Best Ways to Use United Airlines Miles for Maximum Value

 

United is a great program because they do not pass on fuel surcharges, which can save you hundreds of dollars in fees. Additionally, you can do a free stopover and get a free one-way flight using the Excursionist perk.  

How Much It Will Cost

Upcoming Changes: United is eliminating their award chart for travel after November 15, 2019. United will instead use “dynamic pricing” to price flights using points. This

Award Chart: United Award Chart (includes Star Alliance Partners and definitions of zones). United has three different types of awards: (1) United Saver, (2) United Everyday, and (3) Star Alliance or partner airlines. Generally, it is cheaper to fly on United than their partners. 

Fees

  • $25 for booking by phone
  • $75 fee for award booking within 21 days
  • $75 for any changes or redeposit 61 or more days
  • $125 for any changes or redeposit within 60 days.
  • United Elite Status members have reduced or waived award fees
  • You may be able to avoid the $75 close-in booking fee by booking a flight 21+ days in advance and call to change it within the first 24-hours (free cancel or change period) to the date you want within 21 days. The best numbers to call are 1-800-421-4655 or the Philippines number (+63-2-884-8272; 8:30-5:30 p.m. M-F and Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for their time zone). Avoiding the fee may require several HUCA (hang up and call again) since the customer service agents should charge that fee. Additionally, you can avoid the fee completely without the trick by using Singapore, Aeroplan, or LifeMiles to book United flights. 

No Fuel Surcharges

There are no carrier fuel surcharges on United awards! This can save you hundreds of dollars in fees on an award flight.

However, it will usually cost more miles over some other airline points programs such as ANA

Using Points to Book Lufthansa with ANA Miles vs. United Miles

Airlines You Can Fly On

United Airline is a member of the Star Alliance, which means you can redeem your United miles on any of Star Alliance airlines. You can also redeem United miles on their other partner listed below. 

United’s Star Alliance Partners

  • Adria
  • Aegean
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Austrian
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Copa
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian
  • EVA Air
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • SAS
  • Shenzhen Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • SWISS
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai
  • Turkish Airlines

United’s Other Partners

  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromar
  • Air Dolomiti
  • Azul
  • Cape Air
  • Edelweiss
  • Eurowings
  • Great Lakes Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Jet Airways
  • Silver Airways 

Routing Rules

Stopovers: You can have one stopover in the same region as the destination. (e.g., Charlotte to Munich (stopover) and continue to Athens).

Open-Jaws: Two open jaws are allowed on roundtrip award (or three with excursionist perk), but each open-jaw must be in the same region. (i.e. St. Louis to  Singapore; and Bangkok to Charlotte)

Other Award Rules: One-way awards are allowed. You can combine the open jaw and stopover rule for roundtrips (Charlotte to Munich (stopover) to Athens; then fly Rome to St. Louis). 

  • There are some awards that you cannot do on a single award. Some examples from North America include: to South Africa via South America; To Northern Asia via Southeastern Asia; To Europe via South America; and to Australia via Europe or South America.

Credit Cards and Elite Status- Only credit card holders and people with United elite status get access to “XN” award space, which is additional economy saver award space for United flights. Premier Platinum and Premier 1K get better award space for business or first class United flights. 

Waitlisting- You can waitlist for business or first class. You need to (1) book an economy seat (2) call United at 800-864-8331 to be put on the waitlist, (3) have enough points in your account for the upgrade. If business class seats become available, then you will automatically be upgraded.

Extra Saver Availability Routes- United publishes a list of routes that have extra saver availability. Just look for the green asterisk. However, the list only works on routes from Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles. 

Excursionist Perk

The Excursionist Perk is something you should really try to take advantage of when booking an award with United miles. It is a little complicated, so read carefully.

The Excursionist Perk was designed to allow travelers to book a free one-way flight on roundtrip awards (e.g., New York to London; London to Prague (Excursionist Perk); Prague to New York). 

But you can use this perk to your advantage to book some amazing award trips with a little planning. Be sure to understand the “Region Definitions” chart below. It will be important in understanding what is a valid and invalid flight. 

The basic formula is a flight departing one region + excursionist perk flight anywhere in the world outside of the original region + flight finishing in the original region.

1.  You must book a roundtrip flight that starts and ends in the same “region”

This can be an international flight or a domestic flight. If you only need a one-way flight, you can still take advantage of this perk with a “throw away ticket.” Book the one-way you want to use, then book a flight using your Excursionist Perk, and then book the cheapest one-way award flight that you that finishes in the original region. 

Example: Shanghai to LAX in business, SFO to NYC in business (excursionist perk), then flight Shanghai to Bejing (8,000 extra points in economy). That 8,000 point segment allows you to book the 35,000 points San Francisco to New York City route for free using the excursionist perk. You can either use that Shanghai to Beijing flight or intentionally skip it.

2.  The Excursionist Perk flight must be in a different region than the origin.

You can’t do New York to London, New York to Los Angeles (Excursionist Perk), London to New York. But you could do London to New York, New York to Los Angeles (Excursionist Perk), Los Angeles to London since the Excursionist Perk flight is outside of the origin region. 

3.  The Excursionist Perk flight must start and end in the same region. 

Some regions are quite large, which is a great place to use your Excursionist Perk. My favorite regions to use the Perk are Central/Southern Africa, Australia/New Zealand, Oceania (expensive flights), and the “Mainland U.S., Alaska & Canada.”

4.  The Excursionist Perk flight must be the second flight. 

The Excursionist Perk requires planning because it has to be the second flight on your award trip. You can’t book New York to London, London to New York, and then Nairobi to Cape Town. It would have to be New York to London, Nairobi to Cape Town, and then London to New York. 

5. 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.

  • Business one-way; Business (excursionist perk); economy is valid. But economy one-way; business (excursionist perk); business is invalid.

Booking the Award– Use United.com’s multi-city award search. You may find it easier to search award space one segment at a time, and then use the multi-city search to put it all together. You can verify that you correctly used the perk if the award pricing is the same without that free one-way. If after several searches United displays “no results available,” clear your cookies or pull United.com in a different internet browser. 

In the example below, the first flight costs 6,000 United miles plus $5.60, but the second flight costs no miles + taxes. 

 

Excursionist Perk Example

Examples

  • Atlanta to Rome; Athens to Madrid (excursionist perk), Paris to Atlanta or another US city.
  •  (You could also technically throw away the third segment if you wanted)
  • Hawaii to the U.S. Mainland + (some random flight outside of Hawaii and within the same region (e.g. Auckland to Sydney; Singapore to Thailand; San Francisco to Miami) + a 7,000 point economy flight from Maui to Honolulu.
  • Istanbul to London; NYC to SFO in business (excursionist perk); Munich to Frankfurt (in economy for 8,000 points). (You get three flights in this example for 33,000 points whereas the single segment of NYC to SFO would be 35,000 normally by itself) 

Sweet Spots Using Points

Airlines with High Fuel Surcharges: United might not be able to get you there for the least amount of points, but it may be worth using more points to pay less in fees. (e.g. You can fly on Lufthansa business class using ANA points for 88,000, but almost $1,000 in fuel surcharges and taxes. Or use 140,000 United points plus $130 for taxes.) 

Flights on United: Flights on United in business class are usually about 20,000 points cheaper than flying on a partner airline. However, it might be worth it to fly on one of the top airlines in the world such as Lufthansa, ANA, Singapore, etc. 

Under 800 miles: Only costs 8,000 points if (1) traveling outside of North America, (2) traveling non-stop, and (3) flight covers a distance of 800 miles or under. Use this sweet spot for those very expensive short flights abroad. (e.g. Guayaquil to Bogata is $506 one-way and would qualify). 

Region Definitions

Region Countries
Mainland U.S., Alaska & CanadaMainland U.S., Alaska & Canada
HawaiiHawaiian Islands
CaribbeanAntigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadalupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Netherland Antilles, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, U.s. Virgin Islands
Central AmericaBelize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
MexicoMexico
Northern South America Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela
Southern South AmericaArgentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay
EuropeAlbania, Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, 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, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom
North AsiaChina, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan
JapanJapan
South AsiaBangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
Central AsiaAfghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Krgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Middle EastAzerbajian, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Central/Southern Africa Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotto, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Northern AfricaAlgeria, Canary Islands, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia
Oceania American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanautu, Western Samoa
Australia / New ZealandAustralia (inc Tasmania), New Zealand, Norfolk Islands