This post is part one of a series about how to maximize value when transferring your Chase Ultimate Rewards to loyalty program partners.
Maximizing Your Ultimate Rewards Series Index
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: United MileagePlus (this post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Singapore Krisflyer #1
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Singapore Krisflyer #2
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Korean SkyPass #1
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Korean Skypass #2
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Korean Skypass #3 (future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: British Airways Avios (future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Flying Blue (future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Virgin Atlantic Flying Club #1(future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Virgin Atlantic Flying Club #2 (future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Southwest Rapid Rewards (future post)
- Maximizing Ultimate Rewards: Wrap Up & Index (future post)
First, let’s talk about some general reasons why United miles are awesome.
- United does not collect fuel surcharges on awards–ever.
- United is in the Star Alliance, the largest and most comprehensive airline alliance with 28 member airlines. United and Star Alliance airlines are known for having the most plentiful award space compared to other programs.
- The process of award space searching and booking online is simple. You can find award space for most partners (except a few, like Singapore and Brussels) and book right on united.com.
- You should never have to pay a close-in award booking fee because of this trick.
These points along with a fairly priced award chart combine to make United miles very versatile, valuable, and the most commonly utilized transfer partner for travelers based in the United States.
You’re going to get the most value out of United miles when redeeming on economy and United Business Class awards flying actual United flights as opposed to Star Alliance partners. Redeeming United miles on one of their partners costs more than it does to redeem on United metal, and while about on par with legacy carrier miles prices, is generally overpriced. United First Class is just not that much better than Business Class and not really worth the extra miles. Polaris Business Class will be a welcome addition to the United fleet.
So let’s take a look at redeeming United miles domestically, for awards that originate in the US, outside the US, and how to maximize the “Excursionist Perk” (i.e. the free one way you’ll get on roundtrip United awards).
Domestic Awards (Mainland United States, Alaska, and Canada)
Here are United’s one way domestic award prices for flying…
Add on cost for awards to Alaska/Canada:
United has pretty standard prices for domestic awards, although 10,000 miles for a one way economy flight of 700 miles or less could be useful. If the airports are served by American Airlines and your flight is direct, you’ll probably be better off redeeming British Airways Avios (7,500 Avios for flight distances up to 1,151 miles). If the airports are both served by Southwest, then certainly check the price in Rapid Rewards as well. Rapid Rewards prices fluctuate with the cash price of the ticket so you’ll most likely find their award prices to be cheaper the further out from the travel date you are.
Sweetspots on United Awards That Originate In the US
There aren’t any particular “sweetspots” on United’s chart for awards originating in the United States. But in general, Business Class awards on actual United flights are about 10k miles cheaper compared to using Delta or American Airlines miles.
Sweetspots on United Awards That Originate Outside the US
While non of these awards originate in the United States, they would all be a great addition to a big trip.
10,000 Miles Between Central America and Northern South America in economy
Between Central America and Northern South America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela), you can fly for only 10,000 United miles in economy or 20,000 in business.
United partners have hubs in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama, so finding award space is a cinch. This award could be the way to combine Central America, the Galapagos and South America on a single trip.
45,000 Miles Between Southern South America and Africa in Business Class
United charges only 45,000 miles in business class between Southern South America and all of Africa.
The key route is Sao Paulo to Johannesburg on South African Airways. (In 2013 Scott flew Buenos Aires to Johannesburg on South African–here is the trip report–but that route has been terminated.)
From Johannesburg, you can connect anywhere else on the continent for no extra miles.
30,000 Miles Between South Asia and Australia/New Zealand in Business Class
United charges only 30,000 miles in business class between South Asia (Southeast Asia from Hong Kong south) and Australia or New Zealand. Economy is only 17,500 miles each way, but these are some long flights, so treat yourself.
The key routes are on Thai Airways from Bangkok to Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland. United also partners with Air New Zealand.
40,000 Miles Between North Asia and Australia/New Zealand in Business Class
United charges only 40,000 miles in business class between North Asia (mainland China, Taiwan, and South Korea) and Australia or New Zealand. Economy is only 20,000 miles each way.
This part of the world is served by Asiana (Korea), Thai, Air New Zealand, Singapore, EVA (Taiwan), and Shenzhen Airlines.
30,000 Miles Between North Asia and Oceania in Business Class
United charges only 30,000 miles in business class between North Asia (mainland China, Taiwan, and South Korea) and Oceania. Economy is only 15,000 miles each way.
If you book a roundtrip United award, you could get a stopover in New Zealand on your way to Tahiti.
Air New Zealand serves a wide range of Pacific islands from its hub in Auckland.
30,000 Miles Between Japan and Oceania in Business Class
From Japan you can book the same awards (to all the Pacific islands pictured the map above) for 30,000 miles in business class and 12,500 miles in economy.
If you book an international award that starts and ends in the same region, you can get one free one way award as part of your roundtrip award that United calls an Excursionist Perk. The free one way award will be the first one way award wholly within one region that isn’t your origin region.
A key to United’s award rules is that, to get the free one way award, your “roundtrip” must start and end in the same region. This doesn’t mean it has to be a classic roundtrip, from point A to B to point A. Your final leg could originate anywhere, as long as it flies back to where you started. It doesn’t even have to be international.
- Chicago to Bucharest in Business Class | April 5 | 57,500 miles
- Addis Ababa to Cape Town in Business Class | April 12 | 0 miles
- Chicago to New Orleans in economy | May 10 | 12,500 miles
Travel is Free has gone over a lot of great examples of how to maximize United’s new stopover rules. But I think the most common way for most Americans to maximize them will be by booking a cheap domestic flight at the end of their itinerary, for future use, and booking the free segment as an expensive intra-region award following the outbound leg from US (like the example above). You could, of course, book the return from Cape Town to Chicago with United miles and still have the Addis Ababa – Cape Town flight as your free segment if you didn’t have a cheaper way of filling the gap.
To truly maximize this strategy, take advantage of expensive intra-region awards. Here is Scott’s table of intra-region one way awards and the partners you can use to fly them. United doesn’t have any partners for intra-Caribbean or intra-North Africa awards that we’re aware of, which is why they aren’t listed.
Mileage Plus’ biggest strengths are that economy and United metal Business Class awards are fairly priced and there is a good deal of award space compared to other programs. There are never any fuel surcharges on United awards, searching for award and booking is easy, and you should never have to pay a close-in booking fee.
And if you can build them into a bigger trip, United has a bunch of underpriced awards between international regions.