Beginners Post: Basics of United MileagePlus

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This is the eighth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Where We Are and Where We’re Going

We’re in the section on redeeming miles. Once you understand how to redeem miles, you’ll understand which miles are right to earn for your travel goals. This post will focus on United miles, which are ideal for international economy and business class awards with stopovers, open jaws, and free one ways.

Why Collect United Miles?

United miles are easy to collect in bunches. There are big sign up bonuses available on a half dozen cards that earn United miles or Ultimate Rewards, which can be transferred to United miles. When the miles are so easy to earn, it makes fancy trips or family trips easier to book.

United is part of the biggest and best alliance–the Star Alliance–with the most award space. I find better award space on United’s partners to most parts of the world than I do on any other airline alliance.

United never collects fuel surcharges on awards. The ability to book flights on all of the Star Alliance without fuel surcharges is incredible. Delta and American Airlines–United’s two major award program competitors–both collect fuel surcharges on some awards.

  • What airlines can you fly with United miles?
  • What are the routing rules for United awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special features of the MileagePlus program?
  • How can you book a United award?

Mileage Price

United miles are region-based miles. (See Five Types of Miles)

United has two region-to-region charts, one for travel on United flights and one for travel on its partners, both of which can be found here. The award charts are identical for economy awards, but United charges a large premium to fly its partners’ Business and First Class products versus its own.

A region-to-region chart means that instead of having to calculate the number of miles for an award from your origin city to your destination city, say Atlanta to Rome, you merely figure out how many miles you need for an award from your origin region to your destination region, in this case North America to Europe.

The chart for travel on United has two prices in each cabin: the Saver and Standard prices.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.56.50 PM

We redeem miles for Saver awards, the capacity controlled awards that cost the fewest miles, which are not available in every cabin on every flight. Standard awards cost approximately twice what Saver awards cost and are available on almost every flight.

The partner chart doesn’t have a Standard level because partner awards always price at the Saver award.

To have a multi-segment award price at the Saver level, every segment in that direction must have Saver award space.

Which countries are in which region of the chart can be found at the bottom of the award chart.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.59.16 PM

Partners

United is a member of the Star Alliance. That means you can use its miles on all these airlines:

  • United Airlines
  • Adria Airways (Slovenia)
  • Aegean Airlines (Greece)
  • Air Canada
  • Air China
  • Air India
  • Air New Zealand
  • ANA (Japan)
  • Asiana Airlines (South Korea)
  • Austrian Airlines (Vienna)
  • Avianca (Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru)
  • Brussels Airlines (Belgium)
  • Copa (Panama)
  • Croatia Airlines
  • EgyptAir
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • EVA Air (Taiwan)
  • LOT Polish Airlines
  • Lufthansa (Germany)
  • Scandinavian Airlines (Denmark, Norway, Sweden)
  • Shenzhen Airlines (China)
  • Singapore Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • Swiss International Air Lines
  • TAP Portugal
  • Thai Airways International
  • Turkish Airlines

United also has several partners that are not a part of the Star Alliance. You can also redeem miles to fly these airlines:

  • Aer Lingus (Ireland)
  • Aeromar (Mexico)
  • Azul (Brazil)
  • Cape Air (Puerto Rico)
  • germanwings
  • Great Lakes (Denver)
  • Hawaiian Airlines (only interisland flights within Hawaii)
  • Island Air (Hawaii)
  • Jet Airways (India)
  • Silver Airways (Florida)

Subject to other routing rules, which I’ll detail below, you can freely combine United flights, Star Alliance partner flights, and other partner flights onto a single award.

ROUTING RULES

You can book one way awards with United miles for half the price of roundtrip awards.

One way United awards cannot have any stopovers. Roundtrip awards can have one free stopover (in addition to the destination) and two open jaws.

Unfortunately, beyond that, it’s difficult to say much about United’s routing rules other than whatever the computer says, goes. The computer accepts some wacky routings and rejects others. If you try a routing online that gets an error, you can call in to book the award with an agent, but you are unlikely to talk them into charging you the mileage price you want if the computer rejects your routing.

The computer likes routings with fewer segments and less backtracking.

All award travel must be completed within one year of the original booking. Changes can’t extend this time frame, so if you can’t fly within one year of your original booking, you’ll have to cancel you award.

Stopovers

Stopovers are not allowed on one way United awards. One stopover is allowed on roundtrip United awards except that roundtrip United awards wholly within the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska cannot have a stopover.

A stopover is a layover of more than 4 hours on a domestic award or 24 hours on an international award.

Open Jaws

Roundtrips can have two open jaws.

Keep in mind that an open jaw is not a hole in the middle of a single one way award. Those are prohibited.

Here’s an example of an award with one stopover and two open jaws.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 1.14.27 AM
Source: gcmap.com

 

  • The award starts in Chicago and flies to Munich for a stopover.
  • The award continues to Athens, its destination.
  • The return begins in Rome. There is an open jaw between Athens and Rome that you’d have to fill in with transportation that is not part of this award.
  • The award ends in Washington DC, which is not where it started, so there is a second open jaw between Chicago and DC.

Free One Ways

Free one ways are possible on United awards. Since a free one way requires a stopover at your home airport, booking a free one way on a United award means you cannot use a stopover en route on the main award.

The free one way can be BEFORE your main award TO your home airport or AFTER your main award FROM your home airport.

The free one way can be to most places in the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada. If you want the one way to go to Hawaii, the Caribbean, South America, or somewhere else, you have to pay the difference between flying to those places and flying to your home airport.

For full details on Free One Ways on United Awards, check out this Master Thread.

Special Feature of United Miles

There are two features of the United program everyone should be aware of.

1. United’s multi-city search results are extremely buggy.

This is the search page you use if you want to book an award with a stopover or open jaw.

This is a problem since nearly every award I book with United is a multi-city award.

If you search each part of your multi-city award one way, you will see far more options for each part then when you do a multi-city search on united.com.

The solution is simple: put on hold part of your award and call in to change the held award to the award you really want.

For more information on this problem and solution, see this post.

2. United charges a ton more miles to fly its partners’ premium cabins than its own.

United BusinessFirst (business) and Global First (first) are solid, but not spectacular products that I’ve flown eight total times.

Since United went to separate charts for its own flights and partner flights in February 2014, I have lost interest in using United miles for premium cabin awards on its partners. Usually, its partners’ products aren’t a big enough improvement to justify a big increase in the miles price, and sometimes the partners’ product is worse.

Taxes, Fees, and Fuel Surcharges

Taxes

United awards require you to pay the government taxes associated with the itinerary.

These start at $5.60 each direction for domestic awards and go up to $300 if you fly roundtrip in Business Class to the United Kingdom. Generally international awards have roundtrip taxes of $50 to $150.

Fees

Phone Fee: There is no award booking fee for awards booked at united.com. Calling United to book an award incurs a $25 per person fee. You can usually get the agent to waive that phone fee.

Late Booking Fee: There is a $75 booking fee per person to book an award less than 21 days from the date of departure. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members. Here’s a trick to never pay the late booking fee again.

Date and Time Changes: Changing the date, time, or routing costs up to $100 per person. This fee is cheaper if the change is made at least 21 days before departure and if you have elite status. It is waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Origin/Destination Changes: There is a $100 fee per person to change the origin or destination. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Cancellation: There is a $200 fee per person to cancel your award and get the miles back. This fee is reduced for elites and waived for Platinum and 1K members.

Full details on United’s award fees can be found here.

Fuel Surcharges

United does not collect fuel surcharges on any award tickets.

How to Book United Awards

Most of United’s partners can be searched and booked on united.com. Two major exceptions:

  • Singapore Airlines
  • Brussels Airlines

Partners that can’t be searched online can be searched by calling United at 800-UNITED-1 or by searching other Star Alliance award search engines.

If you can’t seem to find the award you want for your dream trip, you can hire my Award Booking Service to search and book your United awards. We have the expertise to search every United partner to maximize convenience and luxury while minimizing out-of-pocket cost.

Bottom Line

United MileagePlus is one of the best frequent flyer programs. Its strengths are United’s huge network of partners and the lack of fuel surcharges on awards.

United has fantastic availability domestically, and many of its partners have great availability too. Availability is a big strength of this program in all classes of service.

United has unwritten routing rules, but any simple awards, and many complicated awards, price exactly as you’d expect.

United awards are flexible for one way travel. If you book a roundtrip, you can add one stopover and two open jaws to your destination.

Most United are bookable on united.com, while others require a call to United.

Any questions? What did I leave out?

 


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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