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Following Delta’s lead a few years back, United’s MileagePlus program underwent a major award chart devaluation, switched to a revenue-based mileage-earning formula, instituted revenue requirements for elite status, raised those requirements (twice!), devalued its miles again, blocked some partner awards … well, you get the idea.
Given all those negative developments, why even bother with United awards? Because the MileagePlus program does still have some value … if you know where to find it. Today, we’re going to take an in-depth look at United’s award rules, including its award chart for United and Star Alliance partner flights, associated fees, and some hard-and-fast guidelines you can use to book the awards you want.
Although award travel is often thought of as “free,” you can actually get dinged with tons of fees for everything from changing your plans to making a last-minute booking if you’re not careful. You can find United’s fee schedule on this page.
Phone booking fee: It’ll set you back $25 to book an award over the phone, though it is waived for Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites. You can also likely get an agent to waive it if you can’t get United’s website to price your award.
Close-in booking fee: When booking award travel within 21 days of departure, flyers without status will pay $75. Premier Silvers pay $50, Premier Golds pay $25 and the fee is waived entirely for Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites.
Change and cancellation fees: When changing an award or cancelling it and redepositing your miles 61 days or more in advance of departure, non-elites pay $75. Premier Silvers pay $50. Premier Golds pay $25. Premier Platinums, 1Ks and Global Services members have this fee waived. This is actually a very nice perk, as most other airlines do not offer “discounts” when you need to adjust your plans far in advance; the fee is set, regardless of whether the change is made 6 days or 6 months ahead of time.
However, your fee is higher when changing or canceling an award within 60 days of departure. You’ll pay $125 without elite status, though it’s discounted to $100 for Silvers, $75 for Golds, $50 for Platinums and waived for 1K and Global Services elites.
Taxes, fees and surcharges: When it comes to added costs that you’d incur right at booking, United is an outlier, as the carrier doesn’t impose any fuel surcharges or additional fees aside from the ones outlined above. You’ll still need to pay any government-imposed taxes, but these should be relatively minimal.
United is a member of the Star Alliance, so you can earn and redeem miles on the following airlines:
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- Brussels Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- EVA Air
- Juneyao Air (connecting partner)
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- TAP Portugal
- Turkish Airlines
United also has the following non-alliance partners:
- Aer Lingus
- Air Dolomiti
- Boutique Air
- Cape Air
- Hawaiian Airlines (non-Mainland US flights)
- Olympic Air
- Silver Airways
United prices its awards by zone, so the number of miles you need for an award depends on the region or country to and from which you are flying. Here is a link to the airline’s interactive award chart. To use it, you simply select the region of origin, including country or sub-region, then select your destination the same way.
From there, the mileage values pop up, including awards on United’s own flights, if applicable, and those of partners, plus Saver (low) and Everyday (full) levels of pricing.
However, it’s worth pointing out that United has started using more dynamic pricing for flights on its own metal. While this isn’t completely dynamic pricing without published award charts (like Delta), it still adds additional complexity to the booking process.
For example, here are some search results for a one-way flight from Miami (MIA) to London-Heathrow (LHR) this November:
None of these five award prices correspond to published rates on United’s award chart. This is worth keeping in mind as you’re searching; look for flights that specifically say “Saver Award” to ensure you’re getting the lowest published price for that class of service.
It’s also worth noting that holders of the carrier’s cobranded credit cards (including the United Explorer Card) gain access to additional economy award inventory simply by having the card. This applies to United-operated flights, but you must login to your MileagePlus account for this to appear. This perk also extends to United elite travelers, with higher tier members even enjoying expanded business class award availability.
Here’s a list of countries included in each region, for easy reference. You can also find the list here.
|Mainland US, Alaska, Canada||Mainland US, Alaska, Canada|
|Caribbean||Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman), Cuba, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands (British and U.S.)|
|Central America||Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama|
|Northern South America||Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela|
|Southern South America||Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay|
|Europe||Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom|
|Middle East||Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen|
|Northern Africa||Algeria, Canary Islands, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia|
|Central and Southern Africa||Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote D’lvoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, South Africa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe|
|North Asia||China (Mainland), South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan|
|Central Asia||Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan|
|South Asia||Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam|
|Oceania||American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa|
|Australia & New Zealand||Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island|
Knowing which countries/cities fall into which regions is critical when it comes to routing rules as well as the Excursionist Perk, both of which we’ll detail below.
Now for the interesting (or frustrating, depending how you look at it) part: maximizing those miles and regions along with United’s award rules to get the most out of your miles. United does publish its basic award rules. But there are a couple of important items to pull out, and a couple things that might need clarifying.
Some other carriers, notably American Airlines, have clear rules in place prohibiting transit between two regions on award tickets via a third region. For instance, you can’t fly between the US and Europe via South America. United does not publish its own rules on the topic, but we do know about some based on (a lot) of award searches and feedback from other travelers.
For starters, anything that violates the basic “common sense” rule likely isn’t possible. Apart from these examples where you’re transiting extremely far out of the way between your origin and destination, we also know that you cannot fly from North America to Oceania or Australia/New Zealand via Europe, Africa or the Middle East. If you want to get down under from the US, you’re effectively stuck going over the Pacific, either directly or via Asia.
In addition, travel from North America to other regions generally cannot route via South America. The one exception seems to be awards to/from South Africa like the one below.
United’s online award search interface (as a whole) works pretty well, so it should provide you with whatever possible routings you can take.
Maximum Permitted Mileage
Unlike American and Delta, United does not have maximum permitted mileage restrictions on award tickets that we know of, so you can choose any number of routes as long as they don’t violate the rules above.
For example, you can fly from the US to Asia either over the Pacific or the Atlantic via Europe, which adds a tremendous amount of flexibility and the fun of getting to try several different airlines. Take a look at the sample routings below, which include United’s own nonstop from Newark (EWR) to Hong Kong (HKG) as well as options via Cairo (CAI) on Egyptair, Munich (MUC) on Lufthansa and Zurich (ZRH) on SWISS.
You could even route via Johannesburg (JNB) on South African Airways!
One-Ways, Open Jaws, Stopovers and the Excursionist Perk
Remember all those changes we were discussing at the beginning of this post? Here’s where they make a difference. Flyers can still book one-way awards using United MileagePlus miles. However, in 2016 the program eliminated the ability to book a stopover (a stay of over 24 hours internationally) on round-trip awards. This included not just basic round-trips but also itineraries that included one or two open jaws booked as a single round-trip award.
(As an aside, MileagePlus also discontinued round-the-world awards at that time.)
At the same time, the United award search engine axed the ability to piece together your own complex itineraries by doing a segment-by-segment search and then calling a phone agent to book it. Now, if the award does not price out on the website, you’re pretty much out of luck.
Instead, United began offering what it calls the “Excursionist Perk.” It’s convoluted, but to (try to) put it simply, the Excursionist Perk is basically a way of adding a free one-way award segment to a qualifying, larger round-trip itinerary.
In order to qualify for the Excursionist Perk, your award ticket must satisfy a number of requirements:
- Your travel must originate and end in the same MileagePlus-defined region, such as the Mainland US, Canada and Alaska, Europe or North Asia.
- The Excursionist Perk “free” segment must originate and terminate within a single MileagePlus-defined region that is not the region where your travel originates.
- You can only qualify for one Perk segment per itinerary.
- The cabin of service and award type for the Perk segment must be the same or lower as the one-way award preceding it.
It’s a lot, right? Here are two quick examples to help you get your mind around it.
Let’s say you want to fly from New York-JFK or Newark (EWR) to Frankfurt (FRA), spend some time there, then move on to Paris (CDG) for a few days before flying back to Los Angeles, all in economy. Booking everything separately, you’d pay 30,000 miles each way from the US to Europe plus an extra 8,000 miles for the Frankfurt-Paris segment for a total of 68,000 miles. However, you could book everything together, save the 8,000 miles by getting that Frankfurt-Paris flight included as the Excursionist Perk, and end up paying just 60,000 miles for the whole thing.
For another example that showcases the savings more starkly, let’s say you wanted to fly business class from San Francisco (SFO) to Asia and visit both Hong Kong and Singapore (SIN). You could book two one-ways from San Francisco to Hong Kong and Singapore back to San Francisco for 150,000 miles on United (180,000 on partners) and then redeem an additional 30,000 miles (or pay for a separate ticket) between Hong Kong and Singapore.
However, the Excursionist perk would allow you to simply tag on the Hong Kong-Singapore segment and save the 30,000 miles.
To take advantage of this quirk, you need to use the Multi-City search on United.com. Any itinerary that qualifies and where there is award availability should price out properly, with the Excursionist Perk segment showing 0 miles:
Despite many recent devaluations and other changes that have complicated booking awards, United MileagePlus is still a useful frequent flyer program thanks to its variety of partners, the still-decent award prices, the lack of fuel surcharges and minimal routing and maximum-mileage restrictions. The fact that the program is also a 1:1 Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner is just another added bonus that makes it that much easier to reap value from the program.
Featured photo by Alberto Riva/TPG.
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