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Today my mom and I were putting together the final touches of our big trip to Vienna and the Christmas Markets that is scheduled to happen in late 2018. Specifically, we needed to book her flight from Houston to New York City where we are spending a few days with the whole family doing fun NYC Christmas activities before my mom and I head on to Europe and the rest of my crew heads back to Texas.

When booking a 12,500 United award isn’t simple

This should have been just about the easiest part of the trip to book, but it actually wasn’t. My family of four is already booked a specific Houston – LaGuardia flight that I secured before I knew for sure if I could piece together the whole Vienna excursion. My mom decided she wanted to come to NYC on the same flight as us, so we pulled it up and United wanted 20,000 miles for that one-way economy flight. There were others that same day that were 12,500 miles, so it felt painful to pay more miles just to have her on the same flight as us, but ultimately we all agreed that was the best plan.


We were about to just suck it up and pull the trigger on the 20,000 mile award when on a whim I checked the selling price of the ticket. It was only $175, which means the United miles were giving us a less than one cent per point return, which is well below my normal threshold. Since we really wanted to use miles instead of dollars for this purchase, my next thought was just to use fixed value points to “buy” the relatively inexpensive ticket. If we used points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it would cost just 11,667 points at 1.5 cents in value each, and she would earn miles on the ticket. This was a much better route than spending 20,000 United miles for the award.

We quickly headed over to the Chase website to make that happen, but their booking window only goes out about 10 months through early October 2018, which is well before our trip. In contrast, United is currently allowing you to book tickets for travel into December 2018. I called Chase Travel to try to see if they can book further in advance over the phone, but after a few minutes of hearing “we are experiencing high call volumes” with no estimate of how long it would take to get a person, I hung up.

In truth, we had been booking trips and working on related miles and points issues for hours by this point and we just needed to resolve this one last piece of the puzzle and move on with life. When there was no easy path forward to booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, we were back to booking directly with United.

Strangely, when we went back to United, the flight we wanted flashed available at just the saver 12,500 mile level. Only, when we quickly selected it, that price disappeared and it returned to 20,000 miles. We were now getting pretty annoyed at the whole process, and then I had a hunch as to what was happening.

My mom doesn’t currently have a United credit card, and as a result, her account wasn’t being shown the extra saver award availability that United elites and credit cardholders are shown. Sure enough, when I checked the availability from my dad’s account (who has the United credit card), the flight we wanted was there at the saver level. I’m not sure why it glitched as available for just 12,500 miles from my mom’s account, but I have seen that happen more than once in the past.


Pay less for many awards if you have a United credit card

Instead of spending 20,000 United miles and booking from my mom’s account, we spent just 12,500 United miles booking the exact same flight from my dad’s account…all because he has the United credit card and she doesn’t currently. We will fix that issue and get her a United card via an offer like the one below soon enough, but first, we just need to double check that it has been 24 months since the last time she got the card and its bonus.

There are a few morals to this story, one of which is simply to try not to have a marathon travel booking session where by the end of it all you aren’t being as methodical at checking options as you were at the beginning.

The other moral of the story is that you need a United credit card, such as the Explorer Card, if you want more options to book United awards at the saver level. It is not new that those with a United credit card are displayed more saver award options than those without a United card or elite status, but if anything that trend seems to only be increasing in the days of more variably priced United awards.

At the very least, I think at least one person in the family needs to have a United credit card at all times so that the bookings can come from their account when only XN awards (those available to elites and credit cardholders) are available instead of X awards that are available to anyone. You can check available fare classes when in United Expert Mode.


Of course having a United card also does other things such as provide priority boarding, a free checked bag for the cardholder and one other companion on the reservation, and two United Club passes each year. Honestly though, I think they should be advertising like crazy the reality that having the card means you often pay less for awards than if you don’t.

Have you noticed the same situation in your United award searches?

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