How 3 TPG reporters would spend 1 million United miles

4d ago

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United MileagePlus has seen changes and devaluations over the years, but MileagePlus miles remain a powerful airline currency for both international and domestic award tickets.

In addition to offering some great redemption options and fun routes (such as the Island Hopper), there’s also the program’s famous Excursionist Perk that allows a free stopover on round-trip international tickets.

Over the past couple of months, TPG’s Points and Miles team has discussed how we’d spend 1 million of the most popular hotel and transferable points. Today, we’ll switch gears to airline miles and discuss how the three of us would spend 1 million United MileagePlus miles to book epic adventures worldwide.

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In This Post

Asia and Europe in business class for 2

Andrew Kunesh, senior reporter

As the travel world reopens, I’ve mentally planned countless trips.

One that’s been on my mind for months is booking a tour of Asia when the region reopens, with stops in some of my favorite cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo. I’ve laid out an itinerary that lets me revisit my favorite Asian cities while adding a couple of new-to-me cities into the mix.

The trip would require two separate itineraries, so I can maximize the United Excursionist Perk to build out a multistop itinerary that hits all of my desired cities. Note that I am booking for two passengers and all flights are in business class.

The first itinerary would get me to and from Asia by way of Japan. United splits Asia up into multiple regions, and considers Japan its own region. In order to use the Excursionist Perk, I have to book my transpacific flights in and out of the same region, so I’ll use Japan as my starting and ending point for this one.

NY to Asia routing
(Image courtesy of gcmap.com)

The first round of flights consists of:

  • New York (LGA) to Tokyo Haneda (HND) via Houston (IAH) on United and ANA.
  • Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo (CTS) with ANA.
  • Osaka (KIX) to New York-JFK via Seoul (ICN) with Asiana.

This round-trip ticket costs 168,000 miles in business class with $74.15 in taxes and fees per person, for a total of 336,000 miles spent for my travel companion and me. It would let me revisit Tokyo, and add Sapporo and Osaka to my list of visited cities.

United itinerary to Japan with Excursionist Perk
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

After this, I’d book an intra-Asia ticket that also takes advantage of the Excursionist Perk. This ticket would take me from Sapporo to Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The routing is a little convoluted, but it lets me take advantage of a free one-way flight with the Excursionist Perk.

Intra-Asia Itinerary Singapore Bangkok and Hong Kong
(Image courtesy of gcmap.com)
  • Sapporo (CTS) to Singapore (SIN) via Taipei (TPE) with EVA Airways, long layover in Taipei.
  • Hong Kong (HKG) to Bangkok (BKK) with Thai Airways.
  • Bangkok to Osaka (KIX) via Seoul (ICN) with Thai Airways and Asiana.

This ticket costs 94,500 miles and $100.50 in taxes and fees per person in business class, for a total of 189,000 miles spent for two passengers. I’d revisit Hong Kong and Bangkok while adding Singapore to my list of visited cities.

Intra-Asia Excursionist award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Of course, I’d need to get a ticket from Singapore to Hong Kong. I’d book this as a cheap paid ticket as I cannot book premium-cabin Singapore Airlines awards with United miles, and flights between the two cities are usually cheap. I can book a one-way ticket on Singapore Airlines for $149 per person in economy.

SIN to HKG ticket on Singapore Airlines
(Screenshot courtesy of google.com/flights)

This leaves me with 475,000 United miles left to spend.

Since we’re working with a lot of miles, I’d transfer 100,000 of these to Marriott Bonvoy at a 1:1 transfer ratio, which I normally don’t recommend doing as you almost always lose value with this transfer. That said, if the goal is to redeem these miles, I’d gladly take a discount on hotel stays. You can transfer up to 100,000 United miles to Marriott every year.

I’d use these Marriott Bonvoy points to book two nights at The Kiroro, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel in Hokkaido, Japan. This city is a little under 20 miles from Sapporo and is an excellent Japanese ski destination. This would give my partner and me a couple of days away from bustling cities and a chance to hit the slopes.

The Kioro, Tribute Collection Award Pricing on Marriott's website
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

After this, I’m still left with 375,000 United miles. I would use these to plan my usual winter trip to Europe to visit family in Prague. I’d leverage the free Excursionist Perk to stop in London for a few days to visit my partner’s family in the U.K. Here’s a look at the itinerary:

London and Prague route map
(Image courtesy of gcmap.com)
  • Newark (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR) with United Airlines.
  • London Heathrow to Prague (PRG) via Frankfurt, Germany (FRA), with Lufthansa.
  • Prague to New York-JFK via Brussels (BRU) with Brussels Airlines.

This ticket costs 130,000 miles and $179.45 per person, for a total of 260,000 miles spent. All flights, including the short-haul connections, are booked in business class. Note that the order of flights is important here as beginning my time in Europe via London costs hundreds less in taxes/fees than if I departed back to the U.S. from London due to the U.K.’s Air Passenger Duty fees.

New York to London and Prague United award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

I’d save the remaining 115,000 miles for booking domestic flights around the U.S. on an as-needed basis. United often has solid award prices on domestic tickets, so I can book flights home to Chicago and flights to visit friends in San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and other major cities.

LGA to ORD United award ticket
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Related: How to spend a million Marriott points for an epic post-pandemic trip

Australia, India and Oktoberfest

Benji Stawski, strategic travel reporter

Although United moved away from published award charts and devalued its Mileage Plus program several times over the last couple of years, one standout sweet spot remains: the Excursionist Perk.

As discussed, at its most basic level, it allows you to add a one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket to another geographical region for no additional miles. With a million United miles, I’d book several United Excursionist redemptions and transfer any remaining miles to Marriott Bonvoy to book hotel stays.

First, I’d want to cross India off my bucket list.

I’d fly from New York (LGA) to Mumbai, India (BOM), in business class for 80,000 miles, Mumbai to New Delhi (DEL) in business class for free, and then New Delhi back to New York (EWR) for another 80,000 miles.

The intra-India flight that I’ll be getting for “free” is just over two hours long and usually costs around $300 each way. The taxes and fees would come out to just $51 total for the three segments. Air India isn’t known for offering the best business-class product, but I’ll be able to book either one of United’s direct flights to India or a connecting flight with another Star Alliance carrier.

India Excursionist Perk
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Next, in light of rumblings that Australia may reopen at some point, I’d book a trip to the Oceania region. First, I’d fly to Sydney (SYD) with a layover in my favorite city, Tokyo (HND). I’d then fly from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand (AKL), for “free” and return to New York with a layover in Los Angeles (LAX).

Altogether, this itinerary would come out to about 88,000 miles in economy. Given how long the flights are, I’d ideally like to fly business class, but unfortunately finding saver business-class availability on these routes is virtually impossible. What’s nice about the long layovers in Tokyo and Los Angeles is that I’ll essentially be tacking on additional stopovers to my trip for free.

Bondi Beach
(Photo by Christopher Groenhout/Getty Images)

Finally, I’d plan a trip to Germany later in 2022 to visit family in Frankfurt (FRA) and cross Oktoberfest in Munich (MUC) off my list. And because fancy flights and liters of beer are more fun when enjoyed with a friend, we’ll make this part of the trip for two.

I’d book Lufthansa first class for the transatlantic legs for around 121,000 miles each way and Lufthansa business class for the “free” flight from Frankfurt to Munich. Even better, Lufthansa first-class awards are now bookable 30 days out, up from the old normal of 14 days.

For my return, rather than flying straight to New York, I’d end my Excursionist itinerary in Chicago (ORD). There’s no price difference to end in a different city so I’ll just need to pay around 5,700 miles for the flight back to New York — not a bad price to add another stop to my trip. Plus, based on my experiences, it’s typically easier to find Lufthansa first-class award availability to Chicago than New York.

When booked for two, that trip would use up a little under 500,000 of the miles.

Lufthansa first class seat on Boeing 747-8
(Photo by Sorbis/Shutterstock)

I’ll then have about 250,000 miles remaining, which I’d transfer to Marriott Bonvoy at a 1:1 transfer ratio over time. This normally isn’t the best use of United miles since Marriott points are generally less valuable, but with so many miles left over, I am OK with giving up some value in exchange for some free hotel nights. The only catch is that you can only transfer up to 100,000 United miles to Marriott each calendar year so I won’t be able to transfer them all at once, but could use 100,000 this year and 100,000 the following year with some to spare.

I’d use these points to book hotels such as the following:

  • ITC Maratha, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Mumbai — 20,000 to 30,000 points per night.
  • Le Meridien New Delhi — 20,000 to 30,000 points per night.
  • Pier One Sydney Harbour, Autograph Collection — 30,000 to 40,000 points per night.
  • Residence Inn Frankfurt City Center — 20,000 to 30,000 points per night.
  • Moxy Munich Messe — 15,000 to 20,000 points per night.
  • W Chicago – City Center — 30,000 to 40,000 points per night.

Related: 3 ways to spend a million Capital One miles traveling the world

South Africa, island-hopping and Oceania

Katie Genter, senior writer

You’ve heard it mentioned multiple times now, but I’m also a fan of the United Excursionist Perk, having used it myself many times over the years. Here’s how I’d leverage that program benefit to redeem 1 million United miles.

I flew the United Island Hopper back in 2017. But I enjoyed it so much, I want to do it again. So I’d start by booking a multicity United award from Atlanta (ATL) to Majuro, Marshall Islands (MAJ); Majuro to Koror, Palau (ROR); and Kosrae, Micronesia (KSA), to Atlanta. Here’s an example itinerary that would cost 70,000 miles per person in economy.

United island hopper example
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Related: Maximizing the United Island Hopper using United’s Excursionist Perk

Then, I’d book flights to see a few other islands, including Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands (SPN); Guam (GUM); and Pohnpei, Micronesia (PNI). The flights start at just 8,000 miles in economy.

From Oceania, I could nest another United Excursionist award. For example, I could fly from Pohnpei (PNI) to Okinawa (OKA), Okinawa to Sapporo (CTS) and Tokyo (HND) to Kosrae (KSA). If I fly on dates with saver availability, I should only need to redeem about 33,000 miles per person in economy. However, United’s website gave me a consistent “There was an error loading the award calendar” message when piecing this award together, so it may not be bookable.

Related: Your guide to the best seats on United’s Honolulu-to-Guam Island Hopper

Either way, I could presumably find an Excursionist Perk award from Oceania to Japan to book on United’s website if I was serious about booking this trip. Then, I could redeem as few as 5,000 United miles per award to fly on ANA in economy within Japan. I’d likely book flights to Nagoya and Tokyo.

Destinations in Oceania
Look at all the destinations my husband and I could visit for about 313,000 United miles. (Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

This fantastic trip would let me see Majuro, Koror, Kosrae, Saipan, Guam, Pohnpei, Okinawa, Sapporo, Nagoya and Tokyo. I could book all these awards for two people for about 313,000 miles. Since I still have plenty of miles left to spend, I’d also book a trip to South America.

South America is another appealing region for the United Excursionist Perk. And since I’ve always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, let’s consider a trip to Baltra (GPS). However, I might as well add a few other northern South American destinations to my trip, including Quito, Ecuador (UIO); Lima, Peru (LIM); and Bogota (BOG) and Medellin (MDE) in Colombia.

So, I could book a United Excursionist award with the following legs: Atlanta to Baltra, Baltra to Quito and Medellin to Atlanta. I priced this award as low as 84,000 miles.

United Explorist perk South America
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Then I could book the other legs within northern South America for a few as 8,000 miles in economy. As such, my South America trip for two could cost around 132,000 miles.

Destinations in South America
Here are the cities I’d visit in South America on this trip. (Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

However, since I still have about half a million United miles to use, let’s consider a final United Excursionist trip I could book to Africa.

I’d book a business-class award for this one using the Excursionist perk from Atlanta to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT), Johannesburg (JNB) to Dakar, Senegal (DSS), and then Zanzibar, Tanzania (ZNZ), to Atlanta. Here’s an example of such an award that costs 336,000 miles for two travelers.

United Explorist perk Africa
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Then, I’d use most of the remaining miles to travel within Africa. United has a generous central and southern Africa award region. And you can redeem as few as 8,000 miles for economy awards and as few as 30,000 miles for business-class awards within this region. So, I’d likely add on visits to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (DAR), Nairobi, Kenya (NBO), Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (VFA), and Accra, Ghana (ACC).

Destinations in Africa
Destinations I’d visit on my trip to central and southern Africa using United miles. (Screenshot courtesy of gcmap.com)

Related: How to redeem 1 million Amex Membership Rewards

How to earn 1 United MileagePlus miles

There are a variety of ways to earn United miles, with the easiest being spending on a credit card.

The team’s favorite way to earn United miles is by spending on credit cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points. These points transfer instantly to United MileagePlus at a 1:1 transfer ratio, so 100,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points is equal to 100,000 United miles.

We prefer earning Ultimate Rewards points over United miles because of the flexibility they offer. You can transfer Chase points to a number of different points programs, including World of Hyatt and Air France-KLM Flying Blue. This gives you plenty of options when it comes to redeeming your points.

You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points with these credit cards:

Alternatively, you can earn United miles directly with a United cobranded credit card. Here’s a look at some of our favorites:

  • United Explorer Card: Earn up to 70,000 miles: 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening; plus, an additional 10,000 bonus miles after spending $6,000 total in the first six months.
  • NEW United Quest Card: Earn up to 100,000 miles: 80,000 bonus miles awarded after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening; plus, an additional 20,000 bonus miles after spending $10,000 total in the first six months.
  • United Club Infinite Card: Earn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
  • The United Business Card: Earn up to 150,000 miles: 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening; plus, earn an additional 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $20,000 total in the first six months from account opening.

Related: TPG Quick points — How to earn more United miles on the run

Bottom line

United MileagePlus has been devalued over the years, but it remains a powerful mileage currency for those who live near United hubs and frequent Star Alliance airlines. Plus, United miles are easy to earn since you can transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards and earn with cobranded credit cards.

Here, we showed you how to redeem 1 million United miles. Even if you don’t have a million miles in your account, you can use this guide as inspiration for future redemptions. Plus, make sure to read our full guide to redeeming United miles and the best United sweet spots.

Additional reporting by Benji Stawski and Katie Genter.

Featured image of Hong Kong by Efired/Shutterstock.com

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