13 Tips for Earning, Burning and Flying with United Airlines

Dec 7, 2015

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Whether you frequently travel with United or simply have a few flights scheduled on the airline, it helps to know the MileagePlus program’s rules so you can use them to your advantage. TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele goes through 13 of the top tips for earning and redeeming miles and booking award flights.

United is a massive global carrier that sometimes seems to crack under its own weight. While it’s widely regarded for operating at the highest levels of safety, its reputation for customer service is mixed at best. Furthermore, few customers or employees have anything good to say about the reliability of its reservations systems, which can hobble even the most sincere efforts of its representatives.

So today, I want to offer some lessons I have learned from years of navigating United Airlines, in the hope that I can help to make your journey a bit smoother.

Earning Miles

1. Go all in on Ultimate Rewards. — Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program offers instant transfers to United MileagePlus, which may be its most valuable airline transfer partner. The beauty of this program is that you can use the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to earn double points for dining and travel expenses and the Ink Plus Business Card to earn 5x on all office supply and telecommunications services, as well as 2x on hotels and gas. With these cards in your wallet, it’s not hard to rack up plenty of points to be used toward air travel.

2. Consider the United Club card for non-bonus category spending. — If you’re spending a lot on purchases outside of the bonus categories of the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or the Chase Ultimate Rewards cards mentioned above, the United MileagePlus Club Card could be worth a look. It offers a respectable 1.5x miles per dollar spent, along with United Club membership, waived close-in booking fees and two free checked bags for yourself and a traveling companion.

Redeeming Miles

According to United’s color-coded award calendar, this award flight shouldn’t exist, and yet it does. You’re better off just ignoring the calendar.

3. Ignore the award calendar. — United’s old award search engine was known for being very buggy and unreliable, and the airline’s redesigned interface is not much of an improvement. You should completely ignore the color-coded calendar, as it seems to have little correlation to your actual search results. For example, it’s not uncommon to find both economy and business award space on a day that’s colored in white, which should mean that only standard award space is available.

4. Look for your own connections. — Another problem with United’s award search engine is that it will fail to consider all possible itineraries requiring three flights, and will never offer suggestions involving four. This is a critical flaw for those looking to book long-haul award flights, especially to and from non-hub cities. To overcome this limitation, try performing a separate search to the overseas hubs of Star Alliance carriers, and then another search from those hubs to your final destination.

Once you find the flights you need, you can try to piece it together as a multi-city award, or call the reservations center to book. Also, keep in mind that United has an unpublished rule that prevents its systems from booking an award with more than four flights in each direction, but telephone representatives can help you get around that rule — if they’re so inclined. For more information about this, read my post on How to Book Awards with United MileagePlus Miles.

5. Avoid the close-in booking fee. — United charges a $75 fee for award flights booked within 21 days of departure. The easiest way to avoid this fee is to have a United Club card from Chase, but there’s another trick that works. If you can find and book the exact same itinerary on a later date, then you can call and have your flights changed to the earlier date at no charge. The award flights may need to be on the same airline and connecting through the same cities for this trick to work.

6. Find additional Saver award space with status or a United card. — United can be notoriously stingy about releasing economy-class Saver award space, but it offers far more award availability to those who hold elite status and those who have a United MileagePlus Explorer Card or Club credit card from Chase. If you have elite status, or one of these cards, just make sure that you log in to your account before searching for award flights. You can read more about this unpublished benefit of the United credit cards in my post on Unlocking United Award Availability with MileagePlus Cards.

7. Book business Saver space on standby. — The additional award space for elites and United cardholders only works for economy-class awards (better premium-class Saver award availability is supposed to be a benefit of Premier Platinum and 1K, but there are few reports of there being additional space). But once you’ve found economy-class Saver award space, you can waitlist for business class.

United’s award travel rules state that you can call to book a coach award at the business Saver level, and then be waitlisted for a business-class seat. You’ll be upgraded to the business-class (or domestic-first) seat if it becomes available as a Saver award, but even if it doesn’t, you’ll be at the top of the upgrade list, ahead of everyone else using miles to upgrade. And technically, this isn’t an upgrade since you’ve already paid the correct price for a business-class seat. This trick even works when booking United Global First after finding only business-class award seats.

On board United BusinessFirst.
You can waitlist for business class by booking a coach award at the business Saver level.

8. Beware of phantom award space. — Another flaw with United’s website is its tendency to display awards that you can’t book, otherwise known as phantom award space. So it’s important to get as far along in the booking process as possible before transferring your Ultimate Rewards points, which is irreversible. To learn more about how to handle this issue, read my post on The Phantom Award Space Menace: United Ghost Availability And How To Fix It.

9. Book a free one-way flight. — It used to be that many airlines offered free stopovers, allowing you to add on a one-way segment, essentially for free. United still allows a single stopover when you’re booking a round-trip award flight, as well as two open jaws (arriving or departing from different cities in the same region). So if you live in a United hub city, you could conceivably book a round-trip award ticket with a stopover at your home airport for any length of time, before continuing on to a final destination as far as Hawaii.

10. Be aware of partners that aren’t online. — United’s search engine is actually pretty good at including most, but not all, of its partners. The current exceptions are Singapore, Jet Airways of India, Shenzhen Airlines of China and some Cape Air flights. For information on how to book these flights, see my post on How To Find and Book Star Alliance Awards Not Showing Up on United.com, but note that there are more partner carriers on United.com now than when it was written last year.

Other Tips

11. Call for upgrade options. — United is pretty inconsistent about offering cash and mileage upgrades to paid, economy-class tickets. You might get an offer when you book your flight, when you check in or even at the gate. But if you’re looking to confirm your upgrade in advance, I’ve found that you may get additional upgrade offers — in miles, dollars or both — when you simply call their reservations line and ask.

Travelers in the US may be able to add an Amtrak segment to their ticket. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Travelers in the US may be able to add an Amtrak segment to their ticket. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

12. Include Amtrak on your ticket. — United offers a codeshare with Amtrak trains, but only from Newark to certain destinations in the Northeast Corridor. It permits passengers to connect to Amtrak at the Newark Airport, although you’ll have to handle your own luggage and take the airport monorail to connect to the Amtrak station. The codeshare is only valid for service to/from these train stations:

  • ZFV – Philadelphia 30th Street
  • ZTF – Stamford, CT
  • ZVE – New Haven, CT
  • ZWI – Wilmington, DE

You’ll even earn miles for your travel on Amtrak, and you can use United miles to book awards that include Amtrak service to these four destinations.

13. Avoid change fees by booking flights as one-ways. — United charges an outrageous $200 fee for changes to domestic flights, and an incredible $400 for international flight changes, which can be more than the price of some one-way tickets. The airline charges even more for changes to some business and first-class tickets. This can be a huge problem if you need to change your outbound leg of a round-trip itinerary, as you can’t just skip the flight without having your return canceled.

But if you choose to book your flights as two one-way segments, you gain the additional flexibility of booking a different outbound flight (on United or another carrier), and you can no-show for your original reservation without having to pay hundreds of dollars in change fees. Furthermore, you might qualify for a refund if your original flight turns out to be canceled or significantly delayed. Just be sure to check to make sure that your one-way flight is pricing at half the round-trip fare, so you don’t end up overpaying.

Do you have any other tips for maximizing travel on United? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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