United MileagePlus Award Optimization for Beginners

Cheap Saver Award fares and the Excursionist Perk are good redemption options for making the most of your miles.

Rand ShoafJune 26, 2020
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With an extensive flight network and excellent partner airlines within the Star Alliance, United MileagePlus miles offer endless award flight options. It's never been easier to rack up tons of United miles to travel to just about any corner of the globe.

In this guide, we will go over the basics of using your miles to book award flights on both United and its partner airlines, plus we will show how to get the most from your miles.

How to get started using MileagePlus miles

As you’d expect, you can redeem your miles for United flights. You can also book award flights on any of United’s partner airlines within the Star Alliance.

Redeeming miles on United flights

To book a United flight using your miles, sign in to your MileagePlus account. On United's homepage, enter your departure and destination cities, along with your travel dates. To search for award flights, click “Book with miles” before submitting the search.

Once you've submitted your search you'll see a results page with available flights for both United and its partner airlines. From here you can search by itinerary, price and cabin.

United no longer operates on a fixed price award chart and instead uses dynamic pricing. This means you can’t know the price of an award flight until you complete a search and United determines the price based on availability, travel dates and other factors.

The search results give you a seven-day calendar view to compare prices on other dates. You can also compare award prices in a 30-day calendar view, which is helpful if your travel dates are flexible.

Redeeming points on partner airlines

You can book award flights on any of United’s 25 Star Alliance partners, so you can use MileagePlus miles to fly almost anywhere in the world on some of the most sought-after airlines. Most partner award flights can be booked through United.com, and United’s flight search engine is reliable when it comes to showing award fares on partner airlines.

Plus, United does not hit you with fuel surcharges on award tickets on partner airlines. This is another reason why United MileagePlus miles are valuable for redeeming on partner awards, especially premium-cabin awards.

What to consider when redeeming

When using your United miles to book award flights, consider how much value you are getting per mile. NerdWallet estimates the value of United MileagePlus miles at 1 cent each. Use this as a guideline when booking award flights.

To calculate your United MileagePlus redemption value, use this easy formula: price of flight in cash divided by price of flight in miles. For example, consider a flight from Houston to New York that costs 15,000 miles or $116. Book this with miles and you’re getting a value of 0.77 cent per mile.

Optimizing: A few program sweet spots

With United’s large flight network and extensive Star Alliance partnerships, you can fly all over the world. Here are a few standout redemption options when looking to optimize your United miles for award flights.

Book cheap saver economy awards to Europe

To stretch your miles, look at saver economy awards from the U.S. to Europe. You can fly on United or any Star Alliance partner airline from 30,000 miles one way in economy class. Taxes and fees are also low, as United doesn’t impose fuel surcharges on its awards.

Fly business or first class to Europe

Having no added fuel surcharges makes premium cabin MileagePlus awards, such as a first class flight from the U.S. to Europe on Lufthansa or Swiss, a solid deal.

You can experience some of the best first class cabins in the sky on a trip to Europe using miles, and you’ll be saving hundreds of dollars in comparison to booking this flight using a mileage program that passes on fuel surcharge fees.

A business class flight to Europe can save you miles on a luxury travel experience. You can find business class flights to Europe starting as low as 60,000 miles on United or around 70,000 miles on one of United's partners.

Add a stopover with the Excursionist Perk

A free stopover using the MileagePlus Excursionist Perk is a great way to squeeze more value out of your miles and see an extra destination. This is United’s term for a free-one way award on a multi-city itinerary made up of three or more one-way awards. The perk is that one of the awards is free. However, there are a few rules that you need to follow.

Here, from United’s website, are the rules your trip must comply with to qualify for this perk:

“The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)

  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.

  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.

  • The cabin of service and award inventory of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.

  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.”

For example you could fly New York to Paris, Paris to Madrid, and Madrid back to New York (or any other North American city) and get that short Paris to Madrid award for free. Although it may take some extra work to make your itinerary fit these rules, it could be worth it to get a free stopover.

Book a Saver Award to Northern South America

Using United miles can be a great way to fly to countries in United’s Northern South America region. This region includes Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. For an economy Saver Award, you’ll pay as little as 20,000 miles one way when booking at the cheapest award ticket price.

The bottom line

United’s MileagePlus frequent flyer program offers lots of award flights and, if you plan carefully, lots of ways to get more value out of your miles. Spend some time at united.com searching for flights you might want to take, and you can get a sense of where and when you’ll find good redemptions for United flights and possibly even better redemptions for United partner flights.

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