begin accumulating points there instead, I’ll address that shortly.
2. What Can I Do With The United MileagePlus Miles I’ve Accumulated?
Here’s where the good news is hiding. United is a member of the Star Alliance, meaning you can use your United MileagePlus miles to book flights on more than 30 airlines, including Adria, Aegean, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Austrian, Avianca/TACA, Brussels Airlines, Copa Airlines, Croatia Airlines, EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines, EVA Air, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss, TAM Airlines, TAP Portugal, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways.
In addition to Star Alliance partners, United also maintains partnerships with a number of other airlines which aren’t Star Alliance members, but with which you can nevertheless use your United miles. These United Airlines partners include Aer Lingus, Aeromar, Cape Air, Germanwings, Great Lakes Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air, Jet Airways and Silver Airways.
As you can see, United’s membership in the Star Alliance and other partnerships make their miles some of the most flexible available. So I personally wouldn’t jump to divest myself of my United miles, even if I didn’t plan ever to travel on United Airlines again. Instead, I’d hang on to them for when I travel internationally or to Hawaii. You could book quite the international trip with a few hundred thousand miles!
I could go on about the value of United miles and the best ways to use them, but I could never come close to the work Darius over at Million Mile Secrets has done. His comprehensive 15-part (!) series appropriately titled “The Ultimate Guide to Using United Miles” is the number one resource out there, and I wouldn’t even try to compete.
3. Should I Cancel My Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Credit Card?
As with cancelling any credit card, there are a few things to consider here. First and foremost is what impact cancelling the card could have on your credit report and scores. If the card is the one in your wallet that you’ve had longest, you may want to keep it. Length of overall credit history is a key factor in determining your creditworthiness, and banks will look for your oldest active revolving account to establish how long you’ve had and maintained open lines of credit. Another key factor in your credit score is the ratio of your total debt to available credit. Cancelling a card closes that individual line of credit, thus reducing your overall available credit and potentially adversely affecting this ratio. But don’t worry, this doesn’t make you a slave to this card or its pesky annual fee.
If you’re in this position, you may want to look into downgrading your credit card to a no-fee version or to a different no-fee credit card offered by Chase. Million Mile Secrets and TravelSort both wrote relatively recently about the availability of a no-fee version of the United MileagePlus Explorer card, called the United MileagePlus Awards card. Unfortunately, I can’t find any active links for this card and I’m wary that it’s been discontinued.
Still, you should call the number on the back of your card and ask about your options for downgrading or converting to a no-fee card, telling them you won’t be flying United anymore and thus see no use in paying the annual fee. I recently converted a Chase Slate to a Chase Freedom in order to earn 5X UR points on rotating quarterly categories and the process was incredibly quick and simple, taking all of 5 minutes. The new card has the same number and credit history as the old one, which is a good thing considering it was one of my oldest cards. When you do call, and since your card has an annual fee, it’s an immutable fact that the operator will try to convince you to keep the card — this is a good thing. Often, card-issuers will offer on the spot incentives in order to keep you “in” a card.
Before closing or downgrading your card, it's worth seeing if there's a retention bonus to keep the card that either provides a credit against the annual fee or provides miles or points that are worth more than the annual fee. For example, if you're offered 15,000 United miles and value them at about 2 cents per mile, that's worth $300, and well worth keeping the card for in my view. See Current Chase Retention Bonus Offers
Important: If you are offered a downgrade or conversion to another Chase credit card, be sure to look closely as the sign-up bonus currently offered for the new card. If you downgrade, you won’t get that bonus. And since you already have history with Chase, you’re much more likely to get approved for that new card and get that bonus. So if you want to keep this credit line open without paying the annual fee, try to downgrade to something like the Chase Slate, which doesn’t offer a sign-up bonus.
Once the credit history concerns are addressed, a glance at the other benefits of this particular card — priority boarding, free checked bag and no expiration of earned miles — leave only one feature to be concerned about losing: mileage expiration. When you hold the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, your miles never expire. When you don’t, they expire after 18 months of mileage account inactivity.
Obviously you don’t want that many miles to expire and you want enough time to use them all. While it’s unfortunate that United miles expire (whereas, for instance, Delta Skymiles do not), keeping your account “active” means only that as few as 1 mile needs to be added to or subtracted from your account in order to keep all your miles safe for another 18 months. So if you do end up cancelling the card, you’ll want to make sure to perform this occasional upkeep on your mileage account.
A member of the FlyerTalk message board community offered a great idea for easily and cheaply keeping your United miles account active:
I'd recommend buying an iTunes song via the UA shopping mall portal at least once a year to keep the account fresh.
Bummer to have to buy anything, but 99 cents sure beats 95 bucks.
FlyerTalk also has a huge running thread on the subject of keeping United miles from expiring if you need more information.
I’m generally not a fan of keeping an expensive or unwanted product simply because I feel I’m being held hostage by the issuer’s influence on my credit score, but luckily there’s always a solution to keep both your wallet and the credit bureaus happy.
4. Should I Switch to a Bank Rewards Card Like the Chase Sapphire Preferred?
This one is easy. Since you no longer plan on flying United, then yes, you absolutely should get a bank rewards card.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 2X points on dining and travel purchases along with 1X points on all other purchases. The United Mileage Plus only offers 2X miles on United purchases, which you won’t be making any of, so you’ll instantly begin earning more with the Sapphire Preferred. And Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer at a 1:1 ratio to United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz Carlton, Korean Air, Southwest Airlines and other carriers, so your points are always going to be more flexible than even those very flexible United miles.
What’s more, the Sapphire Preferred is Chase’s signature credit card as of right now, so the customer service is beyond outstanding.
Remember again that you should apply for the Sapphire Preferred card before doing anything with your United card. The relationship you have with Chase will help you get approved, plus you’ll get the sign-up bonus, which currently sits at 40,000 UR points after $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Once you get your Sapphire Preferred, that’s when you call Chase and explain to them that you no longer feel the annual fee for the United Explorer card is worth it to you.