Our step-by-step guide to booking award travel on United shows you how to book flights and how to get the best deal.
United Airlines is one of the three major international airlines based in the United States, and its MileagePlus frequent flyer program is often considered to be the best of the them. With the MileagePlus program, you can earn and redeem miles by flying on United or any of its 28 Star Alliance partners and 11 other non-alliance airlines. And, unlike most of its competitors, nearly all partner award flights can be booked online, and you’ll never have to pay fuel surcharges or other carrier imposed charges to redeem your miles, beyond government taxes and fees.
As with other frequent flyer programs, spending your miles efficiently on United can be at least as important as how many miles you earn. A major factor in getting a good value on your miles is knowing how to find Saver Award space through United’s search engine. In the following guide, we’ll walk you through how to use United’s search interface to book an award flight.
Why should you get this card?
With a generous sign-up bonus, the United Explorer Card makes it easy to earn a free flight quickly. If you fly United often, it is easy to make up for the card’s $95 annual fee (waived first year).
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United award travel rules
- Hold and waitlist options – Hold a reservation for three to seven days for a fee with United’s FareLock option. No waitlist options for normal awards. However, you can use phone reservations to book an economy class award ticket and put yourself on a waitlist for a business or first-class seat.
- Booking restrictions – No blackout dates, but Saver Awards are capacity controlled (Everyday Awards are not capacity controlled for some United MileagePlus credit card holders).
- Fuel surcharges – United doesn’t impose fuel surcharges (however, you may have to pay taxes or fees for travel into some countries).
- Booking fees – No fee for online reservations made more than 30 days in advance. $25 fee for phone reservations (waived for some elite members). 2,500 to 3,500 mile fee for award reservations made within 30 days of departure.
- Ticket changes – $75 fee for changes made to award reservations more than 60 days in advance. $125 fee for changes made less than 60 days in advance (reduced or waived for some elite members). $125 fee to redeposit miles after a no-show.
- Cancellation policy – $75 fee for cancelling a reservation more than 60 days in advance. $125 fee for cancelling within 60 days of departure.
- Routing rules – Round trip and one-way award tickets allowed. Multicity itineraries are booked as separate, one-way fares. Open-jaw itineraries (where you arrive in one city and depart from another) are allowed. You can book a free stopover with the Excursionist Perk (with some restrictions). Otherwise, stopovers are limited to four hours on domestic flights and 24 hours on international flights.
Searching for United Airlines MileagePlus award flights
The easiest way to search for United Airlines MileagePlus award flights is by visiting United.com or by using their mobile app. United is part of the Star Alliance, which includes 28 other member airlines. Visit our United partners page to see a full list of partners.
You can start booking MileagePlus award flights at the United.com homepage by specifying your origin, destination, number of passengers and dates of travel. You can also choose to redeem your miles for a one-way, round-trip ticket or multi-city itinerary.
You have to check the box that indicates you wish to search for award travel. Otherwise you will be shown fares in dollars. You’ll also have the option of selecting non-stop flights only. And while it appears that you can choose to search for economy, business or first-class seats, you’ll always see results in all available classes of service, regardless of which option you select.
By selecting the “All search” option, you’ll be linked to a screen with some additional options. You can elect to filter your results by preferred connection cities and connections. You can also filter by “All airlines,” “United and United Express carriers only,” or “All Star Alliance airlines.”
Next, you’ll go to a results screen that indicates award availability for the date you chose. You’ll also see a “Lowest award fare calendar” that shows the least expensive fares available three days before and after your chosen date. And, if you want to see more than just a week’s worth of availability, you can choose “View 30 day calendar.”
Either way, there are two levels of prices for most awards: Saver and Everyday. Saver Awards require fewer miles, but have less availability, while Everyday Awards on United-operated flights have nearly unlimited availability, but can require many more miles.
Depending on availability, you may also be able to choose between “Economy Saver,” “First Saver” and “First Everyday” Awards. If you have a United MileagePlus credit card with an annual fee and you are logged into United.com, then you’ll also see options for Economy Everyday awards. All MileagePlus cardholders also receive expanded award availability for Economy Saver Awards.
Once you’ve selected an available award flight for your outbound and return trips, you’ll then continue to the “Review trip itinerary” screen. Here, you can use the “Revise” links in the box at the top to sort the available flight options by number of stops, arrival time, departure time or total travel time. You can also uncheck boxes to remove flights on specific airlines or flights to and from specific airports.
Next, you’ll be asked to confirm the total number of miles as well as any taxes and fees, while listing the passengers and trip contacts. You will then be able to select seats on any United Airlines operated flights, with additional charges for preferred seats or those with extra legroom.
Finally, you’ll be asked for payment information to complete the transaction.
How United Airlines MileagePlus awards are priced
There are several pricing tiers to MileagePlus awards. The first level is Saver Awards, which usually offers the lowest prices. All available partner awards are at Saver rates. In addition, economy class domestic awards can have lower prices for itineraries of 700 miles or less.
Hold and waitlist options for United MileagePlus award flights
Once you’ve selected an itinerary, you have the option to hold the reservation for three to seven days by paying an additional fee for United’s FareLock option. You must confirm the ticket within that time, or the hold will expire and the seats will be released.
There is no general waitlist option for MileagePlus award flights. However, you can be waitlisted for a business or first-class award by calling the phone reservations line to book an economy-class fare and requesting to be put on the waitlist for a higher-class seat.
You will have to redeem the additional miles needed to be added to the list. The waitlist will expire 24 hours before departure. If a seat doesn’t open up by that time, you will be automatically added to the airport upgrade standby list upon check-in. You will then be confirmed for an upgrade on a space-available basis by a United airport representative at the gate once the flight has closed for check-in. If a seat doesn’t become available, United will automatically refund your miles.
The United Airlines MileagePlus program doesn’t have fixed blackout dates, but Saver Awards are capacity-controlled and are not available on many flights. While United offers more availability for its Everyday Awards, these are also restricted on some flights for general MileagePlus members. However, United MileagePlus credit card holders can book an Everyday Award for any available seat on a United-operated flight.
United Airlines doesn’t impose fuel surcharges on its awards. However, many countries impose mandatory taxes and fees that United will pass on to travelers.
Fees for booking, cancelling and changing awards reservations
There is no additional charge for making a MileagePlus award booking online or through the United Airlines mobile app, so long as it’s made more than 21 days before departure. Awards booked through a United Customer Contact Center have a $25 fee (waived for Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members). Awards booked within 30 days of departure will also have a 2,500 to 3,500 mile fee, regardless of your membership status.
Awards can be cancelled for free within 24 hours of booking. After that, there are different fees for cancelling and redepositing miles. For changes made on flights 61 or more days before departure, there’s a $75 fee for general members, a $50 fee for Premier Silver members and a $25 fee for Premier Gold members. For changes on flights within 60 days of departure, there’s a $125 fee for general members, a $100 fee for Premier Silver members, a $75 fee for Premier Gold members and a $50 for Premier Platinum members. Finally, there’s a $125 fee to redeposit miles after a no-show that’s assessed to all members.
United Airlines MileagePlus award routing rules
United will only let you book itineraries that can be found when searching online. Agents have little ability to manually override their systems if there’s a problem. If you use the multi-city award search tool, then it will price each part of the itinerary separately.
United allows open-jaw itineraries, where you arrive and depart from different cities (e.g., flying to London and returning from Paris). You can even have a double open-jaw itinerary, where you also return to a different city than where you originally departed from (e.g., flying from New York to London and returning from Paris to Los Angeles).
Stopovers are limited to four hours on domestic itineraries and 24 hours on international itineraries. While United awards no longer include free stopovers beyond those limits, it does offer a unique, if confusing option called the Excursionist Perk. This option allows you to book a free one-way segment as part of an itinerary with at least two other one-way segments. In order to receive the free one-way segment, you must meet several requirements:
- Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates. For example, if you travel to and from North America, then you can’t have a free one-way segment within North America.
- The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region. For example, if your free one-way award is to and from a destination in Northern Africa, all of the flights must be entirely within the Northern Africa region.
- The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower class than the one-way award preceding it. For instance, you can’t get a free one-way flight in first-class if the previous leg of your trip is in economy.
- If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.
Tips for finding the best award seats for the lowest miles
Open a United MileagePlus credit card
When it comes to booking domestic award flights, holders of United Airlines credit cards, including the United Explorer card and the United MileagePlus Club Card, often receive expanded access to Saver Award seats in economy class.
There are also several legacy cards that include this benefit but are no longer offered to new applicants. To see this additional award space, just be sure to always log in to your account before performing your search.
Book well in advance
As with most frequent flyer programs, you are likely to find the most available award seats the further in advance you look. United and its partners tend to release award seats as far out as 331 days (about 11 months) before departure. When you are looking for multiple award seats, tickets to popular destinations or for flights during peak travel seasons, it’s a good idea to search for MileagePlus award flights as soon as the seats are released.
Don’t give up on searching for award seats
However, there are some exceptions to the above rule. Lufthansa and United often release some Saver level seats within two weeks of departure. If you have flexibility in your travel plans, it can make sense to continue to search for award seats right up to the day of departure.
Use the Excursionist Perk
Finally, be sure to take advantage of the Excursionist Perk, a free flight that United offers within your destination region when you redeem a round-trip award flight with your miles. For example, you could book an award flight to Iceland, which United defines as part of Europe, and return from as far away as Cyprus, which is also considered to be in Europe. And when you book these two flights, you could receive a free one-way flight between Iceland and Cyprus in the same class of service.
This benefit works best where United has partner carriers, such as in China and India, and when flying between Australia and New Zealand. To use the Excursionist Perk benefit, be sure to book your flights using the multi-city itinerary option.
With United Airlines’ large network of partners and generous routing rules on award seats that allow one-way and roundtrip fares, multi-city itineraries and even a free stopover with the Excursionist perk, you have the potential to book a world tour for a bargain. However, the United search engine also makes it difficult to piece together complicated itineraries. By knowing how to make the best of United’s search engine features and booking well in advance to snag Saver Award seats, you will have the best luck on traveling far with United miles.
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