How to unlock additional award availability with United Airlines

Aug 12, 2021

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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 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
  • United Business Card — Earn up to 150,000 bonus miles. Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 75,000 miles after you spend $20,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open.
  • United Quest Card — Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
  • United  Infinite Card — Earn 80,000 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.

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 exclusive award availability
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.

United award search
(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.

United search results
(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.

United search preferences
(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.

United award availability
(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 photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy.

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