Best Use Of United Miles

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 12.43.55 PMUnited 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).

The New Lufthansa First Class

First Class

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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 10.38.16 AMIf 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

UA-METhe 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 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.

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  1. Good stuff!


    P.S- you’ve really got a find a way for us to get notifications for replies to our comments.

  2. Hi Drew, your site is excellent and has some of the best traveling tips. I am amazed how you were able to do the Pacific stopover in Business with just 40k miles. Will definitely look into that. Now I am trying to plan an anniversary trip with my wife and would like to leverage your stopover strategy. We would like to visit Japan during Summer to see their summer festival, you think there’s anyway to leverage the stopover trick so to spend less than 100k miles to visit Japan in business? I live in SFO, wondering if a ticket to somewhere in Canada with routing through NRT would work, just curious. Thanks for any tips and hints, take care and enjoy your travel.

    • There’s not really a way with United miles to get it down to 100k, pp in business class. It would cost 120k or you could fly oneway economy and oneway business class.
      The only thing I could think of is mixing with another program to start in Hawaii. Like us BA or HA miles to go to Hawaii. The award chart to SE Asia, Japan and Oceania is a decent amount cheaper from Hawaii. I’m not sure that helps at all but, you could pick up another CSP to get the rest of the 40k. However, you may e pressed on time. Anyways. Hope that helps somewhat. Always feel free to comment or email too.

  3. Lovely. Did you know you could get the Oceania-Oceania trick done with 30k US Airways miles in J roundtrip? That would basically mean 1 US Airways Mastercard approval, and a $1 transaction made. I have a MEL-AKL-SIN-KIX-GUM-NRT-PVG-AKL-MEL itinerary for July for about $229 in J.

    But yes, I am looking forward to a MEL-BKK-NRT-ICN-SPN (destination)-ICN-HND-BKK-SGN-SIN (stopover)-SGN-BKK-MEL in December for my vacation break back home in SIN. 70k UA miles in F. It is a lovely little gem.

  4. wow you guys are awesome, I never know that one can do so much with the miles. So just curious, how do you figure out these routes? By just piecing them together through US Airways or United web sites, what’s a good way to find all possible or appropriate connections. I have some free time this week and would like to take up Drew’s suggest to start piece a trip traveling from HNL to NRT, or any suggestion with such route? My goal is to visit different cities in Japan and I can use my BA miles to get a ticket from SFO to HNL. So now need to piece in together a business roundtrip that will along me to travel different islands including Japan. Thanks very much for all help and suggestions. Take care and have a wonderful weekend.

  5. “I have so much trouble with now with the Oceania region.”

    Are you sure it’s trouble with the website, or have they perhaps figured out how many more stopovers people were getting away with than they intended, and changed the programming to prevent it?

    Has anyone booked one of these multi-multi stopover Oceania trips lately, or at least tried doing a dummy booking over the phone?

  6. @ Joel – I saw it on their award chart 25k/30k/40k is impossible to beat. Never did it myself as I get too easily frustrated with USA. lol But yea, man, sounds like you’re really taking advantage of this one. Maybe I should look into doing it with US instead.

    @ Docomo – Awesome, glad that’s an option for you. I book it all online using You can do some awesome things. I have a few post about booking stopovers with United miles, but you should see my recent post on long layovers. You may be able to visit some extra cities for no extra cost.

    @ Robert – The trouble is compared to the availability I was finding on the site pre-merger. I’m sure people have still booked it over the phone.

  7. I find the United website isn’t always up to task with these types of flights. Do people have better luck calling? I am trying to plan a WAS-IST-somewhere in Asia (HKG/SGN/KUL)-WAS for the fall. Any recommendations?

    • Calling is a perfectly fine option. I personally always book online, sometimes you have to piece it together. But the phone works as well.


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