Maximizing Redemptions With United MileagePlus

Mar 9, 2019

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Despite several changes to the MileagePlus loyalty program over the years, United is still a great option for those looking to get a consistently high value when redeeming your points. It’s also a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so travelers with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve can easily boost their MileagePlus balances through various travel and dining purchases.

However, earning United miles is just one part of the puzzle. Knowing which redemptions to target can ensure you’re getting a solid value, so today we’ll take a look at some of the best ways to maximize your award tickets with United MileagePlus.

Award Sales

Image by gladassfanny / Getty Images
A late-2018 award sale could’ve gotten you to the slopes for fewer United miles. Photo by gladassfanny / Getty Images

While there’s plenty of doom and gloom news about devaluations, decreased award availability and the stripping of benefits from award tickets, one incredibly positive trend we’ve seen over the last few years is the launch of limited-time, discounted award sales. Delta leads the way, but United had a solid year in 2018 in its own right. One of my personal favorites was the “Sun and Ski” sale, which made December a little cheerier with up to 40% off round-trip saver economy awards to Hawaii and top ski destinations like Aspen, Sun Valley and Jackson, Wyoming. Earlier in the year there was also a 20% sale on saver awards to many destinations in Asia and the South Pacific, including China, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

After working hard to build your stash of miles, make sure to keep your eyes on our website (and follow us on Twitter) so you can jump on the next sale and stretch your miles even farther.

Premium Cabin Redemptions

United’s Polaris business class product actually requires fewer miles than many business class awards on the carrier’s partners. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

United has invested an incredible sum of money in making its international premium experience more competitive, between opening new Polaris lounges, taking delivery of new planes with the sleek, signature blue Polaris cabin, and retrofitting much of its existing long-haul fleet as well. While that’s all nice to hear, the reason it should excite you is that it’s actually cheaper to book United Polaris through MileagePlus than it is to book a partner airline’s business class cabin.

Let’s take a look at a flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt (FRA), a premium route for United and one also operated by its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa. A one-way business class award on Lufthansa’s 747-8 would cost you 70,000 United MileagePlus miles. However, the exact same route would set you back just 60,000 if you booked a United-operated flight. Those 10,000 miles you save are worth $130 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.

The savings can be even more significant on other routes, like from the US to South Asia, where it costs an extra 15,000 miles to book a business class award on a Star Alliance Partner airline.

Unfortunately United is often stingy with its business class award space, so you might be forced to book with a partner anyways. However, you can use ExpertFlyer to set alerts for both United and its Star Alliance partners if there’s no business class award space on your desired date(s) of travel. You can also use ExpertFlyer to try to ensure you get the full Polaris experience.

No Fuel Surcharges

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 takes off from JFK
A Lufthansa award might require more miles with United, but you’ll save some significant cash over booking through other Star Alliance programs. (Photo by Alberto Riva / TPG)

The excitement of snagging a “free” trip using your miles can be dampened significantly by fuel surcharges, those extra costs that many programs will add to award tickets. Other Star Alliance programs can add hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges to their award tickets, but you can keep some serious cash in your pocket by booking through United, as it’s one of the few programs out there that doesn’t add these.

Of course, this isn’t entirely without costs, as United’s award rates are generally higher than many of its partners. It also tacks on a $75 close-in booking fee for mileage tickets booked within 21 days of departure (though this is discounted or waived entirely for United Premier elite members). However, if you can save $500 or even $1,000 in fees on a single award ticket by booking through United, it can easily be worth it.

Excursionist Perk

United MileagePlus doesn’t offer an unrestricted stopover like some other frequent flyer programs, but it does offer the Excursionist Perk. If used strategically, it has the potential to be even more valuable. You can check out this guide for everything you need to know about maximizing the Excursionist Perk, but at its most basic level, it allows you to add a qualifying, one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket without any additional miles. Here are the rules United lists on its website:

  • 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 and most obvious use of this perk would be for a round-trip award from the US to Europe or Asia. You could fly from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, use the Excursionist Perk for a free flight from Frankfurt to Paris (CDG), and then complete your round-trip award booking with a flight back to IAD.

In this case, you’d pay the normal award rate for a round-trip flight from the US to Europe, and the leg from FRA-CDG would be free.

Of course, you could get much more creative than this. Maybe you decide to add an open jaw, and fly back to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) instead of Washington.

That’s still pretty tame in the grand scheme of what’s possible with this perk, but if you want to learn about crazy routing possibilities like “the time machine” or the “Southern North America/South of Central America/North of South America/West of Everywhere Turtler” make sure to check out Richard Kerr’s complete guide to the Excursionist Perk.

Bottom Line

Despite some changes to the United MileagePlus program, there are still plenty of great value options for redeeming your miles. Knowing which award types, cabins and routing rules to utilize can help you boost your redemption values every time. At the very least, make sure you study up on the Excursionist Perk if you’d like to add a free second destination to your next vacation booked with United MileagePlus miles.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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