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Overview of United Airlines Award Routing Rules

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With major changes to Delta and United’s frequent flyer programs in the past year and more to come from the American Airlines/US Airways merger, I asked TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen to look at the current state of airline award routing rules for the US legacy carriers. Each day this week he’ll feature a different carrier (see yesterday’s post on Delta); read on for his analysis of award routing rules on United Airlines.

United Airplane flying
There have been major changes to the United MileagePlus program this year.

United MileagePlus instituted some major changes in 2013 and 2014, including a major award chart devaluation and a switch to a revenue-based mileage-earning formula set to begin in 2015. With all that in mind, there’s plenty to go over to make sure you’re maximizing your United miles.

Fees

Like the other airlines, United will charge you for doing everything from booking awards over the phone to canceling your ticket. Here’s how much you can expect to pay.

Phone booking fee: $25, waived for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

Close-in booking fee: When booking award travel within 21 days of departure, you’ll pay $75 without status, $50 for Silver elites, $25 for Gold elites, and fees are waived for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

Close-in change fee: When changing travel within 21 days of departure, or changing origin/destination at any time, you will pay $100. This is discounted to $50 for Silver elites, $25 for Gold elites, and waived for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

Change fee: When changing an award more than 21 days prior to departure, you’ll be charged $75. This fee is waived for all elites. Eligible changes include cabin, award type, carrier, date, or time.

Canceling trip and re-crediting miles: $200 for regular flyers, $125 for Silver elites, $100 for Gold elites, no fee for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

United is a member of Star Alliance.
United is a member of Star Alliance.

Airline Partners

United is a member of the Star Alliance, so you can earn and redeem miles on the following airlines:

  • Adria
  • Aegean
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA
    Asiana
  • Austrian
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian
  • EVA
  • LOT
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • SWISS
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai
  • Turkish Airlines

United also has the following non-alliance partners:

  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Azul
  • Cape Air
  • Edelweiss
  • Germanwings
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Island Air
  • Jet Airways
  • Silver Airways

Award Chart

United Airlines has two separate award charts: one for flights on its own aircraft. and one for flights on its Star Alliance partners.

United's own award chart.
United’s own award chart.

You can find United’s interactive award charts here, or download this PDF.

United's partner award chart.
United’s partner award chart.

As you can see, the mileage for award flights on partner airlines can be much higher–-more so for premium cabins than for economy tickets–and many awards are prohibitively expensive.

Zones

Here are the countries included in each zone.

Zone Countries
North America Mainland US, Alaska, Canada
Hawaii Hawaii
Mexico Mexico
Caribbean Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman), Cuba, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadalupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands (British and U.S.)
Central America Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
Northern South America Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela
Southern South America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay
Europe Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedoni, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom
Middle East Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Northern Africa Algeria, Canary Islands, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia
Central and Southern Africa Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote D’lvoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, S. Africa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
North Asia China (Mainland), South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan
Central Asia Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
South Asia Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
Japan Japan
Oceania American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu, Western Samoa
Australia/New Zealand Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island

One-Ways, Stopovers and Open Jaws

You can find a full list of United’s award rules here, but here are the basics.

United allows one-way awards, which gives you a lot of flexibility when planning and playing around with origin and departure cities based on award availability.

On international awards, two open jaws are permitted per round-trip award. For instance, you could travel from Chicago to Beijing then return from Shanghai to Los Angeles on the same ticket. That’s basically like booking two one-way trips with the stipulation that the open jaws must be within the same region.

One stopover of up to 6 months is permitted on round-trip travel. However, United’s award rules page says: “For travel booked on or after February 1, 2014, a stopover is permitted only on certain roundtrip itineraries. Additional mileage may be required.” So there might be some inconsistency in how this actually prices out.

On the bright side, you can combine one stopover and two open jaws on a round-trip ticket, but there are some limitations. An example of a valid routing would be flying from Newark to Paris, having a stopover, continuing on to Frankfurt as your destination, then returning from Barcelona (open jaw) to Chicago (open jaw).

United 2 open jaw stopover
A valid round-trip routing on United with a stopover and two open jaws.

However, you couldn’t fly from Newark to Paris for a stopover then continue from Frankfurt (creating another open jaw) to Barcelona as your destination and then fly back to Chicago from there. It seems intuitive but can get complicated on longer itineraries.

In terms of connections, there are also limits on the number of segments you can have per award to Australia, Oceania, Asia (North, Central and South), and Japan. You can have four connections in each direction on round-trips and three connections on one-ways.

For example, if you want to get from London to Mumbai one-way, you could fly from London to Tokyo on ANA, and then catch a flight to Mumbai. But you couldn’t fly London to Tokyo to Beijing to Taipei to Singapore to Mumbai on a one-way.

For travel from North America to other regions, there’s no limit to the number of connections you can make.

Routing Rules and Exceptions

Like other airlines, United places restrictions on the direction of travel from region to region. For details on these rules and restrictions, Travel is Free probably has the most in-depth analysis and information, so based off his findings, if you are flying from North America…

  • You cannot fly to Oceania via Europe
  • You cannot fly to Australia via Europe
  • You cannot fly to Oceania via Africa
  • You cannot fly to Australia via Africa
  • You cannot fly to Oceania via the Middle East
  • You cannot route via South America to pretty much anywhere – though this rule seems to have loosened up lately with certain itineraries from North America to South Africa routing via Sao Paulo on United and South African Airways. So Brazil might just be the single exception to this rule.
This itinerary to Johannesburg via Brazil seems to be an exception to the routing rules.
This itinerary to Johannesburg via Brazil seems to be an exception to the routing rules.

For example, while you cannot fly to Australia via a European hub like London or Frankfurt, you can fly to an Asian destination like Bangkok or Singapore via Europe.

In terms of pricing, if you have a stopover and a destination, the computer will price the award based on whichever redemption level is higher. So if you were combining the Middle East and Europe on an award from North America, it would price it out as an award to the Middle East, since that’s the higher level.

Also note that unlike some other airlines (notably US Airways) where agents manually price out awards at the award desk, United awards are all computer all the time, meaning you won’t have better luck with one agent or another (so don’t hang up and call back), and your results likely will not vary.

Maximum Permitted Mileage

Unlike American and Delta, United does not limit awards by maximum permitted mileage, so you can choose the route you like as long as you follow the rules above. The limitations come in based on which zones can be combined.

For instance, Turkey and the UK are both within Europe, and you could fly from Chicago to London via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines if you chose.

There is room to play around within regions.
Itinerary from Chicago to London via Istanbul

However, based on the routing rules above, you could not fly from Newark to Perth via London and Bangkok (let’s say on a combination of United Airlines and Thai Airways), because you cannot route via Europe to Australia.

Unfortunately you can't get to Australia via Europe.
This itinerary from Newark to Perth would’t work because you can’t route to Australia via Europe.

However, you can route to Australia via Asia, so you could fly from Brisbane to San Francisco via Taipei on EVA (as shown in the example award itinerary below).

You can combine Asia and Australia on the same itinerary.
You can combine Asia and Australia on the same itinerary.

Round-The-World Awards

United offers RTW awards. Read this post from last month for full details; in the meantime, here are the basics.

Like much of the United Airlines award chart, the requirements for RTW awards have become pretty high:

  • 200,000 miles for economy
  • 350,000 miles for business
  • 450,000 miles for first when both first and business are offered
United's RTW mileage levels.
United’s Round the World award chart.

As with Delta, you must continue your travel in a single direction (east to west or west to east), and you cannot backtrack. You can have a maximum of 5 stopovers (6 stops total including your destination) and 16 segments.

Those mileage levels might seem high, but consider that flying round-trip from North America to Southeast Asia on United these days costs 80,000 miles in economy, 140,000 in business, or 160,000 in first class. Flying a Star Alliance partner like Thai Airways or Singapore Airlines costs 160,000 miles in business and 260,000 miles in first class. A round-trip award flight to Europe costs 60,000 miles in economy on United or Star Alliance partners, 140,000 miles round-trip in business class, and a whopping 220,000 miles round-trip in first class on Star Alliance partners. By comparison, those RTW mileage levels don’t look so bad.

My seat, 84C.
If you want to use United miles to fly Lufthansa’s storied first class, consider a RTW award now that mileage pricing for United partners has shot through the roof.

An example routing would be to fly from Los Angeles to Sydney on United and up to Tokyo on ANA before heading down to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. From there you could take South African Airways to Johannesburg before popping up to Europe on Lufthansa, and then head back to New York on Swiss (or maybe LOT to try out their 787 service), followed by United’s Premium Service transcontinental flight back to LA.

Flying in business class, you’d pay 350,000 miles for a RTW trip instead of the 385,000 you’d need to book all those flights as one-way awards. If you play around with the routing and partner airlines, you can really end up saving big – especially by maximizing Star Alliance partner awards that went sky high after United’s most recent mileage devaluation.

Have any other questions or tips about United award booking and routing rules? Share them in the comments below.

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