Book now: United opens the global saver award floodgates

Jan 8, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect changes in award availability.

It’s hard to plan future travels as countries continue to add restrictions, close borders and — in some cases — enter yet another round of pandemic-related lockdowns. It isn’t hard to dream about where 2021 could take us, though, and United’s made it especially easy today.

As TPG reader Zach G. has pointed out, the airline has opened up saver business-class awards on a huge range of international flights, making it possible to fly the carrier’s excellent Polaris product at the lowest possible rate.

The “usual suspects” — like Newark (EWR) to London (LHR) — have saver awards open for months at a time, but I’m also seeing plenty of availability where it’s usually far less likely to be found.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

Take San Francisco (SFO) to Tel Aviv (TLV), for example, one of United’s most premium flights. I don’t recall ever seeing availability on this route — now, there are plenty of openings on almost every date.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

There are also plenty of other nonstop or connecting options available. United’s new nonstop to Bangalore, India (BLR) is up for grabs, for example, and you could pair that flight with an onward connection to the Maldives (MLE).

United award flight from San Francisco to the Maldives
Screenshot courtesy of United.

Personally, I love the flexibility of booking awards. While getting refunds for cash fares can often result in a battle — and, at best, a notable delay — award bookings can offer ultimate flexibility. Cancellations often bump your mileage balance back up instantly, and limited redeposit fees mean the costs of canceling a ticket are minimal (or even non-existent).

That’s certainly the case with United MileagePlus — every time I’ve canceled an award trip, for any reason, my miles instantly reappear in my account. And, if United cancels a flight or makes a significant schedule change, airline agents are typically able to “open up” awards for a different routing or date, making it possible to avoid losing a prized award to a high-demand destination.

What’s really nice about United, though, is that when the airline makes saver availability this widespread, there are usually multiple seats open on each flight. Often, you’ll find space for four or more passengers on the same flight, making it easy to book a group all together.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

And, this time around, it isn’t just one or two dates with that many open award seats — San Francisco to Tel Aviv has saver business seats open for weeks at a time.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

Now that doesn’t mean every route has saver awards open on every date, but I did find some availability on every single long-haul flight I searched — even ultra-premium nonstops like Newark (EWR) to Venice (VCE) have lie-flat saver space open on a handful of dates.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

Best yet, while some of these saver seats are only available to United elite members and credit cardholders when booking via the MileagePlus program, the majority can actually be booked via partner programs, opening up some exciting deals.

American Express partners with ANA Mileage Club, for example, letting you book a round-trip business-class flight to Europe for 88,000 Membership Rewards points.

Screenshot courtesy of ANA.

For more on using credit card miles to book these flights, see:

Before you book with a partner (and transfer points), though, there are couple of very important details to keep in mind. If United cancels a flight, and you’ve booked through MileagePlus, an agent may be able to open up award space to accommodate you at the same rate on a different date.

However, if you’ve booked that same United award through a partner, you’ll only have your pick of current saver availability — or the ability to request a refund to your account. If you’ve transferred points in to complete the booking, they’ll likely be stuck — you won’t be able to reverse a transaction from ANA back to American Express months down the line.

You can use partner miles to book Polaris, too. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

In addition, not all transferable point programs process these transactions instantly. As an example, it can take up to 48 hours for Amex points to reach your ANA account. Since the Mileage Club program doesn’t allow holds, you’d need to simply hope that the award availability is still there when the miles finally arrive.

Unfortunately this incredible award availability doesn’t extend to many domestic and regional flights — United likely expects U.S. travelers to book flights closer to home in an effort to avoid getting stranded halfway across the world or navigate as many restrictions.

As a result, the carrier doesn’t have an incentive to open these up for award tickets. In fact, you’ll actually redeem more miles for many regional flights — such as United’s seasonal nonstop from Newark to Anchorage (ANC) — than you will a long-haul to Asia, Europe or the Middle East.

Screenshot courtesy of United.

Another downside to limited domestic award space: If you need to connect to reach a long-haul United flight, your U.S. leg will almost certainly be in coach.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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