How (and When) to Book United Awards Through Partners

Apr 9, 2019

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The biggest news of the month (and what may remain the biggest points and miles news for all of 2019) was United’s announcement that it would be removing award charts and shifting to a more dynamic pricing model later this year. This has had some immediate implications for United-operated awards booked using MileagePlus miles, but there are times when these award tickets are better off booked through partner programs. And unfortunately, this process is a bit more challenging now.

Today we’ll go through exactly what you need to know about leveraging partner programs to book United-operated flights in a post-award-chart world.

In This Post

The Basics

(GERMANY OUT) Germany - Brandenburg - : airplane of the Star Alliance - Croatia Airlines Airbus A320 at Schoenefeld airport (Photo by Sch?ning/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Star Alliance airlines generally only have access to award seats classified as “saver” by the operating carrier. (Photo by Sch?ning/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Let’s start with a quick overview of how you typically book award seats on an airline through one of its partners’ programs. Just about all airlines use at least two different award class buckets. The exact names vary, but in frequent flyer parlance, the lower prices are generally termed “Saver” while the higher-priced options are typically referred to as “Standard” or “Everyday” awards. And generally speaking, only Saver awards are available for partner award bookings.

For example, United operates a few daily flights from Newark (EWR) to London-Heathrow (LHR). Let’s say that on September 1, you only see standard/everyday awards available for both economy and business class. However, the previous day (August 31) has both classes of service available at the saver level. You should be able to book the August 31 flight using miles from any Star Alliance partner; on September 1, you’re likely restricted to using United miles.

Long story short: As long as there is saver-level award space available, you should be able to book United-operated award flights through any Star Alliance loyalty program, including fan favorites Avianca LifeMiles, Air Canada (Aeroplan) and Singapore KrisFlyer.

How Variable Pricing Comes Into Play

Now this is where things start to get tricky, as variable pricing makes it harder to figure out what counts as a “saver” level award. I can’t help but assume that this was either intentional or a very happy coincidence that comes along with such a pricing model. After all, if you don’t have a good benchmark for what an award ticket should cost, you’re much more likely to pay a higher price just to get on the exact flight you want.

Thankfully, United makes it easy to search for saver space in both economy and premium cabins across multiple dates at once, but there’s a trick. You’ll need to click on “advanced search” and select “my dates are flexible.”

The search results page will show you a two-month calendar, with blue lines indicating saver economy award space and blue dots showing dates that have saver premium-cabin award space (per the legend on the left). In this case, United’s nonstop flight from Newark to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) has a few days over the summer with saver economy space, but none of the flights has saver awards in United’s Polaris business class.

If your dates are fixed, another option is to look at the individual search results on a specific date. This is where things start to get a bit dicey.

In the above example, you can easily see the difference between business saver and business everyday awards, since each one has its own column. Economy is a bit more confusing. Even though this date shows up on the calendar as having economy saver space, the column is titled “Economy (lowest award)” which is the same thing you’ll see on dates that don’t have saver space.

Another good fallback option is to use ExpertFlyer, which will only search for saver level award space (unless you override its default settings by inputting a different fare code). If you’re planning to book through a partner program instead of directly through United, it might even make sense to start here to avoid confusion. On the EWR-NRT route, ExpertFlyer perfectly matches the United website with no saver level economy award space on August 25th or 26th, but seats available on the 27th and 28th.

Thankfully, it appears (for now) that United is still using the “Saver Award” designation on tickets that price lower than the normal prices from the soon-to-disappear award charts. For example, the first flight of the day from Newark to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) on Tuesday November 19 is pricing at 12,000 miles, a slight discount off the usual 12,500-mile rate for a one-way economy award within the US.

Since this is the only nonstop flight available at the saver level for that day, it’s the only one that’s bookable through LifeMiles:

It’s also the only one available through Aeroplan …

… and Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.

However, TPG Family editor Summer Hull has found examples where this is not the case, and discounted awards classified as saver-level with United are not bookable through partner programs. I certainly hope her experiences are just an anomaly, as this would be a big blow to United’s Star Alliance partners.

As always, be sure to crunch the numbers on the flight you’re looking to book to see if it even makes sense to use miles at all. The above one-way from EWR-ORD is pricing at just $128.30, and it’s even cheaper in Basic Economy. You may be better off just booking directly.

Choosing Which Program to Use

Once you’ve found your United saver award space, the question becomes which Star Alliance program you should book through. The three I mentioned above (Avianca LifeMiles, Aeroplan and Singapore) are great options because they’re relatively easy to earn. All of them have partnerships with at least two popular transferable points currencies, including Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards and Capital One miles. United-operated flights typically don’t incur fuel surcharges when booked through partners, so you’re free to pick the program that offers the lowest award rates without worrying about added out-of-pocket costs.

Here are a few examples of what these other Star Alliance programs charge on popular routes (prices are one-way):

Route and cabin Avianca LifeMiles Aeroplan Singapore KrisFlyer (prices as of 4/16/19)
US to Central Asia in business class 75,000 miles 75,000 miles 115,000 miles
US to Europe in business class 63,000 miles 55,000 miles 72,000 miles
US to Israel in business class 78,000 miles 82,500 miles 76,500 miles

(Note that you can also book United-operated flights through ANA Mileage Club, though you’re limited to transfers from American Express, and you also must book round-trip award tickets. Nevertheless, picking up round-trip business class flights from the US to Europe for just 88,000 miles could be a steal.)

In many cases these costs are nothing more than a rounding error away from what United would charge for a saver level award (if you’re paying 60,000 miles for a business class award, an extra 3,000 miles isn’t going to break the bank).

Domestic economy flights are a slightly harder call to make. Avianca LifeMiles’ prices United-operated awards within the US as low as 7,500 miles each way if your flight stays within a single US ‘zone’ (generally east coast, central and west coast). Meanwhile, as you can see above, both Singapore and Aeroplan charge 12,500 miles each way, a price that matches United’s traditional saver-level rate.

However, here’s my recommendation: Only book a domestic, United-operated flight using partner miles if United is pricing the award at 12,500 miles. Why? In cases where these awards fall below that rate, paying for the flight directly is often a better value. 5,000 miles for a one-way award ticket sounds great in theory, but if you can purchase that flight for just $78.30, it may be better to save your miles for a more expensive ticket.

While everyone has his/her own way of determining what makes for a good redemption, you’ll generally get the best value for your miles by booking when revenue prices are high. With United’s new variable pricing, that tends to happen domestically when one-way awards are showing up at 12,500 miles.

When to NOT Use a Partner Program

There are two additional considerations that come into play when you’re picking a program through which to book United-operated award flights, and they’re both connected to the carrier’s credit card offerings.

1. Checked bag fees: Most airlines will waive your first checked bag fee if you hold one of their cobranded credit cards, but United does things a bit differently. Holders of the United Explorer Card (and one companion traveling on the same reservation) are eligible for one free checked bag on United-operated flights, and those with the United Club Infinite Card and a companion can get two free checked bags. However, you must use your United card to purchase the ticket, which includes the taxes and fees on the award, and must have your MileagePlus number on the reservation. As a result, if you’re counting on a checked bag fee waiver thanks to either of those cards, make sure you use it for the taxes & fees and then switch your frequent flyer number on the reservation to your United account.

2. Additional award inventory: In addition to the checked bag fee waiver, United cardholders also enjoy access to enhanced saver award availability on United-operated flights. This may give you additional flights that aren’t otherwise available to partners, but early tests of United’s new dynamic award pricing show that discounted awards are frequently pricing at 1,000 miles lower for cardholders. As a result, if you have a United credit card, be sure to login to your MileagePlus account so you have an accurate picture of availability and pricing before jumping to book with a partner program.

Bottom Line

United’s impending removal of award charts has many implications, but as of now, it’s still clearly delineating between saver awards (those bookable with partner currencies) and non-saver awards (those bookable solely through the MileagePlus program). I’m hopeful that will remain the case, as it allows you to potentially utilize partner programs like Avianca LifeMiles to get an even better value for your awards. However, as always, be sure to crunch the numbers on these tickets to make sure it even makes sense to book an award ticket at all. If the paid rates are low enough, you may want to use a fixed-value currency or simply pay for the ticket outright.

Featured photo courtesy of United.

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