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United’s Real Award Routing Rules – and how to get around them

Warning: This post is more advanced and complicated but will lead to some great bookings. Routing Rules does not mean that you are allowed 1 stopover and 2 open-jaws (although those are rules). Also, many of the rules laid out below are based on experience as the rules are not actually in print.

I meant to write this as a follow up on a post about what the routing rules are not/no longer are/never were. But what I mean by “real” routing rules is simply that there seems to be a difference between what [little] is published and what you can or can not actually do. This is a post dissecting and analyzing what consistently does work and what does not work.

The first thing you need to know about using United miles is that everything is zone based. While it appeared that the restrictions were (/should have been) mileaged based they are now completely (/supposed to be) based on zones and regions. Just like the award pricing chart, things are zone based.

When flying from North America you can fly to Europe, anywhere in Europe, and it’s one price because things are zone based. Duh, right? (See the award chart here). But the routing rules are also zone based. For example, United does allow you to route in combination with specific zones like Asia, the Middle East, Africa.

Understand that the above is not speaking anything about how United prices tickets that have multiple zones, if you want to understand that and master the pricing tricks read the post; The Secrets of Award Pricing Engines – The Most Powerful Zone.

South America – United’s Black Sheep

United, however, does not allow you to route through South America on the way to Europe. In fact, it no longer lets you route through South America on the way to anywhere. It used to be very easy to price out Rio De Janeiro or Buenos Aires on the way to Johannesburg, South Africa. No longer. It seems that South America is no longer on the way to anywhere! Lets hope that United didn’t hire a geographically savvy programer. (If anyone has had success booking US to JNB via SA please let me know!)

The concept remains that these are zone issues. When I say zone I generally mean the regions as defined by United’s award chart. Although things seem to mostly work or not work by continent. Well, who cares. Zone, region, award… area. It’s all the same.

Let’s go ahead and talk about regions that can and can not be combined in one award ticket. These are regions besides South America, which can now only be combined with the Caribbean/Central America area. I’ll mention the things that don’t work together, read in between the lines to know what combos do work together and then read the Secrets of Award Pricing article to see which region will be picked when pricing. 😉

Regions that can not be combined

Australia. You can not route through Africa or Europe on the way to Australia.

Africa. You can not route through Australia or Oceania on the way to Africa.

Europe. You can not route through Australia or Oceania on the way to Europe.

Oceania. You can not route through Europe or Africa or the Middle East on the way to Oceania.

Asia.
😉


* Based on my testing this list seems accurate but please let me know if anyone has had a different experience. However, I’m stubborn and a “need to see it to believe it” personality. Please share any screen shot proving that you have booked one of these tickets that I said can not be booked. *

How it prices awards

The most important concept for booking open-jaw/stopover tickets is to understand how it prices tickets. It prices separately from starting point to destination, = 1 price. Then it prices separately destination to ending point, = 1 price. Together, those prices give your total. Let me try to make this more clear with an example.

First, a simple roundtrip from Chicago to London. The computer will look and say the first half of the trip is Chicago to London and will price it at 30,000 miles (for economy). And then it will look and say London to Chicago is 30,000 miles and give you a total of 60,000 miles. Very simple.

But if you were to stopover in London on the way to Bangkok it would then price both directions from the destination, which is Bangkok. I can’t stress this enough, but understand that it does not matter which you do first London or Bangkok, Bangkok will be your destination (thus making London your stopover) because Bangkok is a more powerful zone. United has an order of regions (that I share in the post mentioned above), and the more powerful regions are made the destination. It’s all formulaic. If this is too complicated ignore this last paragraph or read this post!

Back to the point…

Why does this matter? It’s just a roundtrip price! Well, the thing is that open-jaws change things. For example, what if you open-jawed from London to Bangkok? For example, you fly Chicago to London and then fly Bangkok to Chicago, now you have two destinations to price from. This will price like two one-ways really. In fact, ignore the stopover and think in one-ways to/from the destination. This will be 30,000 to London and 32,500 from Bangkok to Chicago.

Rubber meets the road

Stick with me and it will be worth it! I hope.

You can open-jaw home to any region. Chicago to London and then London to … wherever you want. Chicago to London and then London to Puerto Rico. It will therefore price Chicago to London as 30,000 miles and then London to Puerto Rico as 27,500 miles. (In fact, you could route through your hometown on the way back and throw away (meaning not get on the plane) the last segment to Puerto Rico. Never throw away the ticket unless you are done flying the ticket as they cancel the rest of the ticket when you don’t show up for a flight). The point here is that it prices the ticket as one-ways.

United prices tickets and restricts their routings based on one-ways!

When I say one-ways I don’t mean segment but instead halves of the ticket based on the destination as the middle.

What does this mean? It means all kind of things and if you do some creative thinking and read between the lines you’ll realize just what you can do when I say the following. You can open-jaw to any region just so long as you change regions, and provided that it’s within the routing rules for that one-way. *mums the word about that*

Another way to work this is simply if you want to combine two regions that technically can’t be routed together. Remember how I said that Europe and Oceania can’t be in the same ticket? Well, that’s true for one-ways. But look at this ticket:

open-jaw ftw

This is a ticket that goes from Chicago to Frankfurt, Germany. That’s the first destination and it’s priced as a one-way: 30,000 miles. Next is a ticket from Delhi, India home with a stopover in Guam on the way. This is a legal routing because Central Asia and Oceania can be routed together. The fact that it routed through Europe and Oceania is kind of misleading because they aren’t on the same one-way because I open-jawed so the ticket is Central Asia home with a stopover in Guam. And because Central Asia is a more powerful region than Oceania this means that it will price Central Asia to US and will be 40,000 miles. Total the ticket is 70,000 miles and sort of combines Europe and Oceania.

To recap what we’ve gone over so far:

  1. Europe and Oceania can’t be routed together.
  2. Routing rules and pricing are done in halves, to and from the destination.
  3. If you fly to Europe one way and then open-jaw so the second half of the ticket is leaving from a region that is Oceania-friendly (like Central Asia) you can book the ticket.

It’s worth mentioning that you pay for the highest priced seat. Even if you fly economy for all segments, if you have one leg that is in business or the higher priced standard award, you pay for it the entire way. Again, it’s priced in halves. So if you fly one way business and back economy, they are priced separately. One way will be priced business and the other economy. But it’s within that half, if one segment is at a higher price… you’re paying for it the entire way.

Routing Rules For Roundtrip Award Tickets

The number of regions crossed is not an issue. Again, the only issue seems to be which zones are combined, not the number of them. I just tested and priced out an award touching 5 regions: JFK-FRA-CAI-BKK-PEK-JFK. This seems to be more or less true for one-way tickets as well.

Backtracking is majorly allowed with roundtrip tickets. If you wanted to stopover in Dublin but have to route through Frankfurt, it will then let you route through Frankfurt again to get to your next destination, like Asia. Heck, you could then route through Frankfurt again on your way back.

Backtracking gets more absurd than that. Below is a screenshot of a ticket that goes to the Bahamas via New York, stops-over, and then continues on to Puerto Rico… Via New York! I’ll go over this more in an upcoming post on how to book the Caribbean Hopper.

RT-back-to-us

You are allowed one stopover and two open-jaws on roundtrips.

Circle trips are apparently not allowed… but what is it? Among the very few plainly printed routing rules it says, “Circle trips are not permitted. For example, you cannot fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong, to Auckland and back to San Francisco.” Which is interesting because that ticket is totally bookable… So ignore what they say.

Different Routing Rules For One-Way Awards

Understand that these are not published rules but my experience and some of the terminology… I’m making up. Searching United.com for the phrase “Transit Region”, you’ll get no results.

Backtracking is not as acceptable. When I say, backtracking I mean going to the same airport. For our Caribbean Hopper trip that involved going to Aruba, then Panama and then Puerto Rico… You’ll notice that Aruba is not at all on the way to Puerto Rico. But region routing rules played on my side. However, I did not back track. For a number of reasons, it would have not worked if I routed through Panama City on the way to Aruba and then again on the way to Puerto Rico. It’s just not allowed.

transit region

It’s mostly true that there is only one connection allowed in the transit region when making layovers. If you’re doing the Caribbean Hopper like I did it; a one-way to the Caribbean via Panama, I could not get it to route through Cancun for a layover. However, I could build a stopover there on a roundtrip.

Ultimately it will break this rule if it’s the only way to get there. A similar situation routing from Asia to Oceania via Sydney, I could not successfully build a layover in Sydney if it wanted to route to Rarotonga via New Zealand. Meaning I couldn’t build a layover in the “Australia/New Zealand” region when it had two connections. However, when I did not try to book a long layover, and wasn’t using the multiple-destination tool, it did  just that. For some reason it routed two connections in the region. In other words, this isn’t a routing rule any more than “circle trips” in that it seems to work.

In fact, note that I never requested a layover in PTY, it just gave it to me. Sometimes the difference is whether or not you ask for a layover… for whatever reason.

The difference between man and computer… well one of them.

There is so much more to possibly go over but to close it seems relevant to speak about booking over the phone vs online. It’s been said many times that the rules are not published and the agents may or may not know them. Actually… just not. Furthermore, their computer automatically prices things according to the pricing mechanism of greatest, or more powerful zones. Yet, their computer does not seem to be as restrictive as United.com’s award search. Why is that?

The multiple destination tool is quite fun but shows limited results. When piecing together the Caribbean Hopper trip I wanted to make a layover in Houston to visit my parents. Putting together the trip piece by piece I found availability each leg of the way and found tickets leaving in under 24 hours to make it a valid layover. While in one browser I show plenty of tickets to Houston in economy, in the browser where I’m actually trying to book the ticket using the multi-destination tool, it shows no seats! Actually it doesn’t even show the flight I found!

This is not an issue of routing rules but simply the multiple destination tool not showing all the results. Ever search ITA Matrix with too many airport options? It searches for 30 seconds, gets bored or something and just shows the results so far… It’s something like that! It just doesn’t display all the results.

An agent doesn’t have to deal with any of that. Plus they can piece together each leg without error screens or a limit on searches. The agent’s computer partially relies on the agent to know the rules and just prices the tickets based on the zones it touches and the number of destinations. If you have three destinations (aka, two stopovers (which isn’t allowed)) it will price things like oneways and be super expensive. So it knows those routing rules.

However, I hear it’s getting smarter. Again, I heard that people more recently have not been able to book South Africa via South America at all, even over the phone. If this is true, the computer either got programed with the rules or the agent’s learned the rules. Then again, I also heard quite a tale of a routing rule that broke the zone combos I listed not possible with Australia.

So there is possibly a shift coming tightening the rules. So it may be helpful to actually figure out what is possible and what is not. This is a good start on learning United’s award routing and I fully plan on showing what this means soon and how to get creative but also hope this makes sense. Hopefully this will be something coherent, scientific and something I can point back to.

If you read this to the end…You’re awesome! Going forward I think it most relavent to know how it prices and understand how it will price if you open-jaw to a different region. Please give feedback and questions as always. :-)

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31 Comments

  1. Fantastic post!

    Reply
  2. Tip of the hat for yet another great United post. This was worth reading just to find out you can’t combine South America into a trip. I spent way too much time the other day struggling mightily to somehow fit in a stopover in Buenos Aires.

    Reply
  3. Another great post…keep ’em coming. This is what separates your blog from the others!

    Reply
  4. It’s so fun to play around with the United award booking system because there are endless possibilities. But, one question I have with the ORD-FRA, DEL-PEK-KIX-GUM-NRT-ORD itinerary you looked up is how would you get from Frankfurt to Delhi?

    Reply
  5. Terrific research. I’m sure you will outpace the airlines’ programmers ;-). (Catch me if you can!)

    Reply
  6. Thanks guys! Appreciate it.

    @ Brandon – It’s more an example how you can’t combine two regions, until you realize how they price trips in oneways. But if I was going to do that trip, I would probably pick two destinations that’s a direct route of Avios. So I could fly into Helsinki and to HEL-DEL. IDK. Same rules probably apply to the Middle East as well, which means you could probably fly out of Amman.

    @ RG – I imagine it’s expensive enough to overhaul their award engine that they little the little things go. Especially considering how few people know and use them. But with all changes come holes, good and bad.

    Reply
  7. Among the very few plainly printed routing rules it says, “Circle trips are not permitted. For example, you cannot fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong, to Auckland and back to San Francisco.” Which is interesting because that ticket is totally bookable… So ignore what they say.

    This would price out as an award to Australia with a stopover in HKG (assuming I stay in HKG for a bit), am I correct?

    Reply
    • Yea, it was price like an Australia ticket.

      Reply
  8. Your comments on backtracking through a connection airport and only one connection in a zone are both inaccurate.

    Reply
    • Nope. :-p
      I assume you mean on the one-way and my next point was that you can force it to but you can’t choose it. For example, you can do NYC-AUA-BDA on one ticket and it will route back through NYC but your can not enter NYC-AUA-NYC-BDA, like you might be able to on a roundtrip. And if you force a layover (like DPS-SYD-RAR) you can’t have another connection (like DPS-SYD-AKL-RAR) in that region.

      But if I’m wrong please share an example so that I can quick plug in the multi city, so I can test and change it.

      Reply
  9. this is amazing information. I’ll admit a little bit hard to digest for me as I’m new to award bookings.

    Do you think they will allow this?

    SFO – Tokyo
    Tokyo – SFO
    stopover at SFO
    SFO-someplace in europe?

    Reply
    • Great! You’re thinking creatively, or big, and that’s great too.

      But the short/simple answer is no. There is just a lot that goes into this route and why it won’t work. If you want to know why, I’ll give the short version:

      So the above info on which regions can be combined is assuming that you’re starting in North America, but still starting in Asia, you could route to US and then Europe and then to Asia. So technically they can be combined.

      Then if you understood this post well, you might assume that SFO to Tokyo is one direction and the destination. Then Tokyo to Europe is another direction, which will price out as Europe to Tokyo.

      But it’s not so. And this is more advanced information but here’s the short. Destinations are determined by most powerful zone. (If you haven’t read the most powerful zone post (linked to in this article a few times) you should). When starting in Asia, the US is a more powerful zone than Europe. Which means the US is the destination.

      So, in the tokyo example, the second half of the trip starts in Asia. This means the US is the destination and Europe could be a stopover, but not the other way around.

      It’s really a great question though. Unfortunately they have made the US the most powerful zone when starting from most places. 😉

      Reply
  10. Hi all. This is fantastic blog. Would like to know a great way to travel United Airlines using this. Would like to see Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Thanks in advance.

    Reply
  11. Great post on United and different scenarios.
    I want to book an award trip from JFK-BKK-CHINA (PEK and PVG)-JFK.
    I have used numerous award engines (ANA, UNITED) and have not figured out how to price this as a round trip with the stopovers that I want to visit. I get all kinds of combinations with connections I don’t want to stop in.
    Any suggestions on how to either look them up individually or should I seach ofr each leg, write down the flight details and call the airline to put it together? Or how can I get the award calculation and be able to input my desired stopovers without the results being over 100K miles?

    Tryine to coordinate a trip with 2 parties separately and they all want to travel with miles and have no idea how to put it together!

    Reply
  12. Very interesting, this got me thinking….

    Can a united reward have a round-trip of Europe->US, US->US.
    ——
    Currently I have a 1way award UA LHR->DEN.

    So I unsuccessfully tried.
    out: LHR->DEN, (stopover), AUS->PIT (destination)
    back: PIT->AUS

    No luck on the the simple case of LHR->IAH, IAH->EWR

    I’m guessing it’s a region issue… the first half is Europe->US, and second is US->US.

    My understanding of open jaw is A->B, B->C is valid and works for LHR->IAH, IAH->FRA

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  13. @ Eli – Well you can always open-jaw. So you could fly into Vietname and out of Singapore… Or something Similar. Into Singapore out of Phuket and into Saigon, and out Hanoi. Anything like that is possible!

    @ Ali – Perhaps you could email me on what exactly is going on. But it should totally price as 65k econ/120k Business. This is assuming it’s all that one class and it’s all save awards. If you add a higher category for one leg it changes the entire price of that half of the trip.
    Also, United is the only search engine that will show the price for using United miles. ANA will also find Star Alliance availability but has it’s own pricing.
    If you’re using two different accounts, just make sure when searching you search for two seats and then book quickly. Well, put one on hold until you can confirm the other and then go back and confirm the first.

    @ Eric – Mmm, if I understand your question right (good question). The answer is no. You have to change regions for the open-jaw to be considered a roundtrip. And stopovers are only allowed on roundtrips. Make sense? But your on the verge of a break through here.
    Change regions and it would work. Make EWR a layover on the way to Puerto Rico or something. Such a ticket would be priced like EU to US. US to Caribbean. Right? It doesn’t lower the price here but … I can’t say too much.

    Reply
  14. How do these tickets price out if you combine business class and economy? For example NYC-Economy>Frankfurt (stopover)-Business>Bangkok (Destination)-Economy> Frankfurt (less than 6 hours)- Business>NYC

    Reply
  15. I am not new to booking “huge” award tickets with a stopover and an open-jaw, typically Japan-Europe and stopping off in the Middle East or SE Asia. However, a ticket I am currently working on is annoying me. I am trying to book Japan-Fiji return, with a stopover in BKK. It is “supposed” to be 20,000 miles each way using saver business, and that is what the UA site shows, BUT when I add in the BKK stopover and try to book the ticket on the phone, they insist that the system prices the ticket at 100,000 miles. This happens regardless of whether either leg is routed through Australia or Singapore. What’s going on?

    Reply
  16. Great information, thanks! Can you explain one-way backtracking rules a little more? i.e. I imagine that a JFK-LAX-FRA-DEL one way award wouldn’t ticket, right? But would JFK/LGA-IAD-FRA-DEL? Or JFK/LGA-IAH/ORD/MIA, etc? Finding good positioning flights to pair with last minute LH availability seems like it might be challenging. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Well, I’m going to go ahead and say you’ll be shocked then at what you’re allowed to do. JFK-IAH is totally doable. However, I find that it’s a lot harder to put into United.com on oneways. Like adding a layover as a multiple-destination in general is harder… but totally doable, and you could call. Basically you’re allowed to do anything in the same zone… before you leave. If that makes sense. I imagine you could do JFK-LAX-FRA if need be. But you wouldn’t be able to do slightly more complicated oneways that would involve the same city twice. Hope that makes some sense… it’s late here. :-p De nada.

      Reply
  17. Thanks for the great article! I’ve tried my hand at using UA miles efficiently too. So far my best trip has been EWR-PVG, CTU-CDG-EWR-Stopover (home town)-SAN for 65,000 (sounds like a circle trip to me?). Since then I’ve wanted to get more creative but having trouble with my next one. Looking for 1 of two options.
    1. NYC-FRA-SCL-SJO-EWRorLAX
    2. NYC-SCL-SJO-NYC-LAX

    For option 1 I know I’d probably have to purchase a seperate one-way ticket at some point, but could i do option 2 using only miles?

    Would love any insight! Thanks in advance and keep the articles coming as UA updates their “policies!”

    Reply
    • Well, are you trying to stopover in SCL and SJO and then layover or stopover in NYC?
      On number 1, I don’t think you can combine FRA and SCL.

      Reply
  18. great post…been routing north america to europe (stopover) to asia last couple of years. united says I need to route back via europe to north america, else would charge me a round the world ticket. how do you workaround transatlantic and transpacific r/t rewards? do you use the multi-destination tool. agents on the phone are glad to route my return via europe but across the pacific system wants to price as rtw.

    Reply
    • This is a weird thing that phone agents have been saying. Did you take them up on it? Because my guess is that they don’t know why it’s not working and that it may be a new rule that limits segments. Rumor is that each direction can have 3 segments. But I’ve never hard a problem crossing both oceans. I would say, 1) try booking online and 2) try adding even a small open-jaw within Asia.
      Keep me posted.

      Reply
  19. Awesome blog!!!!Thank You for sharing the information with everyone!!!!
    So, i have been studying your blog for the pass week, reading your post over and over again, and i have some questions to ask because i wasn’t able to find the answers.
    Here is what i learn from your blog, my plan is below:
    JFK-> CPT or JNB (Stopover)->Japan
    GUM -> JFK
    but what if i want to come back from GUM-> LAX instead of JFK, would that still work?
    also i want to ask if there is a mileage limitation on a one way flight or round trips, because when i put
    JFK -> JNB -> HKG , GUM->JFK (i was able to book that on the united air website)
    but when i did JFK->JNB->Tokyo , GUM-> JFK ( i wasn’t able to find that, it gave me error msg, and of course i read your post on that as well, tried delete cookies, and making sure there is a flight going from JNB to Tokyo , and there is no overlapping but still got the error msg. Is this the time i should call in and give the flight # to book? )

    another question i have , if i make South Africa (JNB, CPT)as my stopover,
    JFK->JNB (South Africa) , JNB -> Japan
    can i do : JFK->JNB, CPT->Japn , since both are still in South Africa, or it must be the same airport you get on?

    i hope you understand my question, since i’m new to this, my wording is pretty bad.

    Reply
  20. So understanding that the open jaw can only occur at the origin/destination….if I wanted to do any combination of LAX-BKK (dest) – IST – open jaw – CDG – LAX or the other way around LAX – IST – open jaw – CDG – BKK (dest) – LAX, that open jaw wouldn’t work because BKK is the more powerful zone, correct? In this case, the open jaw would have to occur somewhere in Asia, yes? Thanks!

    Reply
  21. I really appreciate all of the information you provide. I attempted to book a ticket tonight via telephone, but the agent couldn’t price it out. I thought i stayed within the limits as allowed by the rules: 10 legs, 1 open jaw, 1 stopover. So where does this fall apart?

    1) LAX-PEK (less than 24 hr layover)
    2) PEK-ZRH (less than 24 hr)
    3) ZRH-OPO (destination, extended stay, open jaw)
    4) CPH-MUC (less than 24 hr)
    5) MUC-DXB (less than 24hr)
    6) DXB-BKK (stopover, extended stay)
    7) BKK-Seoul/ICN (less than 24hr)
    8) Seoul/GMP-Tokyo/HND (less than 24hr)
    9) Tokyo/NRT-TPE (less than 24 hr)
    10) TPE-LAX

    Thanks for the help!

    Reply
    • So technically BKK is your destination and well the Europe stop is your stopover. This means that you can’t open-jaw in Europe. However, you could apply the open-jaw in SE Asia.

      Also, this means that you have 5 connections to BKK. It’s not number of connections total, it’s to and from the destination.

      This means that you need to have 4 connection to BKK and 4 connections home.

      Reply
  22. Hi! I am loving reading all these posts, they are amazing! I have just started learning about making the most out of my miles. I need to visit a friend in HAN, Vietnam, needing two tickets, But I only have 150,000 miles. I have talked with agents to book, and I was hoping a stopover in Tokyo could make it a 70,000 mile ticket per person, and didn’t understand why they kept giving me the price of 80,000 miles… but in reading your posts I now understand about the power zones/destination/stopover .. I was wondering if you had any suggestions.. I didn’t really want to have to buy more miles to get these tickets. :) I really appreciate it, and I love the blog!!

    Reply
  23. Hi,
    I have a challenge for you!
    I want to go from Ottawa, Canada (YOW) to HNL (Hawaii) and I would like to stop in Washington DC (really, really prefer DCA but I would accept IAD). DC on the way there or on the way back, it does not matter.

    YOW to HNL I have found for $615 on United (routing through Chicago and San Francisco or through DC and Los Angeles)

    I cannot seem to get a comparable price with open jawing and I cannot seem to figure out how to do stopover on the website.

    So…
    YOW to DCA (or IAD if necessary) around 25 or 26 november
    DCA (or IAD) to HNL around 30 nov or 1 dec
    HNL to YOW around 16, 17 or 18 december

    Or
    YOW to HNL around 25 november
    HNL to DCA (or IAD if necessary) stopover 15 or 16 dec
    DCA (or IAD if necessary) to YOW approx 19-22 dec

    The gauntlet has been thrown! Show me your magic!

    Reply

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