The best sweet spots you can book with United MileagePlus
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Despite a number of devaluations and rule changes over recent years, United MileagePlus has typically been the easiest of the big three U.S. airline loyalty programs in which to find value.
Knowing where to look for outsized value is half the battle, so today we’ll look at some consistently excellent sweet spots in the United MileagePlus program.
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United Airlines Excursionist Perk
The United Excursionist Perk has been a fun and valuable tool in the award flight space for years. There are loads of strategies to help you save money (and miles) on your future vacations and maximize the points you’re already spending on a trip abroad.
In short, the Excursionist Perk is designed to give you the opportunity to visit an additional location during a round-trip itinerary for zero extra miles (though there may be some taxes and fees).
For example, if you fly from the U.S. to Paris (CDG), you could use the Excursionist Perk to get a free one-way flight to Amsterdam (AMS). Your itinerary could look like this:
- U.S. to Paris
- Paris to Amsterdam (free)
- Amsterdam to the U.S.
Note that this only works with United miles – you won’t get a free leg when paying cash.
Why it’s valuable: Depending on where (and how) you use the Excursionist Perk, you could save a pretty penny – and even set yourself up for future travels. To maximize the benefit, here are some rules you need to know:
- United has 17 specified “award regions” (you can find them here). To qualify for the Excursionist Perk, your destination must be in a different region than your origin. For example, you can’t book Nashville (BNA) to San Francisco (SFO) with a free flight to Denver (DEN), because all three legs are in the same region (Mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada).
- Your “free” flight is confined to a single region.
- Your “free” flight cannot be in a more premium cabin than your other flights.
- Your return airport must be in the same region as your origin airport.
With those restrictions in mind, here are a few fun things you can do with the Excursionist perk:
- Book a flight from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Lima, Peru (LIM). Add a flight from Lima to the Galapagos Islands (GPS) for free. Then add a flight from the Galapagos Islands to Chicago. You could visit Machu Picchu and the fabled Galapagos Islands for just 42,000 United miles in coach. The Excursionist Perk will save you ~15,000 miles in this scenario.
- Book a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Bangkok (BKK). Add a flight from Singapore (SIN) to Bali (DPS) and a flight from Manila (MNL) to Houston (IAH). You’ll be in charge of the missing legs, but this is a great way to hop around even more cities at a very low cost. You’ll save ~20,000 miles by using the Excursionist Perk this way.
- Book a flight from Maui (OGG) to Honolulu (HNL) for 7,700 miles. If you were planning to visit Africa later in the year, you could add a flight from Nairobi (NBO) to Cape Town (CPT) (nine hours of flights!) for free and just schedule it months from now. Then add a flight from Honolulu to Maui for 7,700 miles to complete the round-trip booking. You can use this to effectively reserve an intra-Africa flight that would normally cost 19,000+ miles for a fraction of the cost.
How to book: To use the Excursionist Perk, click “Advanced search” on United’s home page. Then search a multi-city itinerary with miles. Enter the following:
- Your origin to your destination.
- Any other flight within a single award region.
- Any other flight landing in the same award region as you began.
Cheap domestic flights
You’ll have to do some searching to find outsized value with this technique, but it can be worth the effort.
United Airlines calculates the number of miles you’ll pay for its flights based on “dynamic award pricing.” This means United has the freedom to charge exorbitant prices for high-demand flights. But it also means you can find some amazing deals here and there.
Some domestic United flights can cost as little as 5,000 miles one-way in coach. More plenteous are fares that cost between 6,000 and 8,000 miles one-way.
Why it’s valuable: The most common award price published by legacy U.S. carriers for a domestic flight is 12,500 miles one-way in coach. The ability to reserve a flight for half that price simply by being flexible with dates is a great way to stretch your rewards.
At the time of writing, TPG valuations peg United miles value at 1.11 cents each. These discounted routes are a great way to often achieve significantly higher value per United mile.
How to book: Input your desired flight route into United’s search engine. On the search results page, click “View 30 day calendar” to see large swathes of available dates and the lowest prices for each day. You’ll sniff out a cheap fare in no time.
Nonstop to Tahiti
An award flight to Tahiti (PPT) is more difficult to book than most other destinations. But United has a nonstop flight from San Francisco (SFO) just for you. In fact, it’s the only U.S. carrier that offers service to Tahiti.
Why it’s valuable: Bora Bora is one of the hottest destinations, and it can’t be reached unless you route through Tahiti. You can book this 8.5-hour flight for 35,000 United miles when saver space is available. You can also book a lie-flat business class flight for 70,000 miles on many dates. These business class seats can cost $4,500 each way, giving you a fantastic value for your rewards.
How to book: Book online with United. This route doesn’t operate every day, so choose the 30 day calendar to most easily find award availability.
First class on Lufthansa
Lufthansa is one of United’s many partner airlines. It has one of the greatest (and most aspirational) first class cabins in the sky, which can be found on many flights to the U.S. These flights can cost upwards of $8,000, but you can book it for just the cost of taxes if you redeem between 110,000 and 125,000 United miles depending on how close to departure you book.
This often provides a value of 7.2 cents per mile – more than 6x the average miles value, per TPG valuations.
Why it’s valuable: The problem with booking Lufthansa first class is that Lufthansa incurs crippling fuel surcharges (sometimes $500+ each way) when using its own airline miles to reserve these seats. Fortunately, United MileagePlus doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges to the customer, so you’ll pay just $5.60 when booking a one-way Luthansa first class ticket from the U.S. to Frankfurt.
How to book: Search on the United website for available award seats. Lufthansa first class is still one of the most difficult seats to reserve, as the airline releases award availability to partners no more than 30 days before departure.
At the time of writing, Lufthansa flies its first class cabin between Frankfurt and six U.S. cities (as well as a handful of other international destinations). Search from the following airports:
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
- Houston (IAH)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Miami (MIA)
- Newark (EWR)
- San Francisco (SFO)
How to earn United miles
There are many ways to earn United Airlines miles, but the easiest (and quickest) method is through credit card rewards.
United Airlines has a handful of co-branded credit cards issued by Chase, including:
- United Gateway℠ Card: Earn 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
- United℠ Explorer Card: Earn up to 70,000 bonus miles. Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 10,000 miles after you spend $6,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open.
- 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 Club℠ Infinite Card: Earn 100,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
- United℠ Business Card: Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening
- Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card: Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $15,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening
Note that if you’ve got one of the above Ultimate Rewards-earning cards, the rewards you accrue from cards like the Chase Freedom Flex℠ and Chase Freedom Unlimited® can also be transferred to United Airlines. This is because you can convert the cash back earned by these cards to Ultimate Rewards points by transferring it to your premium Chase card.
United’s MileagePlus loyalty program offers a few great high-value redemption options for every type of traveler. Whether you’re looking to book a stunning lie-flat seat in the sky or visit the most destinations possible without overpaying to do so, it’s worth your time to learn the ins and outs of this popular program.
Feature photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
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