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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 US airline loyalty programs in which to find value. Despite increased competition from other Star Alliance loyalty programs, that’s still true today. Of course, knowing where to look is half the battle, so today we’ll take a look at some consistently excellent sweet spots in the United MileagePlus program.

Premium Cabin Flights on United Metal

One of the biggest changes made to United MileagePlus several years ago was the addition of a surcharge for long-haul, premium cabin flights on partner airlines. The exact premium depends on the route you’re flying, but it generally starts at 10,000 miles (worth $140 based on TPG’s valuations).

Sometimes this premium is absolutely worth it if you get a chance to fly up front with a solid airline like EVA Air. On the other hand, Air China business class might not be the best time to splurge. In some cases, you’re left with no choice: if the only option for your transoceanic itinerary is a partner airline, you may be stuck paying the premium.

That being said, United is making a strong case for you to save miles if you’re able to fly on United-operated flights, especially as more and more of its long-haul fleet begins to feature the shiny new Polaris seats.

Your odds of flying in the "real" Polaris seat keep getting better as United retrofits more of its fleet.
Your odds of flying in the “real” Polaris seat keep getting better as United retrofits more of its fleet.

Business class award space on United isn’t always easy to come by. There are occasional gluts of space — Australia and Tel Aviv are recent examples — but you can also use ExpertFlyer to help you find award space and make sure you’re flying on the right plane. You can check out this guide to stay up to date on which planes feature the new Polaris seats, but if you’re booked in business class on a Boeing 777-300ER (“77W”) like the one that United operates between Newark (EWR) and Hong Kong (HKG), you’re guaranteed to get the new seats.

Avoid Fuel Surcharges on Partner Awards

While United isn’t always the cheapest program when it comes to the actual number of miles you’re paying, it does have one huge competitive edge that you shouldn’t overlook: It doesn’t pass on fuel surcharges on partner awards, meaning your ‘free’ tickets will be that much closer to free. Of course, you’ll still have to pay a small amount of government-imposed taxes and fees, but you’ll avoid the egregious surcharges that ruin the value of many other loyalty programs.

The savings are most apparent when traveling in premium cabins on certain carriers. Let’s take a look at one of the most desirable redemptions out there: Lufthansa first class between the US and Europe. A one-way award between Newark and Frankfurt (FRA) on Lufthansa’s state-of-the-art 747-8 will cost you 110,000 United miles and $5.60 in taxes (plus United’s $75 close-in booking fee, which is discounted or waived for elite travelers).

Booking that exact same flight through Aeroplan would set you back just 70,000 miles and nearly $800 in taxes and fees.

Now it’s worth pointing out that the 40,000 extra United miles you’re spending are worth $560 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, so the overall savings are muted a bit. Nevetheless, there really is something to be said for not having to spend several hundred dollars out of pocket, even if it costs you more miles.

Nonstop, Short-haul Flights Outside of North America

While they might not be applicable to every vacation you take, some of the best sweet spots in the world of travel rewards apply to flights that originate and/or end outside of North America. United is a great example of this — if your flight covers a distance of 800 miles or less and stays within a single region, a one-way economy award will only set you back 8,000 miles.

A good way to conceptualize this is to think about traveling around major Star Alliance hubs. A flight from Lufthansa’s home base in Frankfurt to Paris (CDG) covers a distance of just under 300 flight miles and can be booked for only 8,000 United miles (plus a decent amount of taxes).

 

You could also fly Air New Zealand from Auckland (AKL) to Christchurch (CHC) for the same 8,000 miles.

The deal gets even better for flights within Japan, as the cost drops to 5,000 miles.

Taking advantage of these short-haul flights can be a great way to fill in an open jaw on a long-haul award itinerary, and these routes can sometimes be quite pricey. While they aren’t luxurious by any stretch, they’re a great way to keep cash in your pocket for a comparatively small amount of miles.

Excursionist Perk

One last incredible way to stretch the value of your United miles is by utilizing the Excursionist Perk, which essentially allows you to add a free flight segment to qualifying, round-trip itineraries and add another city to your trip at no extra cost. Here are the rules United publishes for using this perk:

  • The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

The simplest use of this perk would be to book a round-trip award ticket to Europe, and add a free leg between two European cities. You could fly from Newark to Vienna (VIE) on United or Austrian, Vienna to London (LHR) on Austrian, and then London to Newark on United. In this case, the VIE-LHR segment would be your free Excursionist Perk and price at 0 miles.

However, there a number of much more creative ways to use this perk. Rather than spoil all the fun, you can check out this guide to learn how to book “the time machine,” the “exotic explorer,” or in true Richard Kerr fashion, the “Southern North America/South of Central America/North of South America/West of Everywhere Turtler.” The secret to these advanced routing strategies is that the Excursionist Perk doesn’t have to be used in the same region as your round-trip award flights (Europe, in our example). Whether you choose to use this perk in the simple and likely intended way, or to stretch your imagination and endurance a little bit, this is a phenomenally easy way to see an extra city without paying more to do so.

Bottom Line

United’s MileagePlus loyalty program offers a few great high-value redemption options for every type of traveler. Whether you’re looking to book the cheapest possible premium cabin awards (using either money or miles) or to see the most destinations possible without overpaying to do so, it’s worth your time to learn the ins and outs of this popular program.

For additional information on United’s loyalty program, check out the following guides:

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