How to travel more for fewer miles with United’s Excursionist Perk
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United’s MileagePlus program looks very different than it did even five years ago. In 2019, United did away with its award charts and moved to dynamic pricing. Shortly thereafter, United increased the price of partner bookings by 10%. While we were hoping that this would be temporary, it’s looking like these unfavorable changes are here to stay. Ultimately, this is what we call “pandemic-era devaluations.”
However, one hidden gem that remains is the Excursionist Perk. At its most basic level, it allows you to add a one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket without any additional miles. The Excursionist Perk rules are loosely defined, but it’s one of the most valuable award tools in existence.
Warning: What follows will be beyond 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.
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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 MileagePlus program. The United website is incredibly vague when defining the Excursionist Perk, which leaves ample room for creative minds to stretch the bounds of this perk. 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 are within a single MileagePlus-defined region.
- The cabin of service and award inventory 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 Perk:
The first route within a single MileagePlus-defined region that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends is free in the same class as the preceding leg.
And here’s the simplest (and likely intended) use of the Excursionist Perk:
A round-trip business-class award flight between Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) using United miles starts at 120,000 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 you could book the following itinerary for the same number of miles as a simple round-trip award:
- Newark to London (stopover).
- London to Brussels Airport (BRU).
- Brussels to Newark.
Here’s what that looks like on the map:
And here’s the itinerary priced out using United’s multicity search functionality:
You pay no additional miles compared to flying just EWR-LHR round-trip, and you get to see Brussels in addition to London and conveniently return home directly from there to Newark. You’ll even save $204.60 by minimizing the United Kingdom’s high departure taxes on your ticket. Pretty straightforward, and at face value, United could win customers over with this seemingly nice benefit.
Here’s the same paraphrasing from above applied to the EWR-LHR-BRU-EWR Excursionist example:
The first route (LHR-BRU) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (Europe) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (U.S.) is free in the same class (business class) as the preceding leg.
So yes, United charges you zero miles for the LHR-BRU segment.
Booking Excursionist itineraries online
Taking advantage of the Excursionist Perk is easy and can be done online. All you need to do to book an Excursionist award itinerary is use the “Advanced search” tool found on the United home page.
From there, select the “Multi-city” option and plug in the segments you want to book. You must check the box to show the price in miles as the Excursionist Perk doesn’t apply to paid tickets.
As long as your itinerary follows the Excursionist logic, it will price correctly. There’s no extra button to select or special page to price these tickets correctly. The free Excursionist leg will automatically appear at zero miles (along with any additional taxes and fees). There’s no minimum or maximum stay requirement for the stopover.
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 Excursionist Perk’s principles rather than the exact itineraries you should fly. Each holds a different example of how you should think to apply the Excursionist Perk. For each one, we’ll conclude with the simple paraphrase for the Excursionist Perk used above.
1. The East Asian hopper
Starting in South Korea (meaning you can book a separate flight to Seoul), you can see various cities and countries on a single ticket. Here’s the itinerary:
- Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (ICN) to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK).
- Bangkok to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL).
- Manila to Seoul.
The first route (ICN-BKK) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (Southeast Asia) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (North Asia) is free in the same class (business class) as the preceding leg.
So, United charges you zero miles for the BKK-MNL segment.
2. The three-continent explorer
Start in the U.S. to see the U.K., Nepal, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Singapore for an incredible price. Here’s the route:
- Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) in Kathmandu, Nepal, via Istanbul Airport (IST).
- Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) to Velana International Airport (MLE) in Male, Maldives, via Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru (BLR).
- Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Chicago via Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
By using 12-hour layovers (where you can leave the airport) in London, Mumbai and Singapore, this itinerary allows you to see six countries.
You’re responsible for travel from Kathmandu to Delhi and Male to Colombo, each of which is a very easy segment to book yourself. You can see seven fantastic destinations, each sure to broaden your horizons, for a very reasonable total of 89,300 miles and just over $150 in taxes and fees:
The first route (DEL-MLE) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (South Asia) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (U.S.) is free in the same class (economy class) as the preceding leg.
So, United charges you zero miles for the DEL-BOM-MLE segment.
3. The Ecuadorian and Galapagos 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 Ecuador’s two major cities and the Galapagos Islands for a minimal outlay of miles. Here’s the itinerary:
- Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to Mariscal Sucre Quito International Airport (UIO).
- Guayaquil’s José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE) to Seymour Baltra Galapagos Airport (GPS).
- Baltra to Houston via Quito.
This is among the simpler itineraries on the Excursionist Perk but still represents a great value. Start in Houston (or anywhere in the U.S.), visit both Quito and Guayaquil for as long as you want, then visit the turtles (and other wildlife) in the Galapagos before flying back to the U.S. All you’re responsible for is getting from Quito to Guayaquil, an easy proposition.
The itinerary is from the U.S. to Northern South America, which starts at 20,000 miles each way in economy. IAH-UIO and GPS-IAH each start at 20,000 miles, for a total of 40,000 miles.
The first route (GYE-GPS) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (Northern South America) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (U.S.) is free in the same class (economy class) as the preceding leg.
So, United charges you zero miles for the GYE-GPS segment.
4. Dynamic pricing equals dynamic value
The general consensus is that dynamic pricing is a terrible development for award travelers looking to get outsize value for their miles. However, there are times when it can work to your advantage, and one way is with the Excursionist Perk. Consider this scenario: You’re based in Boston and have a trip planned to Thailand and Indonesia in November. You need a one-way flight from Bangkok to Jakarta, which would normally set you back at least 19,500 miles in economy.
However, rather than jumping to book that, consider the following:
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
- Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) to Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK).
- Los Angeles to San Francisco.
SFO-LAX is sometimes available from 5,500 miles each way. So you could nest your one-way CGK-BKK flight in between two weekend trips to Los Angeles. All you’d need to do is make your own way home from Los Angeles the first weekend and then down to LA the second weekend (potentially using an alternate form of transportation). This entire itinerary prices at just 11,000 miles and $28.40:
You’re thus getting a round-trip flight from San Francisco to LA and your desired CGK-BKK flight for fewer miles than if you booked the CGK-BKK flight alone.
Just be aware that you must actually fly the first leg of the flight; if you don’t, the rest of your itinerary will be canceled.
The first route (BKK-CGK) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (Southeast Asia) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (U.S.) is free in the same class (economy class) as the preceding leg.
So, United charges you zero miles for the BKK-CGK segment.
5. The independent
Take this theory even further if you like to plan ahead and have three trips at a time on the books, as you can nest a few Excursionists or a one-way award ticket with an Excursionist to make powerful itineraries around the globe. This itinerary simply demonstrates the Excursionist Perk’s basic logic rather than something you’d want to fly. Here is the itinerary:
- Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to San Francisco (business saver).
- Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) to Kotoka International Airport (ACC) in Accra, Ghana (business saver).
- Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) to Newark (economy saver).
The itinerary begins and ends in the same zone (mainland U.S.), making the first segment wholly within another region (Central and Southern Africa) free. In this case, the itinerary costs 31,500 miles:
The flight from Baltimore to San Francisco is ticketed as a business saver for 25,000 miles, which triggers the middle flight (Johannesburg to Accra) to be in business class too — and for no additional miles.
That’s a six-hour South African Airways business-class flight on a lie-flat seat for no additional miles.
And as in the last example, if you were to purchase the Excursionist leg by itself, it would take more miles than the entire multicity.
The economy saver flight from Boston to Newark is 6,500 miles.
So you’re effectively getting a first-class flight from Baltimore to San Francisco and an economy-class flight from Boston to Newark at no additional cost 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.
The first route (JNB-ACC) within a single MileagePlus-defined region (Central and Southern Africa) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (U.S.) is free in the same class (business class) as the preceding leg.
So, United charges you zero miles for the JNB-ACC segment.
Keys for successful Excursionist uses
Here are some additional tips and rules about the Excursionist Perk based on our tests. Because United’s written rules are so vague, we can’t confirm this hypothesis with 100% certainty and look forward to all of your experiments.
- 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 zero 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 multisegment search, the seven-day and 30-day may error out and say nothing is available even when flights are open. You need to change your search dates in the multicity search function to find available dates.
- There are 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 interregion segments will be free.
- Booking the cheapest intraregion 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 intraregion flights (see the dynamic pricing example above).
- Don’t call United — I spoke with five different agents on United’s Premier 1K line, and only one knew what the Excursionist Perk was — and not by name. Your agent may have no idea what you’re trying to do, and if you get an ill-informed one, 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.
Finally, you may want to consider adding a United cobranded credit card to your wallet if you’re serious about booking these itineraries. Cards like the United Explorer Card provide you with additional award availability on United-operated flights, which can have a noticeable impact on the options you see at the saver level.
Even if you’re lost at this point, you will hopefully see the Excursionist Perk’s potential value. If you take what you learn here and combine an Excursionist with other nested award itineraries, each with its own sweet spots, you can potentially see five-six different destinations on a single trip for a very minimal amount of miles.
Overall, the Excursionist Perk does require some legwork, but it remains a powerful tool to get some phenomenal value from your miles despite recent devaluations.
Additional reporting by Benji Stawski and Kyle Olsen.
Featured photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy.
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