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Maximizing United’s Award Routing Rules

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Like the two other major US legacy airlines, Delta and American, United has drastically changed its MileagePlus frequent flyer program in recent years. Today, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen takes a look at the current state of MileagePlus and how you can maximize the program’s routing rules to get the most from your miles.

Following Delta’s lead a few years back, United MileagePlus underwent a major award chart devaluation, switched to a revenue-based mileage-earning formula, instituted revenue requirements for elite status and then raised those requirements!

You can still get plenty of value from your United miles if you know the airline's award rules.
You can still get plenty of value from your United miles if you know the airline’s award rules.

That makes it harder than ever to earn United miles and to book the awards you want, both on the airline itself and its partners. So let’s take a look at United’s award rules, airline partners and fees, and what they might mean for your travel plans.

FEES

First things first. Though award travel is thought of as “free,” you can actually get dinged with tons of fees if you’re not careful. You can find United’s fee schedule on this page. Here are the most onerous to look out for:

Beware of fees when booking United awards!
Beware of fees when booking United awards!

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

Close-in booking fee: When booking award travel within 21 days of departure, flyers without status will pay $75. Premier Silvers pay $50, Golds pay $25 and fees are waived for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

Change fee: When changing the dates of an award (not origin or destination) more than 21 days prior to departure, non-elites are charged $75, while elites can do so for free.

Close-in change fee: When changing dates of award travel (not origin or destination) within 21 days of departure, non-elites pay $100. This is discounted to $50 for Silvers, $25 for Golds and waived for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.

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.

Star Alliance is the largest of the three major alliances, and United is a member.
Star Alliance is the largest of the three major alliances, and United is a member.

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 Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • 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
  • Eurowings (the new Germanwings)
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Island Air
  • Jet Airways
  • Silver Airways

AWARD CHART

United’s awards are zone-based, meaning the number of miles you need depends on the region or country from which and to which you’re flying. Here’s a link to United’s award chart. It’s interactive, so you can enter you origin region and destination region to find out the price, and note that mileage requirements are different for United’s own flights versus those on partners. Partner flights are usually much more expensive in premium cabins thanks to that award chart devaluation a couple years ago.

United has an interactive award chart that you can check for particular routes.
United has an interactive award chart that you can check for particular routes.

Regions

Here’s a list of countries included in each region, for easy reference. You can also find the list here.

Region Country
Mainland US, Alaska, Canada Mainland US, Alaska, Canada
Hawaii Hawaii
Mexico Mexico
Caribbean Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman), Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands (British and US)
Central America Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
Northern South America Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname 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, Macedonia, 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, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, South 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, Samoa
Australia & New Zealand Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island

ROUTING RULES

Now for the interesting part, maximizing those miles and regions. United publishes its award rules here. But there are a couple of important points to pull out from them.

In some ways, United is now the most versatile of the legacy mileage programs (well, except Alaska’s). It allows one-way awards, which give travelers more flexibility since they do not have to fly to and from single origins and destinations, and can change their plans based on award availability.

Two open jaws are permitted on round-trip itineraries, but each end of the open jaw must be in the same region. So, for instance, you could fly from Chicago to Beijing and then return from Shanghai to San Francisco. That’s basically like booking two one-ways, but it might be useful if you just wanted to book your entire itinerary at once. You could not, however, fly from Chicago to Tokyo then from Beijing to San Francisco since Tokyo and Beijing are in separate regions. You would just have to book those as one-ways.

This is an example of an award with two open jaws: Chicago-Beijing and returning Shanghai-San Francisco.
This is an example of an award with two open jaws: Chicago-Beijing and returning Shanghai-San Francisco.

United also allows one stopover of up to six months on international round-trip awards, and your stopover and destination must be in the same region. So you could fly from Newark to Copenhagen, stop for a few days and then continue on to Athens. But you couldn’t fly from Newark to Copenhagen as a stopover and then on to Marrakech as your destination since Copenhagen and Marrakech are in different regions.

An example of an award with a stopover from Newark-Cophenhagen-Athens.
An example of an award with a stopover from Newark-Cophenhagen-Athens.

Where this gets interesting is that, if you book a round-trip award, you can combine the stopover and the two open jaws. So you could fly from Newark to Copenhagen (stopover), then continue on to Athens (destination). You could then travel around a bit and then fly from Istanbul (open jaw) to San Francisco (open jaw/destination).

One other piece of information (that is not published) is that you are only permitted up to three connections per one-way or four in each direction on a round-trip when traveling from North America to Australia, Oceania and all the Asian zones including Japan. However, this rule can usually be overridden by United agents if you call to book the award.

An example of a round-trip itinerary combining two open jaws and a stopover.
An example of a round-trip itinerary combining two open jaws and a stopover.

Finally, while some other airlines have rules prohibiting you from transiting through third regions between your origin or destination (for instance, American Airlines will not let you fly from North America to Australia via Asia), United has only a few such prohibitions.

Again, these aren’t published, but we know that you cannot fly from North America to Oceania or Australia/New Zealand via Europe, Africa or the Middle East. So basically, you’re stuck going over the Pacific. Travel from North America to other regions cannot route via South America. However, you do see some awards automatically routing through Brazil, like this one.

IAH GRU JNB

Given all those possibilities, it should be no surprise that United does not have maximum permitted mileage restrictions, so you can choose any number of routes as long as they don’t violate the rules above.

Examples

To give you some concrete examples, if you wanted to go from the Washington, D.C. to Paris but were having a hard time finding award availability on United or some of its other partners like Lufthansa, you could instead fly from Washington to Istanbul on Turkish and then to Paris from there since both France and Turkey are within the European zone.

This itinerary is permitted because both Paris and Istanbul are in Europe.
This itinerary is permitted because both Paris and Istanbul are in Europe.

Or let’s say you wanted to fly from North America to Asia. You have some tremendous flexibility here since United will let you route through Europe to do so. In fact, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig had to do so in order to avoid a winter storm, booking an award from New York to Frankfurt to Seoul to Siem Reap, like this award on Lufthansa and Asiana.

An example award from North America to Asia via Europe.
An example award from North America to Asia via Europe.

Here’s what that 11,000-mile itinerary looks like on a map.

JFK FRA ICN REP

You could not, however, fly from Washington to Sydney (or anywhere in Australia) via a European hub like Frankfurt or Istanbul (on Lufthansa or Turkish) and Bangkok like this.

This itinerary would not be permitted because of the third-region rules.
This itinerary would not be permitted because of the third region rules for flights to Australia.

That’s because you have to travel to Australia via the Pacific per United’s (unpublished) rule.

You could, however, transit via Asia and fly through a partner’s hub like Tokyo (ANA), Taipei (EVA), Bangkok (Thai) or Singapore (Singapore Airlines) to get there, like these routes from LA demonstrate.

All these routings would be permissible.
All these routings would be permissible.

Round-The-World Awards

United actually lets you book round-the-world awards. Your travel must be in one direction (east or west) and you can have up to five stopovers (six stops total) and 16 segments.

Here’s how many miles you need:

  • Economy: 200,000
  • Business: 350,000
  • First: 450,000
United still lets you book Star Alliance round-the-world awards, though they're expensive.
United still lets you book Star Alliance round-the-world awards, though they’re expensive.

Like the rest of United’s award chart, the mileage requirements have gotten quite high, so they’re not a great deal, but they might still be useful to some. And if you’re in premium cabins and flying a mix of partners, you can actually end up saving tens of thousands of miles by putting one of these itineraries together instead of piecing together a lot of one-ways.

For more information on United awards and maximizing MileagePlus miles, check out these posts:

Have any questions about United’s rules, experiences or tips of your own? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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