To the dismay of many, United is phasing out its award chart as of Nov. 15, 2019. Award routes will no longer cost a set number of miles but will instead fluctuate based on demand, just like cash flights. We still don’t know exactly how big of an impact this will have, but chances are that many routes will cost more miles after November.
That means it might be a good time to use any United miles you’ve been sitting on. But where to start?
With 37 airline partners serving every corner of the globe, the United MileagePlus program is enormous. This size makes United miles some of the most versatile and useful frequent flyer miles out there, but it can also be overwhelming.
It’s easy to get caught in the maximization game, trying to decode United’s routing rules to find the “perfect” fare. The rules governing stopovers, open jaws and the (in)famous Excursionist Perk have become so convoluted for some that you might feel tempted after some preliminary research to give up altogether.
Don’t give up!
Here are three relatively simple ways that almost anybody can use their United miles before the award chart goes poof. Each one requires minimal research, know-how and time commitment to book.
1. Short flights outside of the U.S.
Under the current award chart, most short flights (under 800 miles) within the same region cost only 8,000 miles. Some routes, like those under 800 miles within Japan, run only 5,000 miles with no taxes or fuel surcharges.
These tickets are especially useful for short connecting flights to small airports in a region you’re planning to visit.
For example, a round-trip flight from Seattle to the small Japanese city of Akita cost $1,125 when we searched, while flights to Tokyo were only $768 — a $357 difference. You could book a round-trip flight to Tokyo and then a separate round-trip award flight to Akita for 10,000 miles and no taxes (availability was wide open when we searched for September). That yields a terrific value of 3.57 cents per United mile ($357 / 10,000 miles) and gives you a free stopover in Tokyo.
2. U.S. to Northern South America
United breaks the world up into mostly standard regions such as “North America” and “Oceania.” However, one of the stranger regions is “Northern South America,” which includes Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
One-way award flights from the mainland United States to this region start at only 20,000 miles each way, and most routes have reasonable taxes. That’s a clear sweet spot and a good, simple opportunity to get some good value from your miles.
For example, a round-trip flight from Seattle to Cuzco, Peru, cost $1,018 when we searched, compared to 40,000 miles + $67.51 in fees. That’s a value of 2.37 cents per mile, which beats our (optimistic) valuation of United miles at 2.1 cents per point.
3. Get a free (and simple) leg on a round-trip ticket
As mentioned, the once-valuable Excursionist Perk has become more complicated and, well, less valuable. We won’t go into the details of how to maximize the Excursionist Perk using crazy itineraries, but instead suggest using it as intended: to get a free leg within your destination region while flying round-trip.
What does that mean? Let’s say you’re planning a round-trip award flight from New York to Paris. That would cost 60,000 miles plus $67.13 in taxes (when we searched). However, you can add a trip to Athens (or anywhere in Europe) for only the cost of the taxes. So instead of New York to Paris to New York, you would book New York to Paris to Athens to New York, for the same number of miles — staying in both Paris and Athens for as long as you like.
The cash price of this multi-city trip was $1,040 when we searched, giving a decent value of 1.6 cents per mile ($1,040 – $67.13 / 60,000 miles). More importantly, adding this free leg greatly increases the value of the award booking over what it would have been for a simple round-trip to Paris.
To search for these itineraries, use United’s advanced search and make sure to select the “yes” box in the “Do you want to book a MileagePlus® award ticket?” field and “multi-city” under the “trip type” field.
According to United, the disappearance of the award chart doesn’t necessarily mean that tickets booked with miles will always be more expensive. Some routes will cost less, while others will cost more (especially during peak seasons). However, our guess is that, on the whole, you’ll be better off using your United miles before Nov. 15 than after.