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Unlocking United Award Availability with MileagePlus Cards

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In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele examines an often overlooked feature of United’s co-branded credit cards, and explains how you can use it to maximize your next MileagePlus award redemption.

When people share with me how many points or miles they’ve earned, I congratulate them — not because of how much they’ve accumulated, but because they’ve reached the fun part: spending them.

Using your miles can be a challenge, especially at the lowest award levels, and it can take time to learn the ins and outs of various loyalty programs. So today, to help those of you who are ready to redeem your travel rewards, I want to examine a unique feature of United’s co-branded credit cards that will allow you to unlock hidden award space and find the flights you need for your next travel rewards vacation.

Finding Award Space

I’m an award traveler based in one of United’s hubs (Denver), so many people think I have it easy when it comes to booking award flights. While United only serves a few international destinations nonstop from Denver, it offers frequent service to all of its international hubs. However, when I try to construct an international award, I usually find that United offers very few domestic award seats on hub-to-hub routes, forcing me to purchase separate positioning flights.

For example, let’s look at the seven daily flights from Denver to Washington Dulles on October 15, 2015, without logging in:

Not a single Saver Award seat on seven flights that day between Denver and Washington-Dulles
Four months in advance, there’s not a single Saver Award seat on any of the seven flights between Denver and Washington-Dulles.

As you can see, I would be out of luck if I wanted to use my miles to book a connecting flight as part of an international award through Washington-Dulles.

The Solution

The United MileagePlus Explorer card and United Club card from Chase (as well as the business versions of each) offer the ability to “Use miles for any seat, any time, on any United flight” at the Standard award level. United also offers Premier elite members “Better availability for United Saver Awards in economy,” but in practice credit card holders appear to be receiving both benefits.

Let’s take another look at the results that pop up for the same itinerary when I’m logged in to my MileagePlus account. Note that I do not hold Premier elite status, but I do have a United MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase:

As a United MileagePlus credit card holder, I now have award options that were unavailable to me before I logged in.

You can see that after logging in I have two Saver level flight options to get me to Washington-Dulles, with the first one being acceptable for connecting to an international flight in the afternoon. I also have the option of booking all of the first-class standard awards, which I didn’t have previously.

How This Works

United’s website is unique in that it offers an “Expert Mode” where you can reveal the fare classes offered. To enable Expert Mode, change your Search Preferences and check the corresponding box.

expert mode
This is how you enable Expert Mode on

Once you’re logged in and have Expert Mode enabled, you can then reveal the fare codes, but only when searching for revenue fares (not awards).

The X fare class is the economy-class Saver award space open to everyone, while the XN fare class is only accessible to United credit card holders and Premier elites.

You can see that UA939 (departing Denver at 8:05 am) has 9 saver award seats in the XN fare class offered to United credit card holders and elites, but zero seats in the X fare class offered to everyone else! You can imagine how critical this feature can be, especially for family travelers.

Increased Availability for International Flights

This expanded award search functionality also works when searching for international awards, but again, only in economy class. Consider this flight from Houston to Buenos Aires on October 7:

This flight has no Saver award space, unless you have a United credit card or Premier status.

Here you can see two award seats in XN class, but zero in X class, meaning you must have the credit card or Premier status to book it.

Using this benefit to get into business class

I have a limited amount of time to travel each year, so I prefer to book my international award flights in business class where I can get some sleep while realizing the most value per mile spent. Since this expanded Saver award availability only applies to economy-class awards, it might appear to be of limited interest beyond finding a connecting flight to an international gateway, albeit in economy class.

However, earlier this year I wrote a post about how to book awards with United MileagePlus Miles, in which I explained how you can get on a waitlist for a Saver award in business class so long as there is also a Saver award available in economy.

It turns out that a little-known clause in United’s Award Travel Rules says that you can call to book a coach award at the business Saver level, and then be waitlisted for a business-class seat. You will be upgraded to a business-class (or domestic-first) seat if it becomes available as a Saver award, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll be at the top of the upgrade list (ahead of everyone else using miles to upgrade).

Your upgrade priority will only be behind those who paid for business-class upgrades and those who booked business class using the standard (non-Saver) awards, so your chances of being cleared into the next class of service will have improved greatly. Plus, your mileage will be refunded if you eventually end up flying in coach.

Other Benefits of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card

Beyond the increased award availability, the United MileagePlus Explorer card has several other valuable features. The current sign-up bonus is 30,000 bonus miles after making $1,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening, plus an additional 5,000 bonus miles after adding an authorized cardholder to your account within three months. Chase recently ended a higher promotional sign-up bonus, but the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card appears to still be offering 50,000 miles after you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months.

Cardholders receive the first bag checked for free for themselves and a single companion, although you do have to use your card to pay for the tickets or award taxes. Other benefits include priority boarding and two United Club passes each year. Both versions of the Explorer card have a $95 annual fee that is waived for the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

Bottom Line

When you combine the increased Saver award availability with the ability to be waitlisted into business class, it’s clear how the United MileagePlus Explorer and Club cards can be handy for making the most of your miles.

Has your co-branded United card helped you find better award availability? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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