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This post is focused on maximizing Continental and United awards. The Continental Onepass program will cease to exist after 12/31/11, but until then you can transfer United and Continental miles back and forth (see this post for more information). For other posts in the “Maximizing Awards” series, check out American, Delta, US Airways, Air Canada and British Airways.

United/Continental  is a Star Alliance member, which means you can redeem your miles on all 26 other Star Alliance carriers, plus United’s other airline partners: Aer Lingus, Hawaiian,  Island Air, Jet, Qatar and Taca and Continental’s other airline partners Copa, Virgin Atlantic, Eva, Amtrak, Cape Air, Hawaiian, Aeromar and Island Air.

Things to know before you get started:

1. Don’t bother with United.com. Continental.com is a far superior search engine. However, most other partner and even some Star Alliance awards can only be booked over the phone: United Domestic award reservations: 1-888-467-0507, International award reservations: 1-888-674-4680; Continental: 1-800-621-7467 (I generally experience long hold times with Continental, so I prefer calling United).

2. You can put awards on hold while you wait for miles to post, though some agents may be cranky about this, but they will do it when push comes to shove.

3. A non-refundable quick ticketing fee of $75 applies to all award reservations purchased within 21 days of travel. It is $50 for Premier, $25 for Premier Exec, and free for 1Ks and GS passengers.

4. Continental and United allow one-way awards, though no stopovers are allowed.

5. On roundtrip awards, an open jaw and a stopover are allowed. For example, you can fly Los Angeles to Frankfurt, stop for a couple days, then continue on to London. Spend some time there, Chunnel to Paris and then fly Paris to Los Angeles – all for the price of a roundtrip award (see award charts on my master list).

6. You can combine Star Alliance and non-Star alliance partners on an award on Continental, but not on United. For example you can fly Virgin Atlantic (other airline partner) and Lufthansa (Star Alliance partner) on the same award on Continental.

7. You can fly to Asia via Europe, but you need to stay within 15% of the Maximum Permitted Mileage on the route you are flying. Continental.com often prices trips to Asia via London on Virgin Atlantic.

8. I find Continental reps to be helpful and chatty. I’ve had agents (before the days of one-way awards), allow me to book a transatlantic trip and then a domestic trip, instead of a roundtrip international ticket. This allowed me to somewhat get around the fact they used to not allow one-ways. For example, I went Chicago-Frankfurt and then New York to Chicago, and it priced out at 1/2 transatlantic business and half domestic coach, which is generally not allowed.

9. United/Continental are flexible with routing and allow you to exceed their “maximum permitted mileage” by 15% for awards, which is very generous. I generally don’t have issues with this, so you shouldn’t need to concern yourself with this unless you are trying to put together a real crazy itinerary. For more information, especially on the MPM rules, check out this post by Matthew at UPGRD.com.

10. If booking a United standard award you cannot mix saver and standard space, while on a Continental award you can. That means if you book a ticket from Chicago to Rome via Brussels and there is only standard award space on ORD-BRU, on CO I could add on a saver BRU-FCO seat at no additional miles while on UA I’d have to book the ticket separately for 20K more miles in business class. I anticipate these two differences will be resolved post-merger to mimic Continental’s current practice.

11. Know your Star Alliance partners and routing options. For your convenience here is a list of Star Alliance partners and their hubs per staralliance.com as of 7/16/11.
a) Adria: Ljubljana, Pristina
b) Aegean: Athens, Thessaloniki
c) Air Canada: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary
d) Air China: Beijing, Chengdu,Shanghai
e) Air New Zealand: Auckland, Los Angeles, Hong Kong
f) ANA: Tokyo (Haneda, Narita)
g) Asiana: Incheon, Seoul
h) Austrian: Vienna
i) Blue1: Helsinki
j) bmi: London Heathrow
k) Brussels: Brussels
l) Continental: New York/Newark, Houston, Cleveland and Guam
m) Croatia: Zagreb
n) Egypt Air: Cairo
o) LOT: Warsaw
p) Lufthansa: Frankfurt, Munich
q) SAS: Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm
r) Singapore: Singapore Changi
s) South African: Johannesburg
t) Spanair: Barcelona, Madrid
u) Swiss: Zurich, Geneva, Basel
v) TAM: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia
w) TAP: Lisbon, Porto
x) Thai: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Hat Yai
y) Turkish: Istanbul, Ankara
z) United: Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
zz) US Airways: Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Washington D.C

As always, feel free to comment below with questions.

United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

The standard sign-up offer for these co-branded cards is 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 in the first three months, so the current bonus is a significant step up. TPG values United miles at 1.5 cents apiece, so this 50,000-mile sign-up bonus gets you $750 in value.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Special offer: 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open
  • Check your first bag for free (a savings of up to $100 per roundtrip) when you use your Card to purchase your ticket
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club with 2 one-time passes each year for your anniversary
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, and 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Your miles don't expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
  • Use your miles for any seat, any time, on any United-operated flight at the MileagePlus Standard Award level
  • $95 annual fee
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
16.49% - 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
5.00%
Recommended Credit
Excellent Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.