How to Travel More for Fewer Miles With the United Excursionist Perk

May 6, 2019

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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 complimentary 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 the era. Fast-forward a few years later, and even in light of United’s switch to dynamic award pricing, 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 current United award chart. 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 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 Perk:

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

And here’s the simplest (and, I believe, intended) use of the Excursionist Perk:

A round-trip award flight between Newark (EWR) and London-Heathrow (LHR) using United miles in economy costs 60,000 miles at the saver level.

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 (BRU)
  • Brussels to Newark

Here’s what that looks like on the map:

And here’s the itinerary priced out using United.com’s Multi-city search functionality:

You pay no additional miles compared to flying just EWR-LHR round-trip, and you get to see Brussels on top of London and conveniently return home directly from there to Newark. You’ll even save $84.50 by minimizing the UK’s 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 my EWR-LHR-BRU-EWR Excursionist example:

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

Compared to the old policy of allowing open jaws and stopovers on round-trip award tickets, a free intra-Europe flight (worth less than $100) felt like a devaluation at first. I was upset, until I revisited the logic of the Excursionist Perk.

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 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. 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. The free Excursionist leg will automatically appear at 0 miles (along with any additional taxes and fees).

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 (ICN) to Taipei (TPE)
  • Singapore (SIN) to Hong Kong (HKG) with a long layover in Bangkok (BKK)
  • Beijing (PEK) to Jeju Island (CJU) via Seoul-Gimpo (GMP)

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 business class is a minuscule 45,000 miles:

 

There are two open jaws in which you’re responsible for your own travel: Taipei to Singapore (plenty of low-cost options like Scoot) and Hong Kong to Beijing (also with 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 (South Asia) that’s different than the region in which your itinerary begins and ends (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:

  • Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Kathmandu (KTM) via Istanbul (IST)
  • Delhi (DEL) to Male (MLE) via Bengaluru (BLR)
  • Columbo (CMB) to Chicago-O’Hare via Bangkok and Taipei

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 in which your itinerary begins and ends (US) is free. True to form, United charges you 0 miles for the DEL-BLR-MLE segment.

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

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 as well as the Galapagos Islands for a minimal outlay of miles. Here’s the itinerary:

  • Houston to Quito (UIO)
  • Guayaquil (GYE) to Baltra (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 US), 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 US. All you’re responsible for is getting from Quito to Guayaquil, an easy proposition.

The itinerary is the US to Northern South America, which costs 20,000 miles each way in economy. IAH-UIO and GPS-IAH are each 20,000 miles, for a total of 40,000 miles.

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

4. Dynamic pricing = Dynamic value

The general consensus is that dynamic pricing is a terrible development for award travelers looking to get outsized 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 Washington, DC and have a trip planned to Australia and New Zealand in January. You need a one-way flight from Auckland (AKL) to Sydney (SYD), which would normally set you back 17,500 miles in economy.

However, rather than jumping to book that, consider the following:

  • Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Newark (EWR)
  • Auckland to Sydney
  • Newark to Washington-Dulles

IAD-EWR is generally available for 6,000 miles each way, so you could nest your one-way SYD-AKL flight in between two weekend trips to New York City. All you’d need to do is make your own way home from New York the first weekend and then up to New York the second weekend (potentially using an alternate form of transportation). This entire itinerary prices at just 12,000 miles and $56.90:

You’re thus getting a round-trip flight from DC to NY and your desired AKL-SYD flight for fewer miles than if you booked the AKL-SYD 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 cancelled.

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

5. The Independent

Take this theory even further if you like to plan ahead and have 2-3 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 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 to Newark
  • Accra (ACC) to Johannesburg (JNB)
  • Mexico City (MEX) to Chicago

 

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 costs 30,000 miles:

 

Chicago to Newark is 12,500 miles in economy, and Mexico to the mainland US (MEX-ORD) is 17,500 miles, leaving a total of 30,000 miles, with ACC-JNB 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 (ACC-JNB) wholly within a MileagePlus defined region (Central and Southern Africa) that’s different than the region your itinerary begins and ends in (US) is free. True to form United charges you 0 miles for the ACC-JNB segment.

Keys For Successful Excursionist Uses

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 may 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 Dynamic Pricing example above).
  • Don’t call United — Agents 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, and this can have a noticeable impact on the options you see at the saver level.

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. The Excursionist perk does require some legwork, but it remains a powerful tool to get some phenomenal value from your miles.

Feature photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.

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