As the United States' sole member of the Star Alliance, United Airlines MileagePlus program is one that all award travelers must know. While United has had numerous PR nightmares during the last few years, it is an award program that offers great value on international flights and when utilizing the Excursionist Perk, which I will explain below.
Like other mainline USA airlines (Delta & American), United's typical saver award for domestic flights are 12,500 miles each way, but flights of 700 miles or less are only 10,000 miles. Flights to/from Alaska add an additional 5,000 miles (17,500 total) and Hawaii adds an additional 7,500 miles (20,000 total) each way. If you find a United saver fare, you are usually better off booking it with another Star Alliance member (usually Avianca Lifemiles). However, for beginners, booking United flights with Chase UR points, which transfer 1:1, is easy, efficient, and a decent value. However, these “standard” awards go away on November 14, 2019, and United will join Delta's model of dynamic pricing.
Prior to November 14, 2019 (and hopefully afterwards, too), you find excellent value when booking long distance international economy and business flights:
As these charts demonstrate, you can fly anywhere in the world in business for 80,000 miles or less each way on United metal (40,000 or less in economy). North Asia is 70,000 each way in business, Central and South Asia are 75,000 each way in business, and Australia/New Zealand/Oceania are 80,000 each way in business. Sarah and I flew a United 787 from Houston to Sydney round-trip in business in May 2018 and it was a really nice experience. Back then, it was 70,000 miles per leg (for an 18+ hour flight!!!). One of the best parts of United's Business class is the world-famous make-your-own ice cream sundaes!
70,000-80,000 each way is a deal? Two words: Excursionist Perk
The excursionist perk is the highlight of the MileagePlus program. The beauty of this trick is you can make it as simple or as complex as you want. At its core, the excursionist perk allows you to fly a free flight inside one of United's award “zones.” If you book Region A to Region B and then Region B to Region A as a round-trip, you can add a Region B to Region B flight between the two other flights. Click here for a list of United's regions.
To demonstrate this on a map, let's look at a possible flight for South Africa:
In this example, the first leg costs 40,000 miles in economy or 70,000 miles in business. The third leg costs the same. The middle leg (picture 2 above) is free. This entire round-trip is 80,000 in economy or 140,000 in business. Not bad, huh?! South Africa is a wonderful use of the excursionist perk and one of the moderators of our Facebook group booked this exact itinerary a few years ago! 80,000 miles each in economy for all three legs!
But remember I said you can make this as simple or as complex as you want it to be? How about using the excursionist perk on THREE separate trips? It's possible! The only requirements are Region A to B, Region B to Region B, and then Region B to Region A. But how about Region C to Region C? Yeah, it works. The actual rule of the excursionist perk is that the middle leg must be in a region different from where you begin and end your trip (i.e. Region A), so a flight within ANY other region is valid. The idea is to use leg one on a RETURN trip home, the excursionist perk solely within another region, and then a trip FROM home to somewhere else (that is the same area you departed for home in leg one). Make sense? Here's a few maps to give you ideas:
Seems simple, right? Book two big flights and add a regional one somewhere else on another trip. But would it work with two small flights and a long flight for free? You betcha!!! Taking this to the extreme, you can book a 328 mile round-trip and then fly 2,600 miles for FREE!
This flight, unbelievably, is within all parameters of the excursionist perk. You can book two flights to/from the Caribbean and add a 2,600 mile flight in Europe for only 35,000 miles in economy or 60,000 miles in business (for all three legs). Can you replicate this trip as cheaply as possible? Absolutely! You can book a United domestic flight as cheap as you can find it and then tack on another leg somewhere else. This example is 18,000 miles and $62.80 in taxes to fly DC to NYC round-trip and adding an Iceland to Istanbul flight (for free) which normally costs 15,000 miles and $51.60 on its own!!
With these general rules in mind, you can book as complex a booking as you want, just know the ins and outs of the United Award Regions.
A couple of notes on the excursionist perk: you can mix classes, but the “free” middle leg is the same or lower than the first leg and CANNOT be higher. If you can only afford business for one of the legs, book the first leg in business so that you can add the “free” leg in business too.
United MileagePlus Credit Cards and Elite Program
Overall, United's elite program and credit cards are very blah. The United personal credit card, issued by Chase, currently offers a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after $2,000 spend in 3 months. It has a $95 annual fee, but it is waived the first year. It offers free bags for you and a companion IF you use the United card to book your United flights. I can't recommend this method, as the United card only earns 2x on United flight purchases. You are better off with a CSR for 3x on airfare, a Citi Prestige for 5x on airfare, or an American Express Platinum card for 5x on airfare. The main perk of the personal card (and elite status) is having expanded award availability. Elites and holders of the card have access to more “saver” awards than the general public and this is true of both economy and business flights. If you fly United regularly and use miles to book award flights, you should keep this card long-term, unless you maintain elite status.
The United MileagePlus Business card currently has a 100,000-mile sign-up bonus, 50,000 for $5,000 spend in 3 months and another 50,000 for a total spend of $25,000 in a total of 6 months. This card has a $95 annual fee that is not waived the first year. Much like the personal card, this business card also offers expanded award availability and free bags (if you purchase your United flights on this card). Unless you take advantage of the expanded award availability and are not an elite flyer, there is no reason to keep this card long-term.
Elite status with United is so-so at the lower levels, but very lucrative for the top-tier elites. United silver members (almost) never get business class upgrades, but typically do get “upgrades” to Economy Plus seating at check-in. However, if you are traveling in a group, this typically means you are split up and are in middle seats. You can decide for yourself if that is an upgrade. Once you reach the Platinum or Premier 1K levels, you receive Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs), good for guaranteed upgrades to business. Premier 1Ks also earn 6 Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs), which are guaranteed upgrades to business anywhere United flies. All levels of elites get 1 or more free checked bags (up to 70 lbs.) and earn bonus miles for all cash flights.
Closing Thoughts on MileagePlus
As I mentioned earlier, the true value in this program lies in the excursionist perk and flying internationally (mainly on United metal). 140,000 round-trip to Asia in business is great when you can tack on a free business flight that lasts several hours! The same is true for economy flights as well. Overall, get to know this program, the excursionist perk, and its numerous Star Alliance partners. United is one of the best Star Alliance websites to search award availability of all its partners, so familiarize yourself with www.united.com and the award flight search features. Lastly, United is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase URs, so you can put that Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve bonus to work!
Let's all hope that the dynamic pricing doesn't completely uproot the standard awards entirely and that LOWER awards are found for off-peak travel!!!
As always, we welcome your comments below, or come join our Facebook group for your comments, questions, and feedback!
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