How To Use United Miles

In the interest of full disclosure, One Mile At A Time earns a referral bonus for anyone that’s approved through some of the below links. These are the best publicly available offers that we have found for each card. Please check out our advertiser policy for further details about the partners we work with. Thanks for your support!

As I mentioned yesterday, United MileagePlus is implementing new rules on award tickets effective Thursday, October 6th. This means you only have a few days left to book under the current rules.

There are four main types of awards that will be impacted by these changes:

  1. Multi-region trips
  2. “Free” domestic one-ways
  3. Open-jaws between regions
  4. Complex itineraries

If you’ve been planning a trip using United miles I would highly recommend finalizing these these awards before the 5th. Given that many people are potentially in this situation, I figured it would be helpful to go over the basics of redeeming United miles.

Getting United Miles

If you don’t already have United miles, the best option is to transfer them from Chase Ultimate Rewards. If you have any of the following, your points transfer instantly to MileagePlus:

And if you have one of those cards, you can combine them with points from the following cards:

United is also technically a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, but the transfer ratio is horrible. You can also theoretically transfer points from Marriott Rewards at a decent rate, but you realistically don’t have time to do that before Wednesday.

So Ultimate Rewards it is.

You can also buy United miles if you need just a few more for an award. They don’t seem to be offering any kind of promotion at present, so miles purchased this way will be pricey. But if you’re just a bit short it may still be a good option.

Miles needed for an award ticket

MileagePlus charges slightly different prices based off of whether you’re flying United or a partner airline. To give some examples of one-way business class rates:

  • North America to Europe | 57,500 miles on United, 70,000 on Partners
  • North America to Asia (excluding Japan) | 70,000 miles on United, 80,000 on Partners
  • Japan to Australia/New Zealand | 35,000 miles on United, 40,000 on Partners

In most cases the premium for flying partners is worth the enhanced availability (and often superior product), but if you really need to minimize the miles used you’ll want to stick to United.

See the full United award chart here.

United MileagePlus award stopover rules

This is changing to the “Excursionist Perk” in a few days. At present, United allows one stopover in addition to your destination on a roundtrip long-haul international award between regions.

  • A stopover is when you stop at a city for more than 24 hours
  • For example, if you’re flying Los Angeles > Tokyo > Hong Kong and stop in Tokyo for 23 hours it wouldn’t count as a stopover
  • If, on the other hand, you stopped for 25 hours, it would be considered a stopover

You can stopover for as long as you’d like, provided travel on the ticket is complete within a year from the date the ticket is issued. United doesn’t allow stopovers of more than 24 hours on one-way awards.

You can’t stopover on domestic awards, and in those cases any connection of more than four hours will break the fare.

There are many practical applications for stopovers, even if you don’t want to take a complex or lengthy trip, such as:

  • Spend a day in your international gateway city to help ameliorate horrible domestic award availability
  • Visit two cities on one trip (i.e. spend time in Hong Kong and Singapore) without having to pay for separate tickets
  • Add an extra domestic segment for several months after your international trip

I often leverage stopovers to secure better products or easier overall itineraries. Sometimes having that slightly longer connection (25 hours versus 23) makes it possible to avoid a red-eye, or opens up space on a plane with lie-flat seats, etc.

What about open-jaws?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, an “open-jaw” is when you book a flight from City A to City B, but then return from City C.

For example, let’s say you fly from New York to London, spend time exploring Europe via train and low cost carriers, and then return from Rome:

united-open-jaw

In this case you have an open-jaw between London and Rome.

United currently allows two open jaws and one stopover on a roundtrip international longhaul award ticket. So in the example above, you don’t actually have to return to New York — you could return to Chicago instead:

united-open-jaw-02

Now you have two open-jaws. One between London and Rome, and one between New York and Chicago.

If you wanted to, you could also fly between London and say, Munich:

united-open-jaw-03

Now you have a stopover in London, an open-jaw between Munich and Rome, and a second open-jaw between New York and Chicago.

The catch to open-jaws

This is the part that seems to trip people up. For the most part, your open-jaw has to be at your turn-around point.

For instance, something like this, with a stopover in Paris and open-jaws between London and Paris and then between Munich and Rome would likely not price:

united-open-jaw-04

For practical purposes, you can have an open jaw in each direction of travel, at the origin and destination points.

I’m told it’s theoretically possible to get around that restriction, but it’s a pain, I haven’t successfully done it in years, and wouldn’t recommend messing with it this week.

United MileagePlus fees

United doesn’t impose fuel surcharges for travel on any of their partner airlines, which is a big selling point of their program.

That means when you book an award ticket you just pay the taxes and fees on the ticket. If you are booking over the phone, or at the last minute, most members will pay a surcharge:

united-award-fees

If you need to change your ticket, the fees to do so vary based on the type of change and your elite status:

Award Ticket Change TypeFee
Change of date
(21 or more days prior to travel date)
$75 for a general member
*No fee for Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Change of date
(less than 21 days prior to travel date)
$100 for a general member
$50 for Premier Silver member
$25 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Changing origin/destination at any time$100 for a general member
$50 for Premier Silver member
$25 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Re-crediting miles$200 for a general member
$125 for Premier Silver member
$100 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members

Many of these change fees are being revised for tickets issued on or after October 6th, but are accurate for tickets issued prior.

Avoiding the phone fee

While United’s website is good for booking partner awards in theory, the website tends to bring up error messages if you try to book anything complicated.

Of course, if you book by phone you’re charged a $25 phone ticketing fee.

The easy way around that is to book a similar award online (or even ticket the international segment), and then call within 24 hours to change it to what you want.

Award changes are free within 24 hours of ticketing, and you shouldn’t be charged the phone ticketing fee.

United MileagePlus routing rules

At United, the computer prices awards, not agents, and the rules aren’t published anywhere. You can never be really sure whether something will price or not until it does (or doesn’t).

That’s both a blessing and a curse, in that you can get away with things that a human might raise their eyebrows at, but that the computer is programmed to accept. On the other hand, playing “agent roulette” doesn’t help. The agents simply enter the flights you want and the computer decides how much the award costs.

Compared to a few years ago, United has greatly restricted the number of segments you can fly on an award ticket. United seems to limit the number of segments per direction to four, while in other regions they limit it to five. But if you’re looking to fly more than four segments in one direction, don’t count on the ticket pricing.

Generally speaking, though, you can typically:

  • Fly from North America to Asia via Europe
  • Fly between North America and Australia/New Zealand via Asia
  • Fly from North America to India and many places in the Middle East via Europe OR Asia
  • Cross both oceans on an award

Keep in mind that Japan is a separate region as far as United is concerned, and you may have problems transiting Japan and “Asia” en route to another region.

Sweet spots in the United award chart

For the most part, United’s award chart is priced pretty rationally, so there aren’t as many crazy-low prices as we’ve seen from other programs over the years.

The main consideration here is that MileagePlus divides the world into 17 regions, which creates some interesting possibilities with pricing and stopovers.

Japan/Oceania

Japan is a separate region for MileagePlus, and it’s priced at a bit of a discount compared to the rest of Asia.

That means you can save miles when your destination is Japan (think stopovers in the Middle East, Africa, or an open-jaw return to Hawaii).

Similarly, Oceania is a separate award zone, and for some region pairs is priced lower compared to Australia/New Zealand. A stopover in New Zealand on an award that continues to Fiji will require fewer miles, for example. This mostly only works in economy, given partner availability in the region, but you could get lucky.

Africa/Asia

MileagePlus divides Africa into two zones, and Asia into four (including Japan). Star Alliance has a fantastic footprint in both areas, so availability is generally good, with multiple routing options.

When you’re on an international award between regions, you can have stopovers. So you can get pretty creative. You can go from simple, like Bangkok to Taipei with a stopover in Singapore, or try something more complex, like Marrakech to Johannesburg with a stopover in Kilimanjaro.

united-open-jaw-05

And neither of those examples have open-jaws, so there’s even more potential. Awards like these are great as part of a bigger trip, whether that’s another flight award, an extension to a cruise, or breaking up a work trip.

Award space for 4+

Many of us travel with our families, and while I always preach flexibility when using miles, there are some surprisingly decent amounts of award space for larger parties.

When putting your itinerary together, here are a few routes to start with.

Austrian to/from Vienna

I have no idea how this is still a thing, but I’m not complaining. Austrian is still offering phenomenal amounts of business class award space. Certain dates and routes are more limited, but there are an abundance of flights with at least four seats through the end of the schedule.

In North America, Austrian flies to:

  • Chicago
  • Los Angeles (beginning April 10th)
  • Miami
  • New York JFK
  • Newark
  • Toronto
  • Washington D.C.

Austrian-Business-Class

Turkish to/from Istanbul and beyond

If you’re on the West Coast, Turkish is hands-down your best option for one-stop travel to pretty much anywhere in Europe or Africa.

They have an abundance of space, serve out-of-the-way destinations, and have internationally-configured A330s on many intra-European routes.

Turkish-Lounge-1

In North America, Turkish flies to:

  • Atlanta
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • Montreal
  • New York JFK
  • San Francisco
  • Toronto
  • Washington Dulles

Asiana to/from Asia

Asiana has an abundance of space on most of their routes, including those operated by the A380. Their IFE is a bit limited, but otherwise they have a solid product, and easy connections at Incheon.

Asiana-A380-First-Class-090

If you want to travel between Australia/New Zealand and North America, Asiana is one of your best options, as they have decent space to the South Pacific as well.

Asiana’s North American destinations are:

  • Chicago
  • Honolulu
  • Los Angeles
  • New York JFK
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle

Bottom line

United miles are fantastic, and while I think they’ll still be valuable going forward, there are a lot of unknown variables with the new “Excursionist” policy.

If you have an United award in mind, I’d highly recommend booking your trip before October 5th.

Hopefully these tips help make the booking process easier!

Is anyone booking a United award for next year? Where to?

Regarding Comments: The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. Booked EWR – VIE (stopover) – PVG (stopover) – NRT (stopover) for 95,000 miles in J (except PVG-NRT) for 3 🙂 Then NRT – HKG (stopover) – EWR with Alaska miles for 50,000 miles in J. About 40 hours in the air in J around the world for 145,000 miles! 😀

  2. @Tiffany — Very informative post, thank you.

    Just a couple of things I am not clear about since I have not yet looked at the rule changes closely, and your clearly have…

    1. Which of the changes will affect different elite levels differently, and which will apply to all? I am a UA 1K with a fairly complex/multi-city/multi-nation itinerary coming up at the end of year to do:

    (US -> many nations/cities, all in Asia -> US)

    I have not yet to fully settled on the destinations in Asia, but I am suspecting that the new rules will likely hit me big time, unless some are waived for 1Ks, like most fees appear to be. Anything else?

    2. What I have been doing since 2011 has been to fully draw up a complex itinerary and then find flights on my own (on UA or *A carriers) that would take me from one point to the next (or back), segment-wise, and then I would get on the phone with a UA 1K Desk agent, who would confirm availability and then proceed to link the segments in such a way that I have usually come out ahead. For instance, a couple of years ago, the agent decided to split my itinerary into two PNRs because doing so saved me points. How would these rule changes affect that approach for handling complex itinerary? In other words, how much would I now have to rely on myself to finalize the entire trip, as opposed to leaning on 1K Desk agents, who have so far done a terrific job, to do it for me?

    Thanks and cheers!

  3. @ DCS — These changes impact all elite levels, as it’s a change to how the computer is programmed to price awards. A good agent might be able to play with things for you, but it seems they won’t have as much flexibility.

  4. @Tiffany — Thanks! If they have, in fact, removed the “human element” out of this significantly or completely, it would be a bummer. I do not think I will be able to finalize my complex itinerary by Oct. 6, so I will find out just how “badly” they might have messed things up…

    Cheers!

  5. I will be running the Tokyo marathon in February and had been considering a side-trip to China. Since Japan is its own region, will it no longer be possible to have a stop over in China? I was thinking ORD-NRT-PVG (stopover)-ORD.

  6. Booked JFK-JNB-DUR for January/February

    Stupid question, however: What are the actual mechanics of booking a stopover? Kind of a step by step guide out there?

  7. Tried booking SIN-MEX, CUN-LAX, LAX-CGK (2 open jaws and 1 stopover) priced 135,000, isn’t it supposed to be 90K?
    What am I missing?

  8. @Jim F
    You book these by searching segment by segment via Multi City (vs one way or round trip). It’s pretty easy on United.com. I just booked a stopover (Barcelona) and open jaw (Rome to Venice) on a ticket and the web site priced is correctly.

  9. Hi Tiffany, I just priced out LAX>ICN>FRA on the site and it’s pricing out as two awards for a total of 155k miles. Can you not fly to Europe via Asia?

  10. hi Tiffany,

    another ‘UA for Dummies’ question: when i use the ua.com site to look for award travel options (for the sake of discussion, let’s say for simple R/T international routings) , are the options that come up on my Search basically *everything* available at that time?

    IOW, will a human agent be able to find other award trip options the site will not offer me?

    thanks

  11. @ Jim F — It should price automatically, though you’ll probably have to call in to get all the segments in there. It’s easier than it sounds!

  12. @ inge — How many segments do you have? Generally you need to have four or fewer to/from Southeast Asia, but you can ask an agent to double-check it.

  13. @ Pushslice — I guess it depends on how you’re searching? Almost all United partners show online, but the website defaults to what it considers “reasonable” connections and routings. An agent is unlikely to be more helpful than the website, in my experience.

  14. Hi Tiffany:
    Thank you for the reminder about United’s new rules.
    I just booked the following itinerary for only 60,000 miles: PHX-MXP/MXP-NRT/NRT-HNL
    Can you please tell me what type of itinerary this considered (e.g. multi-region trip, open-jaw, or complex itinerary)?

  15. I have no idea if this will be a valid booking after the changes, because this was my first trip ever booked with United miles. Next June, I’m going:
    TPA-SFO (United economy), stopover for 4 days
    SFO-HGH (United business), 4 hour layover
    HGH-PEK (Air China economy), stopover for 5 days
    PEK-HKG (Air China economy)

    I haven’t booked my return ticket (probably going to use AA miles to fly Cathay Pacific) but the above itinerary priced at 90,000 United miles, which I am 100% happy with. I may also wait and see if there are any ridiculously good deals for next summer between Hong Kong and the US, and save the miles, but I would love to not fly a long haul in economy.

  16. Tiffany: I can’t tell from reading the new terms/FAQs but will the stopover and 2 OPEN JAWS still be in effect after the 6th for simple intra region round trips…from say SFO to Europe with travel/stops there and back to SFO? Not trying to add on the free one-ways or travel across multiple regions/continents. I know I can do the stop-over (newly called one-way excursion) but I haven’t read anything about the status of open jaws. Appreciate any clarification on what if anything is changing with that.

  17. @ Liz — It looks like you booked all single segments, so you’re paying for each flight individually anyway, and this would still price.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *