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United MileagePlus is a key loyalty program in the points and miles world, and it's not just because United Airlines is one of the largest U.S. airlines. United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards®, Bilt Rewards and several hotel loyalty programs — making it easy to rack up United miles. Plus, United's redemption rates can offer compelling value, particularly on United flights.
However, not all MileagePlus members are treated the same when it comes to award pricing. The MileagePlus program provides expanded award availability to both Premier elite status holders and eligible United co-branded credit card holders.
Utilizing this expanded award space can make the difference between booking the cheapest United awards and potentially much-higher (and less valuable) award rates. Let's take a look at the ways you can get expanded award availability and find some of the cheapest United routes.
Who gets expanded award availability
United offers expanded award availability to two types of MileagePlus members: cardholders of eligible United MileagePlus cards and United Premier elite status members.
United co-branded credit card holders
For most travelers, holding an eligible United co-branded credit card is going to be the easiest way to get access to expanded award availability.
United doesn't publish a list of the MileagePlus co-branded credit cards that come with this perk. However, a Chase representative confirmed to NerdWallet that all United co-branded cards with annual fees have expanded award availability.
Here are the United cards with expanded award availability:
Unfortunately, cardholders of the $0-annual-fee United Gateway℠ Card aren't eligible to get expanded award availability.
» Learn more: Is a United credit card worth it?
United Premier elites
All United Premier elite members are eligible for the expanded United award availability. And, as far as we can tell, the availability and award rates are the same whether you're an entry-level Silver elite or a top-tier 1K elite member.
Note that you might be able to get United Premier elite status even if you haven't flown United in a while. Marriott Bonvoy Titanium Elite and Ambassador Elite members can register to get United Premier Silver elite status through Marriott's partnership with United.
» Learn more: How United and Marriott elites can status match
How expanded award availability works
Having access to expanded award availability can make a huge difference in the number of miles you'd pay for the same award flights. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.
Family trip to Hawaii
Say you live in Houston and want to take a family trip to Honolulu over Thanksgiving. United offers a nonstop flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Honolulu. However, United can charge some steep prices to fly on this route. When we priced it out, United was charging MileagePlus members 41,500 miles per person to fly most days of Thanksgiving week.
However, United Premier elites and co-branded cardholders can book awards on this route for just 22,500 miles per person most days of Thanksgiving week. And that pricing isn't just for the eligible MileagePlus member.
United applies the same award pricing to all travelers. In this case, each day had availability for at least four passengers at this reduced rate.
At this pricing, getting United expanded award availability saves you 19,000 United miles per passenger on just this one-way flight. For a family of four, that's a savings of 76,000 miles — one way.
NerdWallet's baseline value for United miles is 1 cent per mile, meaning you're saving at least $760 worth of miles just by being an eligible United co-branded cardholder or Premier elite.
Nonstop flight to Paris
Who doesn't love flying nonstop to their destination? Airlines know that and can price nonstop flights accordingly. This is one time when having expanded award availability can really come in handy.
For example, let's consider a trip for two from San Francisco to Paris. Nonstop award availability is hard to find on this route — especially during peak summer travel season. In fact, when we searched, not a single date had saver award availability in June 2022. Every single date was priced at 70,000 miles per person one way.
However, United cardholders and Premier elites can book nonstop awards on this route for just 60,000 round trip. That's less than the number of miles general members have to pay for just a one-way award.
The same exact San Francisco to Paris flights that eligible members can book for 60,000 miles round trip costs a general United MileagePlus member 137,300 miles round trip.
How to find United expanded award availability
Finding the cheapest United awards is about as simple as it gets. All you need to do to see this extra award availability is log into your United MileagePlus account when performing an award search.
As long as you have Premier elite status or an eligible United co-branded credit card tied to your MileagePlus account, you should get access to the cheapest United awards available whenever you search for awards on United's website.
United expert mode
If you want to get technical in your award search, you can enable "expert mode" on United's website. This can help you see if there's expanded award availability for a particular flight and see how many seats are available at this rate.
To enable, go into your United account preferences and open the "Special preferences & accommodations" section. Go to the bottom of the section and check the box to "Enable expert mode." Then, select the save button directly beneath it.
This functionality will give you more visibility into the number of extra award seats that are available to flyers for any given flight.
United economy XN vs. United economy X codes
Once you enable expert mode, perform a normal/cash flight search — award searches don't work — and expand the details for the flight you're eyeing.
Here, look for the "XN" fare code to see how many tickets are available to those with expanded award availability. The "X" fare class indicates how many saver-level awards are available to all MileagePlus members.
For example, let's look at the San Francisco to Paris flight we considered earlier. As we saw when searching award rates, this flight offers zero saver-level awards to general members. However, those with expanded award availability could book up to eight awards at saver-level prices.
If you want to get the cheapest United award flights …
The easiest way to get the cheapest United award rates is by being a cardholder of an eligible United co-branded credit card. One often under-appreciated perk of these cards is this expanded award availability on United flights.
While you aren't guaranteed award space, this perk can be incredibly helpful for booking cheap United awards. In some cases, expanded award availability can mean you pay less than half of the award rate offered to general MileagePlus members. That's a perk that can quickly justify paying an annual fee on a United credit card.
Advanced points and miles nerds might also consider enabling United expert mode in their MileagePlus account so that they can view XN and X award availability ahead of booking.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card