The Secrets of Award Pricing Engines – The Most Powerful Zone

Most airline programs that allow stopovers have a pretty simple way of figuring out the price, they make some zones/regions more powerful than others. Okay but what does that mean?

Before I explain, let’s just say this entire post assumes two things: 1) we’re talking international flights and 2) we’re starting from the USA (the lower 48 states), even though it applies differently in different places. Okay, so what that means is that if you’re flying to Europe the computer prices 60,000 miles round trip and if you’re going to Africa it prices 80,000 miles. But what if you create a stopover in a different region and touch three region, how does the computer price it? That is what we’re going to be taking advantage of.

Because the computer does not say IF the ticket goes to [this zone] AND [that zone] then it is ____ price, it’s much more simple than that. It just says Africa is a more powerful zone than Europe, and Africa is a more powerful zone than South America. So who ever coded the pricing mechanism designed it so that when you go to Europe and Africa it ignores Europe and prices it like an Africa ticket. It doesn’t combine both and figure it out, it just prices the higher zone. Because Africa is a higher zone priority, this means that when you fly to Africa via South America, it ignores South America and prices it like an Africa ticket. Right?

If you want to go to SE Asia and Europe, SE Asia is a more powerful zone and it will be priced like a ticket to SE Asia, 65,000 miles.

Oceania is an even more powerful zone. If you go to an island in the Oceania region like Guam or Fiji, it will be priced at 70,000 miles. Even if you stop in Asia, it will be 70,000 miles. Even if you stop in Europe and Asia on the way to Oceania, it will price at 70,000 miles because Oceania is a more powerful zone than Asia or Europe.

All that is logical… so far. Right? After all if you look at the award chart, Asia costs more miles than Europe and Oceania costs more miles than Asia. So they’re just taking the most expensive zone and making it the most powerful in terms of pricing? Wrong. That would be logical, but it’s just not true.

How about this for starters. Oceania is more powerful of a zone than Australia. Even though the award chart prices Australia as more expensive, if you touch both zones, Oceania is more powerful and Australia is ignored when pricing. In other words, if you go straight to Australia and back it will cost 80,000 miles. But if you go to Fiji and create a stopover in Australia it will cost 70,000 miles. Understand why? Because Oceania is the more powerful zone.

I made a little tree to show the order powerful zones, or what would be called a list of the most powerful zones. Whatever you want to call it, I’ll show you a list of zones and the order they are in for pricing. Then you’ll see which zone you could add to make your next trip cheaper and then we’ll talk more about these examples of routes made cheaper by adding a more powerful but cheaper zone. Many of you already got “the list” in the last newsletter on “how to find mistake fares”, but this will be a much more in depth explanation and has some more creative ideas on how to use it.

The order of more powerful zones (originating in North America) is as follows:

  • Central Asia – 80,000 miles
  • Oceania – 70,000 miles
  • Australia – 80,000 miles
  • North/South East Asia/Japan – 65,000 miles
  • The Middle East – 80,000 miles
  • Africa – 80,000 miles
  • Europe – 60,000 miles
  • South America – 60,000 miles
  • Central America and Caribbean – 35,000 miles

Notice that Oceania is higher up the award pricing chain the Australia, so routing to both instead of just Australia would save 10,000 miles. So we’re looking for lower numbers up the chain.

Notice North/Southeast Asia/Japan are cheaper than The Middle East. This means that if you are doing a roundtrip ticket to The Middle East, you could make a stopover in SE Asia (or make The Middle East your stopover, it doesn’t matter as long as you touch SE Asia) and you will save 15,000 miles. And you’ll get to see more. So stop in Bali on your way to The Middle East, if you have time. Or Bangkok or Hong Kong… it doesn’t matter, just spending two days there makes the ticket cheaper. And Bali makes anything better.

The same applies for Africa! I have personally priced out and seen that it is possible to fly from New York to South Africa to Bangkok to New York, spending a week in each place for 65,000 miles in economy. (There are direct flights for JFK – JNB and JNB – BKK). Save miles and see a lot more. Although for that much flying you may prefer business class but the point is the same. Route through Asia and Africa and you’ll get the Asia price because it is higher on the order of powerful zones list. Gosh, and didn’t you know South Africa is on the way to Bankok? :-p

Similarly if you can book a ticket via Africa or The Middle East and Oceania (most likely Guam) it will make your ticket 10,000 miles cheaper and Guam is not a bad place to layover really. Even Tumon Bay, which is like a mile from the airport, is quite pleasant.

Also, you should understand that in the case that you open-jaw, returning to a different region than the original place from which you left, it prices each half of the trip separately. For example if you go from NA to Eastern Asia and then use an open-jaw to return from Eastern Asia to Hawaii, it will price the first half (US to Asia) 32,500 miles and it will price the second half (Asia to Hawaii) 25,000 miles for a total of 57,500 miles.

Which reminds me. You should look at the award chart and the generous award pricing to/from Hawaii. It is possible to route to Hawaii via the US in some situations, thus making your trip back to the US cheaper. And you could always get off the plane and dump the last leg of your trip… if it is indeed your last leg of the entire ticket.

It’s mostly a North America list

The list of this order of more powerful zones award pricing does not work everywhere, this is based from North America! But it can sometimes work similarly from other places.

For example, if you go from Southeast Asia to Fiji with a stopover in New Zealand, the price will be 30,000 roundtrip in economy. This is despite the fact that Asia to New Zealand is priced 60,000 for a roundtrip in economy. But by touching both Oceania and New Zealand it prices it as Oceania (which is 30,000) instead of the higher zone. Same with business/first class.

BUT if you start in Japan and do the same stop in New Zealand on the way to Fiji it prices it as 50,000 (for economy roundtrip). Take a look at the award chart here and see if you can figure out why it prices it as a 50,000 mile ticket when clearly a roundtrip from Japan to Oceania should be 25,000 miles.

The answer is… for some reason New Zealand/Australia is a more powerful zone than Oceania when you start from Japan. In many ways this makes sense, as it would be too good of a redemption option to start from Japan and go to Fiji and New Zealand for only 25,000 miles or 40,000 miles in business class.

YET, when you start in Oceania, suddenly going to another Oceania region is more powerful than going to New Zealand. This is the concept behind the Pacific Hopper, which I wrote about and did. We started in Guam and went to Singapore (for a day), New Zealand (for two weeks), Rarotonga (for two weeks), Sydney (for a night) and back to Guam via Tokyo… where we got out of the plane.

What we did here was take advantage of the fact that 1) Oceania to Oceania is a huge region and there are no directs from Guam to Rarotonga. Heck, you couldn’t do it in two or possibly three connections. 2) When going from Oceania to Oceania it ignores the fact that New Zealand/Australia and Asia are higher zones. And 3) Oceania to Japan would have been a possible open-jaw but for some reason Oceania to Japan via New Zealand, as just stated, would make the ticket more expensive. So we routed through Japan on the way back to Guam and got off the plane in Tokyo. Enjoy something like a third stop on the trip, and it’s cheaper to go home from Japan (especially with off peak AA award pricing to/from Japan).

Will this ever change? All good things will come to an end it seems. I can’t imagine an overhaul on their pricing engine anytime soon as they’ve got one of the more advance award search engines. The real things about it is that most people don’t use their miles well. I imagine the number of people who have used a stopover is very small, and a very very small percentage. So I’m not too worried about anything changing any time soon.

Anyways, I could go on and on with this particular subject but the word count is getting high. But I’m curious whether or not this is the kind of content people would like to read more about? I know it’s a little more complicated… But if you find this content helpful please comment below! Ya know, reinforce the good writing and discourage the bad. Eventually all my content will be good if I adjust according to what you like… assuming I know. 😉


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  1. Very useful information. I’m assuming this applies only for bookings made with UA miles, not US or other Star Alliance? Thanks.

  2. Wow. Best. Post. Ever.
    none of the other blogs even compare in quality of content, I consistently learn new thing.
    question, do u have to only book these online or can you book over the phone for these routes to price?

  3. I dont have a fb account so I cannot like this article. Is there another way I can read the rest?

  4. How can I figure out the zone strength from other regions? Trial and error?

  5. I liked this article “The Secrets of Award Pricing Engines – The Most Powerful Zone” on FB, but still cant access the content behind the curtain. Can someone guide me?

  6. Hmm. I’m signed up for the newsletter but I didn’t get the list mentioned.. glitch?

    Very useful information as always though!!! What a post.

  7. Great post my man! Suggestion… I’m more of a visual learner so is there anyway you could keep your awesome post coming and throw some screen shots of examples to try and follow up and doing it at home as I’m reading the articles? If possible of course, your blog is very generous with usable info keep it like that!

  8. I really like this post! Keep them coming. I also signed up for the newsletter previously, and I haven’t received anything yet.

  9. Like!!!!

  10. Oh, I have been waiting for this article since the newsletter! You rock, Drew! Thank you so much! Just an FYI for people who signed up for the newsletter…I signed up and got the first one about 3-4 weeks later. I have received one letter so far…maybe it takes a bit to add you?

  11. @ DaveS – There is some overlap that I’ve seen with US Airways. They seem to have a lot of the same quirks in pricing engines.

    @ Reuben – Thanks, you can book online or over the phone, it’s just the way it prices.

    @ jhanserd & @ Punjabi Ludhiana – please email me

    @ Reuven – Oh you mean if you’re originating from somewhere else, say Europe? Well, yea, trial and error. I mean, if the example is starting from Europe try booking a trip from Europe that touches both Australia and Oceania and see which price it uses. I assume you’ll see some overlaps.

    @ Jason – Well, that’s odd that it wasn’t int he newsletter… it was at the bottom, and not in the main article on finding mistake fares.
    And thanks! Glad to hear it!

    @ Ivan – Thanks! Sure, sure. I’ll keep that in mind. I actually wanted to try a pure text posts to see how people would respond lol, and I think the answer is more pictures, eh? :-p For sure, thanks for the feedback.

    @ Amanda – Thanks, but I’m sorry you didn’t get the newsletter. Check your spam and if it’s not there please do email me.

    @ Dizzy – Thanks

    @ Erin – Thanks as always. :-p
    So here’s the deal with the newsletter. We launched signups at the beginning of May but aimed to send the first one out late May and early June. So the delay is because we didn’t send any. If someone didn’t get the first it may be because they signed up after or because it’s a spam issue. And we currently are going to do 2 a month, since it’s some of the better content… but it grows and we get good feedback, we may try weekly.

  12. Great post! Are there any restrictions on how long you can make a stopover for?

  13. Great post man! I already knew a little about this, as I just stumbled upon it wanting to go to from HNL to SYD to NRT. Too bad Hawaii doesn’t use the same powerful zones order as the mainland.

  14. Very interesting. Geat post!! I have been trying to figure some of this out also, you are way ahead of me.

  15. Just came across this, and it’s awesome! Great find and post! Quick question: if I wanted to go to the middle east and take advantage of touching SE Asia, would I have to do this on both the outbound and return? I think I could just have SE Asia as the final destination with a stopover in the middle east, but want to split the trip half economy half first, so I’m wondering if it’s possible to fly from NA to the middle east in coach, then back to NA (via SE Asia) in first and still get the full SE Asia pricing.

    • So, SE Asia is your destination according to it’s pricing. So you can have half of it first but to/from that point. Make sense?

      So you could do first to the ME, and then First to Asia… and that’s one half. And then economy home, and that’s another. Hope that makes sense.

      So yes, you can do that route. But make your premium cabin to or fro SE Asia.

  16. Any chance you have the hierarchy figured out for travel originating in Hawaii?

    • Not completely yet, they seem to block a lot of zone combos. But… You should try flying to Bangkok via Australia. 😉

  17. This is great information but it’s given me a headache. (1) I agree with the poster who asked for a more visual form. (2) I take it that “powerful” means fewer miles. It’s a confusing term. Anyway, thank you.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I think I might do a picture version of the post.

  18. Great Post!

    • Thanks Matt. I hope it proves useful!

  19. Thanx for this post…I think I have to re-read it few times to get it.

    Is this the reason that I am unable to book a United award ticket like this:

    BOM-SIN-DXB-LHR-LAX ??? I have checked availability and it is there….but the United site just says “No!”

  20. Found flights for an epic redeem using these principles to save 15,000 to Africa.

    It would be: LAX-MUC (long layover)- CPT
    Stopover/Open Jaw
    JNB-CAI (long layover)- CAN-BKK

    I mean, this is totally asking for trouble, right? What do you think the liklihood is of this getting approved if I call in? All the flights are available. Any suggestions?

    • See here’s the thing. The agents don’t decide approval or not. What would likely happen is that they go to price and say “dear dizzy, it’s xx,xxx… wait, that’s not right. Can I put you on hold?” Then you hear United hold music “United is a proud member of the Star Alliance…” And then they just book. This is what happens in my experience. I can’t imagine that they’d decline or change the price manually. So I think you’d be fine. Although, I haven’t booked this route. It is quite a deal though… very tempting.

      Btw, if it would book online, which I doubt from the west coast… You’d be golden.

    • Phoned it in with a nice rep and got something booked! The MUC…CPT disappeared because I waited too long but was able to score
      LAX-MUC-CAI-JNB (Stopover)
      JNB-PEK (long layover) – BKK (Destination)

      65,000 + $153. The agent was as stoked as I was! I hear the NRT-SEA is a good chance for upgrade too. If the original routing to CPT comes back I’ll gladly pay a change fee. It’s over xmas holidays so I figured better to grab it now. I would have never come up with the idea for this without your site, thanks!!!!!!

    • Long layover in Tokyo too…get in town just in time for the fish market…mmm sushi breakfast 😡

    • Dizzy, Congrats. This is indeed an Epic trip. I can’t imagine a cheaper way to JNB. How long are you there? Long enough to tour Kruger? Kruger NP is on my bucket list.
      In case you haven’t been, just a warning, Tokyo public transport will costs way more than the sushi (even though food is expensive too).

      You may not need to pay a change fee it’s 21 days out. Technically you aren’t changing the destination… don’t know how they’ll act. May let you open-jaw for no fee.

      Anyways, it’s a great trip and I sure hope you like flying. O_o

  21. Awesome post. One of my best reads to date. Thanks for the info.

    • Awesome. 😉

  22. very interesting..

    what, in your opinion, would be smartest way to go from north america to IPC & PPT. or PPT, then IPC plz?

    • I mean LAN availability for IPC to PPT can be tight. But if it’s there you can fill that in with an open-jaw.

      However, especially with United, availability to PPT can be really bad. The only way I would do that trip is, things I never thought I ‘d recommend, is skyteam miles, like Delta. Sometimes partners that have Hawaiian availability can get you there – like AA.

      So it all has to work out just right to get both.
      I assume I’d delta to PPT. BA to PPT to IPC. BA from IPC to LIM. And then whoever to get home.

  23. REALLY DISAPPOINTED that I have not been reading your posts. Started in the mileage game -12- months ago and signed up for all the well known bloggers. I have been getting 8-9 per day and overlooked yours. BIG mistake! I learned more reading your today than all the others combined. How do I get back issues and passwords?? Trying to book 5-18-14 through 5-31-14 EWR-MXP-NAP-EWR-HNL or same starting out from IAH. Home base is actually MSY.

    • Hey Rob! Very glad you found the site. 😀
      Well, there’s not a way to get old issues yet, but when you sign up for the newsletter it will have the password for the more recent post.

      Let me know if you need anything specific still!

  24. One tasty one I used is United. Originating in Japan to go to Australia or New Zealand is 25,000 points one way, 50,000 points round trip in Economy.

    However, Japan to Oceania is 10,000 points one way (20,000 for business, 35,000 for First Class), 20,000 round trip in Economy.

    I did Japan to New Caledonia (with 24 hour stopovers in Hong Kong and Auckland) for only 35,000 one way in First Class.

    I actually went to New Caledonia but you could use that leg from Sydney/Auckland to Oceania as a throwaway and save some big points!

    More detailed in this post below:

    • Hey, that’s a great redemption and a lot of flying in first class.
      However, I think Australia is considered a more powerful zone, so you can’t book a stopover there. But still, Japan to New Caledonia for 12.5k is a great redemption!

  25. Any way to see this without clicking “Like” or “Share”? I’m not on Facebook, and won’t be. But I’d like to continue reading…

    • Dern, just now saw this Greg! Sorry about that. Email me and I’ll send you the rest.

  26. Drew–does this become harder to use with the new reports about United limiting the number of stopovers allowed on tickets? For example I was trying to book a ticket to India and tried to use the list to reduce the cost by adding a destination in Fiji. However, the connections just ballooned to (two on the way to India, and another three on the way Fiji). Do you see this being less usable in the future? Any ways around it?

    • In my opinion, all tickets become harder to book. Well not all, you’re right, big tickets like India Africa or far flung places will be very hard to combine if with Oceania, SE Asia. You’d have to start from a hub and visit a hub. Pain in the butt.

      For now, I’ll say that one simple way around it is to use your open-jaw. It can cut down on connections and sometimes redetermine what the destination is. Not very helpful.

      Another more complex way is big open-jaws on the returns so you’re piecing together big tickets like the ones in the puzzle… if you know what I mean.

    • Not a 100% sure but I’ll come back to you next time I have to book. This time I just ended up using my stopover to spend a week in Europe on the way to India instead of trying to fight my way to Fiji with a stopover in India. So if I am understanding you correctly, I could have flown to Fiji as my destination, open jawed to India, and then booked my return trip from India?

      On another note, is there any way to add a reply notification feature to posts so that people can follow up on responses? It would be very useful. Thanks!

    • If it’s us to Fiji (with a stop in there) then open-jaw, then book a separate ticket home… yea, you could do that.
      Actually, I’m thinking of switching over to Disqus. Some of the other bloggers use it to. Whatcha think of that?

  27. Hi Drew,
    AWESOME post! As many others have said before, I’ve learned a lot from reading your blog for a few days, more than reading others for months… However, I can’t see the rest of this post because I too am not on Facebook… but I am on Twitter and just followed. I hope that counts! I’ve been saving up United miles for a while now and need to know how to best make use of them, especially now that we have a toddler and need to start using our precious miles to get her a ticket also, so we really need to economic and squeeze all the value out of our award redemptions. Thanks, and see you on Twitter!

    — @lftemes

  28. Hi Drew – Any way to see the rest of this post without clicking “Like” or “Share”? I’m not on Facebook, and don’t plan to be on it. But I’d like to continue reading. Also, I’m based in Asia, so all my flights will originate from South asia. does that change the order of the powerful zones?

  29. Drew – You inspired me to spend some quality time with the Star Alliance Route Map and KVS Tool and come up with an amazing trip for my wife and I. Thank you.

    I managed to piece together SIN-AKL, AKL-TBU, and NAN-AKL-BKK-SGN (with overnight layovers in AKL and BKK on the way “back”). That should cost 50k miles/pp RT in business, right? Unfortunately multiple United agents are telling me that it is an invalid routing because “the stopover in Auckland is in a third zone” OR because I am “not permitted to have two open jaws and a stopover” OR because their “systems won’t let them price multi-destination routings” OR because their “systems are having trouble booking with Singapore Airlines”. Is this all just a bunch of bologne? Should I just keep playing agent roulette? Is my luck due to calling on a Sunday?

  30. United made this so difficult that I finally bit the bullet and booked something less ideal. I booked a total of three one-ways: PVG-AKL-NAN (32.5k/pp, not planning on flying that last leg), NAN-AKL-BKK-SGN (25k/pp), plus a Virgin Australia flight from AKL-NAN in the middle (3.5k/pp Virgin America eleVate points), essentially making Auckland a stopover.

  31. I don’t have Facebook either. But I ‘like’ you a lot. I guess I could sign up for FB just for this post. Any way you coud send it to me?

  32. This website is the best website discussing how to travel using airline points. You explained everything so clear. Thank you.

  33. Dear drew, I’m not on Facebook for work related reason but I love your blog and would like to support you in a different way if possible… Any way you could send this post to me especially if it can help me save money for my mother who is travelling to Africa in a couple of months?

  34. Drew,

    You mention that you merely need to “touch” a more powerful region. Does this mean I can merely layover (less than 24 hours)? Lets say I am planning a trip to Africa 80,000 RT. You’re saying I can touch the more powerful zone of North/South East Asia/Japan and reduce cost to 65,000 RT. However, I had intended to use my stopover to scoot around Germany for a week or two.

    The question is, is there any feasible way that you know of to touch that region, but keep my stopover.

    USA -> North/South East Asia/Japan (layover) -> Africa(dest) -> Europe(stopover) -> USA

    Have you seen the above done and would the simple layover cause North/South East Asia/Japan to become the most powerful zone. If not, I’m saving 15,000 miles RT but losing my eurotip.

  35. This is awesome content! Thanks a lot!

  36. Drew,
    Fantastic content. I’ve been poring over all this material and playing around with United’s search tool. Unfortunately, I’m not making much progress.

    I’m trying to figure out a way to to make 320K miles cover a trip for 4 from SFO to Malaysia to MAA (central asia) to VIE to SFO. I’ve tried various routes but does not seem to pricing it the way i’m expecting to. Based on your post about powerful zones, I was expecting it to price for Central Asia zone so 80k pp. What am I missing?

  37. hi, I don’t have a fb account (well, actually, I’ve let it lapse– it creeps me out so much what they do / and if someone “tags” you FB does facial recognition and owns that image– yuch! ) I will continue to tell people I know about your blog– but please don’t make me “like” you! And thanks for the great info.

  38. Cheers to your grand ideas,
    I really appreciate your insight. I travel alot and do many of the same things regarding stopovers. Knowing the most powerful origination points can make the trips even better. I travel from Houston to Singapore alot. So Ive been stopping in Japan for business as well. Now I travel to the Philippines, so Hawaii and Guam have been nice stopovers. Now you make me realize that I can actually save money or miles by adding stops in New Zealand,Fiji, and Cooke islands by buying a ticket to Guam and originating there. Id love to get some advice from you. I though I knew all the tricks. My hats off to you.. Thank you.

    John B

  39. pls more of these stuff. can you pls send me all newsletters regarding these topics, to my E-mail?
    Thanks a lot! Your’e great!

  40. Hi!

    I’m wondering if you are still updating this and the associated articles? I see a lot of good – no, amazing – info from 2013 and 14, but it’s 2017 now.

    Your article said this all assumes you start in the lower 48, but I live in Taiwan and need to book for two to go back to the US in early July, then back to Taiwan in mid-August. I could use some advice on finding the most powerful zones for me living here in the North Asia zone, any thoughts? More cool destinations in any zones at all along the way there or back are, of course, better!


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