United might be my favorite miles program to spend. If you’re fortunate enough to have a large quantity of United miles let me give you a few suggestions on how you can maximize them. Also, if you have Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, transferring them to United is, in my opinion, probably the best use for those points. This post will outline First Class redemptions, stopovers and how we’ve gotten a value of 25 cents per mile redeeming United Miles – an unheard of redemption value.
Of course the “best use” is dependant on where you would like to go and will go. While some might dream of flying flight class to Bali others might find a trip to Alaska for only 25,000 miles a great value. You should really check out their award chart here to understand how much it costs to visit your intended destination. Still, I’m not going to use 25,000 United miles on a short little roundtrip flight I could get for $100 on Southwest. Because I know somewhere down the line those miles will have a much greater value on an international flight. So personally I don’t redeem United miles for domestic flights.
But it’s hard to go wrong as long as you’re finding “Saver Award” flights. The wrong way to use them would be to book “Standard Award” flights instead of “Saver Award”. “Standard Award” seats have more availability but cost twice as much. It’s often cheaper to fly Business Class with a Saver Award than it is to fly economy redeeming for a Standard Award Seat.
The right way is Saver Awards but there are all kinds of ways to get the most value out of your ticket. At the end we’ll talk a little about finding Saver Awards in peak season times and for routes with fewer flights (I.E. Europe in summer and Australia).
If you’re looking for premium awards there are a number of great Star Alliance First Class cabins available with United miles. It’s obviously a lot easier to find business award availability but it’s definitely possible to find First Class tickets for most destinations.
Sometimes finding first class is about timing, and sometimes it’s just about routes. In regards to timing, you simply have to book far out or last minute (with in two weeks). My guess is that with the number of award miles out among people in the US due to credit cards and such, it’s just harder to find flights to/from the US to Europe and across the Pacific nowadays in First Class.
Thai Airways First Class.
Thai has a fair amount of First Class award availability and a few different products you can get. I haven’t flown on Thai’s A380 but it looks nicer than the 747 and A340, as it’s more of a suite style seat.
If you want to try Thai’s First Class you probably have to route through Europe and in a minute I’ll talk about stopovers and how a stopover in Europe (as long as you want) doesn’t cost any extra. I found a Thai First Class seat on an A380 from Paris to Bangkok pretty easily.
Lufthansa First Class
Generally Lufthansa has a high quality first class that opens up to award partners last minute. If you’re like me and can book last minute trips, it’s less of problem but it’s getting hard to find any other options far out now that Swiss has cut their First Class award seats to partners.
Right now I may be able to book a flight to Europe on Lufthansa First Class a week or so out. Then stopover for a few weeks. Since Lufthansa isn’t likely to have award availability more than a week or so out, I would then book the rest of the trip (to Asia, or wherever) on other airlines, like Thai.
ANA First Class
Seems to be decent availability and has options direct to the US, like NRT to ORD.
Asiana First Class
Similarly, it’s a lot easier to find flights from Europe than from the US but it’s sometimes possible.
Still there are other airlines like Air China, but I wouldn’t waste miles on United First Class. I’d much rather fly on Thai Business or Turkish Business than United First.
Of course stopovers are on my list. It’s why I love United so much. You get one stopover and two open-jaws on a round-trip ticket. (A stopover is a layover that can be as long as you want). You can get pretty creative in where you do your stopovers but most commonly you could do a stopover in Europe on the way to Asia – thus seeing both for only 65,000 miles. Similarly you could have a stopover in Europe on your way to Africa.
But truth be told, you can add a stopover on most any route. On a flight to Aruba (or most of the Caribbean) you can easily make a stopover in Panama City. Panama is actually easy because it’s a Star Alliance hub, but you could probably make a stopover in many parts of Central America routing through Panama.
Breaking the Award Chart
The same stopover concept applies to the Middle East and India. You can create a stopover in the Middle East on the way to Asia. Here’s the kicker: An award to the Middle East should cost 80,000 miles but when you make it a stopover on the way to Asia it only prices at 65,000 miles – the price of a ticket to Asia. So if you intend on going to the Middle East, it’s actually cheaper to spend a day in Asia as well. Although the funny thing is while testing, it routed me through Europe 3 times, back tracking from the Middle East to Europe and both to and from the US. Anything goes.
The same concept should work with Oceania awards with a stopover in Australia but I have so much trouble with United.com now with the Oceania region.
The value of 25 cents per miles.
Stopovers can get pretty absurd. You would be very surprised what the system allows as a stopover, as sometimes the stopover is not at all on the way. My best example of this is Oceania to Oceania which is only 25,000 roundtrip in economy or 40,000 business. This would make more sense if there were ever direct Oceania flights but as it is, to route from Micronesia (near Asia) to the Polynesians (out in the middle of the Pacific) you have to route through Asia and Australia/New Zealand to get from one Oceania section to the other.
For only 40,000 miles we saw Guam/Saipan, Singapore, Sydney, New Zealand, The Cooke Islands and Tokyo, all in business class. I talk about booking the Pacific Stopovers with United in a few places but for this one you may have to call it in now, as I’m having trouble getting anything in Oceania to book a stopover online.
Trouble finding Saver Awards?
Pretty soon I’m going to start getting questions on how to get to Europe using miles in summer. Well, let me put it this way: Remember that $399 ticket from DC to Istanbul a few months ago? Well the cheapest ticket in August is running $1,200+. Other routes are worse. Many US to Europe flights are $1,500+ in summer. It’s hard to get cheap flights and similarly it’s hard to find award availability, thus you need to book in advance. Like now or 4 months ago. Things can open up last minute but it’s still rough compared to winter.
So try changing a few things. Try routing through different places. You can try starting from different airports or even just using the multidestination tool to try different cities. You can try searching oneway awards from different cities to get an idea of where to route through. You can also try creating a stopover in a place in Europe for a day or so that does have availability. Meaning, fly to Frankfurt if you can’t get seats to Dublin but can to Frankfurt and to Dublin from Frankfurt.
The same applies to Australia. There are not a lot of Star Alliance routes that go to Australia directly. Some United but if you don’t mind routing through Asia you can very easily find a ticket.