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How to unlock additional award availability with United Airlines

Aug. 12, 2021
7 min read
United 767-300 Economy
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with updated information on United Airlines’ credit cards.

The United MileagePlus program has undergone some significant changes over the last few years. Most notably, the airline pulled its award charts for both United-operated flights and partner flights, so saver award space — award seats requiring fewer miles — are now even more valuable. The airline also made big changes to how we earn elite status, along with program adjustments due to the coronavirus.

Today, we’re going to examine a unique feature that allows United MileagePlus elites and cobranded credit cardholders to unlock hidden saver awards.

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What elites have access to this benefit?

Let's start with some good news. All United MileagePlus elites have access to expanded award availability, regardless of whether you're an entry-level Silver member or invite-only Global Services member. This benefit is exclusive to United elites and, unfortunately, doesn't extend to other Star Alliance elites. You also must be redeeming miles from your United account to take advantage of this benefit. For instance, just because you're a United elite doesn't mean that you can unlock additional award availability when booking through a partner like Air Canada Aeroplan or Turkish Miles and Smiles.

Related: The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability

Which United credit cards offer expanded award availability?

If you don't have elite status, you can unlock this benefit with a cobranded United credit card. Aside from the no-annual-fee United Gateway Card, all United credit cards from Chase offer this expanded award availability:

  • United Explorer Card — Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
  • United Business Card — Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.
  • United Quest Card — Earn 80,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
  • United Infinite Card — Earn 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Related: The best credit cards for United Airlines flyers

Finding award space

United tends to offer more saver award space than most other frequent flyer programs. But that’s not saying much these days, when most airlines offer few seats at the lowest mileage levels, even as they give out plenty of miles to travelers and those who use cobranded airline credit cards.

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Meanwhile, United’s MileagePlus program has three things going for it. First, it has one of the best online award search engines, along with its intuitive mobile app. United generally shows every partner’s award space, but not always.

Second, it’s one of the only frequent flyer programs that never imposes fuel surcharges on awards. This allows you to book award seats on any partner carrier and only pay government-imposed taxes and fees.

Third, the United Explorer Card, United Quest Card and the United Club Infinite Card (as well as its business counterparts) offer better saver-level availability. This is the same benefit it offers to its MileagePlus members with elite status, and it’s the primary reason many people even have a MileagePlus credit card.

United's website hints at the benefits of having a United card. (Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Related: How many miles do you really save with a United credit card?

An example of increased saver award availability

Let’s look for an award seat from Orlando to Denver. Without logging in, we find seats for the first flight listed at 16,000 miles each.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

But once you log in as a United cardholder, you see the same flight at the Saver level of 12,500 miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

How expanded saver availability 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.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Once you’re logged in and have Expert Mode enabled, you can then see the fare codes. However, this only works when searching for revenue fares — not awards.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

The X fare class is the economy-class saver award space open to everyone; the XN fare class is only accessible to United credit card holders and United elites. In the example above, you can see that UA 2364 departing Orlando at 6:10 a.m. has at least nine saver award seats in the XN fare class offered to United credit cardholders and elites. Meanwhile, there are zero seats in the X fare class offered to everyone else.

You can imagine how critical this feature can be, especially for family travelers. If you have a United credit card, always be sure to log in to your MileagePlus account when searching for award space. Otherwise, it won’t return the XN class results, reserved for cardholders and those with elite status.

Related: Last-minute strategies for earning United Premier elite status

Using this benefit to get into first or business class

This expanded saver award availability only applies to economy-class awards. It might appear to be of limited interest to those looking for business-class or domestic first-class award space.

However, United offers a waitlist for saver awards in business class so long as there is also a saver award availability in economy class. 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 wait-listed for a business-class seat.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Once on the waitlist, you should be upgraded to a business-class (or domestic first-class) 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 at the airport, ahead of everyone else using miles to upgrade or those being upgraded due to their status. Technically, you aren’t even being upgraded since you’ve already redeemed the miles needed for the higher fare class.

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, the additional mileage required to fly in business class will be refunded if you end up flying in coach.

Related: United Airlines baggage fees and how to avoid paying them

Bottom line

Although award charts are long gone, discounted saver-level awards continue to be offered. Considering the increased saver award availability and the ability to be wait-listed into saver business class, United’s cobranded credit cards and elite status can be essential tools for making the most of your miles.

Featured image by (Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
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  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
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  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more