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Earning points and miles is the surprisingly easy part of award travel; it’s learning how to maximize value when redeeming that takes practice. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains how to use your United Airlines MileagePlus miles to book the flights you want.
Do you ever have trouble using your miles to book an award flight? You’re not alone! That’s why today I want to continue my series on how to book awards with several of the major frequent flyer programs. After writing two weeks ago about How to Book Awards with American Airlines AAdvantage Miles, in this post I’ll examine how to redeem with United.
United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer program is one of the most valuable programs available, if only for its access to Star Alliance partners and the complete lack of fuel surcharges. In fact, I consider the Star Alliance to be easily the most valuable of the three major international alliances, especially when it comes to travel in Europe and Asia.
Earning United MileagePlus miles
I like to say that the the hardest way to earn airline miles is to step on an airplane. That’s pretty much the message United has been sending since it switched to a far less generous revenue-based model for earning miles through flights, but continues to offer generous amounts of miles through its co-branded credit card partner Chase.
Cardholders can earn a base rate of 1 mile per dollar spent with the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, or 1.5 miles per dollar spent with the United MileagePlus Club Card, and both cards earn 2 miles per dollar on United Purchases. The United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card is another good option, as it earns 2 miles per dollar at restaurants, gas stations, and office supply stores, and currently comes with a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months.
United is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, so you can earn double points on travel and dining with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, or 5x points on telecommunications and office supplies with the Ink Plus Business Card, as well as 2x points at gas stations and hotel points. Finally, points earned from Chase Freedom and Ink Business Cash Credit Card can be moved to Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus accounts (or those of a spouse or domestic partner), and then transferred to United miles.
You can also transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest, but those transfers come at a dismal 2:1 ratio. Since Starpoints are the most valuable loyalty currency out there, this is generally a bad idea unless you need to transfer a only a small amount and have no other option.
There are plenty of other United Airlines partners that offer miles, such as hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, cruises, and much more. Take a look at this page at United.com to learn about several other ways to earn miles, as well as my post on 21 Ways to Earn Airline Miles that You Might Not Know About.
First, you’ll want to consult United’s website to find out how many miles you need for a particular award. Rather than have a standard award chart like American Airlines, or no award chart like Delta, United has an Interactive travel destinations award chart that’s fairly easy to use.
One of the unique features of the MileagePlus program is that you pay more for premium class partner awards to all destinations outside of North and South America. Business class partner awards cost 20,000 miles more round-trip than awards on United itself, and international first class awards cost at least 50% more when using a Star Alliance partner.
It’s as if United recognizes that its premium class seats and service are inferior to those of its partners, and is charging customers accordingly. Seeing as United’s international first class is so much less attractive than its competitor’s international first class products, this explanation seems to fit. Thankfully, the higher mileage rates only apply when the longest segment is flown by a partner. For example, you could fly United to Frankfurt and then continue on Lufthansa to Milan, and you’d only pay the lower mileage rate.
The next step is to find out which routes are offered by United and its partner airlines between your home airport(s) and your destination, so you can find your ideal routing. I like to use the Wikipedia pages for airports at my origin, destination, and major United and Star Alliance hubs in between, as each entry shows clearly which carriers fly which routes. Of course, Wikipedia is not 100% accurate, but it’s the easiest way to look up this information for this purpose.
Like most airline web sites, United.com is not very good at piecing together award flights that involve more than two or three segments, so it’s important to try to split your flight searches into multiple segments if your initial search comes up empty.
I like to search from my home airport to a major Star Alliance hub, preferably on the same continent as my destination. If I find award space to that hub, I then search for space from there to my destination, noting that United will allow unlimited connections of less than 24 hours on an international itinerary. Once you find all the available award flights you need, you can try to piece them together as a multi-city itinerary, but most likely you’ll have to call to get it ticketed. That incurs a $25 award booking fee, which is waived for Premier Platinum, Premier 1K, and Global Services members — one of the more straightforward perks of United Premier elite status.
One of the big problems I’ve had with United awards is a complete lack of saver space on domestic flights between hubs. Even though I live in Denver, a United hub, there seems to be very little award space between here and the other United hubs, despite a multitude of daily mainline flights. And when I do find space, those few seats are invariably in coach. On occasion I have had to purchase a domestic positioning leg if I want to find business or first class award space, but at least United checks my bags through and protects me in the case of a missed connection.
Waitlisting for a saver award
Fortunately, there is a way to at least secure a coach award seat, and then be on a standby list for an upgrade. United’s Award Travel Rules say 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 the 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 and those who book business class using the standard (non-saver) awards. Your chances are pretty good, but you can have the mileage refunded if you eventually end up in economy class. For more info, check out Nick Ewen’s post on United Upgrade Priority and How to Improve Your Chances.
Award routing rules to be aware of
United has some pretty generous award routing rules. For examples, unlike with American awards, you can fly to Australia/Oceania via Asia or to Asia via Europe. However, you can’t fly to Australia/Oceania via Europe, Africa, or just about anywhere besides Asia. Those are the most important quirks, but you can read more in Eric Rosen’s Overview of United Airlines Award Routing Rules.
When it comes to stopovers and open jaws, United allow one stopover (defined as a stop greater than 24 hours), and two open jaws, but only on a round-trip ticket. This means you could depart from Los Angeles to London, and return from Istanbul to Honolulu with a stopover in Los Angeles for a few months, essentially giving you a free one-way trip to Hawaii. However, you would need to initially book the round-trip award, as United will not combine two one-ways. It will only let you cancel your one-way flight (and pay their cancellation fees), and you must then hope to find the same flights when you rebook your award.
Speaking of fees, United imposes a whole host of award booking, change, and cancellation fees, depending on your status level. If you have no status or lower-tier status, you can expect to get socked pretty hard by these fees. However, United will at least waive its fee for booking an award within 21 days for those who have the United MileagePlus Club card.
Finally, United has imposed a limit on the number of connections you can have in a single itinerary. A one-way itinerary can only have four segments, while a round-trip can have five segments between the origin and the destination, including any stopover. Not only does this policy make it very difficult to find award space to far away destinations, it is also an unpublished rule. However, this, like many other rules, can be overridden by United booking agents at their discretion.
Partners available on United.com
While it’s great that United has so many partners, unfortunately many of them don’t show up on United’s booking engine. To learn how to work around this lack of visibility online, take a look at my post on How to Find and Book Star Alliance Awards Not Showing Up on United.com.
In fact, I like to think of it as an advantage that some partners aren’t visible online, which gives a minority of savvy travelers a hidden inventory to search. For example, Singapore, Jet Airways (India), and Azul (Brazil) offer great partner award opportunities that can’t be booked online. Since I wrote that post above, it appears that LOT Polish and South African long-haul flights are now visible on United.com. However, the ANA search engine was recently altered to make it much harder to use for Star Alliance searches. That leaves travelers looking for awards at other common partner websites, as well as third-party tools like Expert Flyer.
United has a very powerful collection of partners, and a reasonably valuable award chart with no fuel surcharges. When you take the time to overcome its mediocre award search engine, you can be rewarded with some fantastic award flights.
What are your favorite awards that you’ve booked with United miles?