United Award Tickets: The basics

If you’re a relative newcomer to traveling on the cheap, this post is going to change the way you book your award travel. Understanding United reward tickets is essential to getting the most out of the MileagePlus program. I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with CPM; if you’re not then read [this] post first.

United has two classes of award tickets: Saver Awards and Standard Awards.
Here are the most important things to know about these two classes.

  1. Standard Awards cost twice as many miles as Saver Awards.
  2. Saver Awards have very limited inventory; Standard Awards are easier to find.
  3. MileagePlus Premier members have *unrestricted access to Standard Awards.
  4. MileagePlus Explorer, Select, Access, Club, Visa Signature or Business Credit Card, OnePass Plus, Presidential Plus, Visa Signature or Business Credit Card holders also have unrestricted access to Standard Awards.
  5. **MileagePlus Premier members may be able to see Saver Award inventory that isn’t available to Non-Premier members.
  6. Award tickets do not accrue miles.
  7. ***Premier members who are primary cardholders of the following Chase-issued credit cards are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on award tickets on United-operated flights: MileagePlus Explorer, MileagePlus Explorer for Business, OnePass Plus, World MasterCard for Business, Presidential Plus, and Presidential Plus for Business.
  8. If you book award travel within 21 days of departure you must pay a Close-In Fee.
  9. You are allowed a stop-over and an open-jaw.
  • * “Unrestricted access” means: If there’s a United seat for sale, these members can get it with award miles, guaranteed, even if it’s the last seat on the airplane.
  • ** This means you should log into your MileagePlus account when searching United’s site. The extra award inventory that Premier’s have access to is pretty significant and there have been several times where I was able to book an award that wasn’t available to regular members.
  • *** Award travel will be prioritized after the lowest paid fare class in the upgrade confirmation priority order. This means that in practice, your chance of getting a complementary upgrade on an award ticket will be basically zero. You will get an upgrade only after any Premier members that paid for a economy ticket are upgraded.

We are going to suggest that you always avoid Standard Awards. They cost twice as many miles as the Saver Award on the same route and in my opinion not worth paying twice the miles for. Therefore, I won’t be covering Standard Awards at all in this post. If you’re paranoid about availability then you should try to book your award travel at least 40 days before your planned departure.

We’ll use an imaginary 2 week vacation in Europe as our example.Flight from Houston (IAH) to London (LHR)

If we were to fly from Houston (IAH) to London (LHR) on an award ticket it would cost 60,000 and $177.80. Alternatively, you could pay $908.20. This works out to a CPM of $0.01. That’s not bad, but United allows a stop-over and also an open-jaw on the same award. We can spice things up a bit for the same amount of miles by using (abusing) this rule.

If we modify our two week vacation a bit…

Our itinerary just got a bit more interesting! We’re now flying from Houston to London and staying for a few days before heading to Paris via the Chunnel. We then take a flight to Amsterdam and spend a week there sampling space cakes and a few parties before heading back to Houston.

You may be thinking that United would charge you more miles for all of this flying around, but nope they don’t care; they’re basically the honey badger of flight. If you were paying cash, they would want $300 more for this itinerary, but since you are booking with miles, it’s still 60,000. Oh, you may have noticed that the fees are lower on this itinerary; that’s because the UK charges a ridiculously high fee if you depart from their airports. I won’t go into how airport fees and taxes work in this post, but I’ll cover it in detail some other time. The CPM for this itinerary works out to be: $0.015 which is much better than our first example.

That’s basically the meat of it. Whenever possible, use a stop-over or an open-jaw to get more destinations and value out of the same amount of miles. I hope that you find this post useful for your future travels.