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In the fall of 2016, United made several changes to its MileagePlus program, most notably eliminating the two open jaws and stopover on round-trip award tickets as well as nixing the ability to piece together your own itineraries based on what you found with segment-by-segment searches and then calling a phone agent.

Prior to these changes, I’d accomplished some pretty extravagant United award itineraries like the following around-the-world itinerary in first class for 120,000 miles:

I remember cursing the day in August 2016 when it was announced that the rules that allowed these types of itineraries would replaced by the Excursionist Perk. Like many others, I read the rules of the Excursionist (which are loosely defined on United.com) and cataloged it away to the memory banks as another cost-saving, consumer-unfriendly move in line with the other devaluations of 2015-2017. Fast-forward to a year later, and I think the Excursionist is one of the most valuable award tools in existence.

Warning: What follows will be beyond the beginners and even some advanced TPG readers. It takes some time to wrap your head around the rules (or lack thereof) and what’s possible with the Excursionist Perk. However, it’s worth the required effort and time to unlock amazing award itineraries for a very low cost.

The Excursionist Perk Defined

At its core, the Excursionist Perk is meant to give a free one-way segment to travelers on round-trip itineraries between two different regions as defined by the United award chart. Here’s the simplest (and, I believe, intended) use of the Excursionist Perk.

Newark-London round-trip using United miles in economy cost 60,000 miles:

By invoking the Excursionist Perk, you can get a free segment within the region you’re visiting (as long as it’s a different region than where you’re starting). This means Newark – London (stopover) London – Vienna (intra-Europe) Vienna – Newark in economy still costs only 60,000 miles:

You pay no additional miles compared to flying just EWR-LHR round-trip, and you get to see Vienna on top of London and conveniently return home directly to Newark from Vienna. Pretty straightforward, and at face value, United could win customers over with this seemingly nice benefit.

Originally, my problem with the Excursionist Perk was that United already allowed one-way award bookings for no extra miles, so you could already have booked EWR-LHR on one ticket and VIE-EWR on a separate ticket, all for the same 60,000 miles. You then only needed to book one of the many European low-cost carriers between London and Vienna. In my mind, that meant I’d replaced the capability to do open jaws and stopovers with the value of a $45 ticket on a low-cost carrier. I was upset, until I revisited the logic of the Excursionist.

Here are all the rules published by United for the Excursionist 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.

Here’s what I believe to be the easiest way to paraphrase the rules into one sentence describing the Excursionist:

The first route wholly within a single MileagePlus defined region that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in is free.

Here’s the same paraphrasing applied to my EWR-LHR-VIE-EWR Excursionist example above:

The first route (LHR-VIE) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Europe) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (Mainland US) is free. True to form, United charges you 0 miles for the LHR-VIE segment.

With that covering 95% of the logic United.com follows for pricing out Excursionist itineraries, let’s see how else it can be applied.

Booking Excursionist Itineraries Online

All you need to do to book an Excursionist award itinerary (the Excursionist Perk doesn’t apply to paid tickets) is use the multi-city search tool found on the United home page and plug in the segments you want to book.

As long as your itinerary follows the Excursionist logic, it will price correctly. There’s no extra button to select or special page to go to in order to price these tickets correctly.

When you go to select your free Excursionist leg, the award search engine will reflect 0 additional miles and only the additional taxes and fees that need to be paid. Here’s the free LON-VIE leg from the beginning example:

Excursionist Logic Applied

Below are five examples of Excursionist itineraries taking the perk’s base logic and applying it to real-world award itineraries. These itineraries are meant to display the principles of the Excursionist rather than exact itineraries you should fly. Each holds a different example of how you should think to apply the Excursionist. For each one, I’ll conclude with the simple paraphrase for the Excursionist Perk I used above.

1. The East Asian Hopper

Starting in South Korea (meaning this itinerary will be nested within a separate transpacific ticket you book from the US), you can see a variety of cities and countries on a single ticket. Here’s the itinerary:

Seoul Incheon – Taipei (open jaw) Singapore – Bangkok (long layover) – Hong Kong (open jaw) Beijing – Seoul Gimpo – Jeju Island

You can see Seoul, Taipei, and Singapore each for as long as you like. You then overnight in Bangkok with enough time to have dinner, then see Hong Kong, Beijing and Jeju Island (Korean Hawaii) each for as long as you like. The grand total for all these destinations in Thai, Singapore and Asiana Airlines business class is a minuscule 45,000 miles:

There are two open jaws in which you’re responsible for your own travel, which are Taipei to Singapore (plenty of low-cost options like Scoot) and Hong Kong to Beijing which again has plenty of low-cost options. What an incredible itinerary, in luxury, for such a small amount of miles. North Asia to North Asia in business class is 22,500 miles each way, making ICN-TPE and PEK-CJU 22,5000 miles each for a total cost of 45,000 miles.

Excursionist Paraphrase:
The first route (SIN-BKK-HKG) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Southeast Asia) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (North Asia) is free. True to form, United charges you 0 miles for the SIN-BKK-HKG segment.

2. The Exotic Explorer

Start in the US to see Nepal, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka for an incredible price. Here’s the route:

Houston – Istanbul – Kathmandu (open jaw) Delhi – Trivandrum – Male (open jaw) Colombo – Singapore – San Francisco – Houston

This itinerary allows you to see Kathmandu, Delhi, the Maldives and Sri Lanka each for as long as you like. You’re responsible for travel from Kathmandu to Delhi and Male to Colombo, each of which are very easy segments to book yourself. You can see four fantastic destinations, each sure to broaden your horizons, for a very reasonable total of 85,000 miles and less than $100 in taxes and fees:

Excursionist Paraphrase:
The first route (DEL-MLE) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Central Asia) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (Mainland US) is free. True to form, United charges you 0 miles for the DEL-TRV-MLE segment.

The Mainland US to Central Asia is 42,500 miles each way in economy, meaning Houston to Kathmandu is 42,500 miles as is Colombo back to Houston, for a total of 85,000 miles.

3. The Southern North America/South of Central America/North of South America/West of Everywhere Turtler

Seeing the Galapagos turtles is something nearly topping my to-do list, but I want to see much of the surrounding region as well. With this itinerary, you can cover Mexico to Colombia for an amount of miles you nearly sneeze away each year. Here’s the itinerary:

Mexico City – Bogota (open jaw) Quito – Baltra (GPS) (stopover) GPS – Quito – Panama City – Mexico City – Puerto Vallarta

Grab an easy Southwest Airlines flight to Mexico City, which I continue to hear wonderful things about from recent visitors. See the city as long as you like as well as Bogota, Quito and the Galapagos, and end in Mexican resort area Puerto Vallarta all for a measly 30,000 miles:

The itinerary is Mexico to Northern South America, which costs 15,000 miles each way in economy. MEX-BOG and GPS-PVR are each 15,000 miles, for a total of 30,000 miles.

Excursionist Paraphrase:
The first route (UIO-GPS) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Northern South America) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (Mexico) is free. True to form United charges you 0 miles for the UIO-GPS segment.

4. The Time Machine

Stick with me on this one: By taking advantage of the cheapest intra-region zone (Japan) on the United award chart, we can lower the cost of a US transcon saver flight from 12,500 miles to 10,000 miles. Here’s the itinerary:

Osaka, Itami  – Tokyo Haneda (open jaw) San Francisco – Newark (open jaw) Haneda – Osaka Itami

Intra-Japan is 5,000 miles each way on Star Alliance Partner ANA (can only be booked 30 days in advance of travel). That means you pay for two Intra-Japan tickets at 5,000 miles each and get the SFO-EWR transcon for free, making your total price 10,000 miles for three flights instead of 12,500 miles typically paid for only the SFO-EWR.

The problem of course is if you aren’t visiting Japan in the next 30 days and miss that first ITM-NRT flight, the rest of the itinerary will be canceled. How do you get around this? Remember Japan is 17 hours ahead of San Francisco for much of the year.

Excursionist Paraphrase:
The first route (SFO-EWR) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Mainland US) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (Japan) is free. True to form United charges you 0 miles for the SFO-EWR segment.

5. The Independent

If you like to plan ahead and have 2-3 trips at a time on the books, you can nest a few Excursionists or a one-way award ticket with an Excursionist to make powerful itineraries around the globe. This itinerary is simply to prove the basic logic of the Excursionist rather than something you’d want you fly, again unless you’re piecing and nesting multiple itineraries together. Here is the itinerary:

Chicago – Newark (open jaw) Johannesburg – Accra (open jaw) Mexico City – Los Angeles

My itinerary begins and ends in the same zone (mainland US), making the first segment wholly within another region (Central and Southern Africa) free. In this case, the itinerary cost 30,000 miles:

Chicago to Newark is 12,500 miles in economy and Mexico to the mainland US (MEX-LAX) is 17,500 miles, leaving a total of 30,000 miles, with JNB-ACC free. If you can make yourself think about the Excursionist in the manner of simply beginning and ending in the same zone — even if it means coming from another zone back to the original departure zone — you should begin to realize some of the amazing itineraries to nest together.

Excursionist Paraphrase:
The first route (JNB-ACC) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Central and Southern Africa) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (Mainland US) is free. True to form United charges you 0 miles for the JNB-ACC segment.

Keys to Successful Excursionists

Here are some of my tips and rules about the Excursionist Perk based on my own research and hours toiling. Because United’s written rules are so vague, I can’t confirm my hypothesis with 100% certainty and look forward to all of your experimentations.

  • The free leg must be booked in sequential order, in between the first and final segments. Even though the United booking engine suggests a non-sequential itinerary would still be 0 miles, I can’t book a free segment at the end of a round-trip itinerary — i.e., you can’t book ATL-EWR round-trip and then add a free intra-Europe flight in the future.
  • After multiple searches, you need to clear your cookies and start over on United.com. The search engine begins to say there are errors and no results after several queries.
  • During the multi-segment search, the seven-day and 30-day calendars will error out and say nothing is available even when flights are open. You need to change your search dates in the multi-city search function to find available dates.
  • There’s no maximum segment or maximum permitted mileage limitations on Excursionist itineraries.
  • Don’t forget about open jaws, which are possible when using the Excursionist Perk. If you can travel on your own to get to the next city where your ticket picks up, you’ve added yet another destination to visit for no extra miles.
  • Study the regions of the MileagePlus award chart:
    • Large regions typically hold the most potential value, as those longer inter-region segments will be free.
    • Booking the cheapest intra-region routes (i.e., Japan-Japan) means you still get the more expensive Excursionist leg free. It doesn’t matter if the Excursionist leg costs twice as much as the intra-region flights (see Time Machine above).
    • Don’t call United — Agents have no idea what you’re trying to do and you’ll be on hold for hours and still end up with bad information. The next three rules are also “don’t call United.” You should only use United.com for Excursionist itineraries.

Bottom Line

Even if I’ve lost you at this point, I hope I’ve at least made you see the potential value of the Excursionist Perk. If you take what you learn here and combine an Excursionist with other nested award itineraries, each with their own sweet spots, you can potentially see 5-6 different destinations on a single trip for a very minimal amount of miles.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from the changes United made is to not take what you read at face value. I fear far too often I’ve read vague rules followed by analysis elsewhere and too quickly written off something that can hold real value.

Feature photo of aircrafts from United Airlines docked at terminal E at George Bush Intercontinental Airport at night. (Photo by Shutterstock.com)

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