United Award Routing Rules: Intro
This site has been the first to publish many of the routing rules for United. And in many ways, it’s the only site to make any attempt to write about the subject. This is because the rules are not published by United itself, and many of the details of United’s routing rules were actually discovered myself.
Last year, I took the first crack on the internet for explaining United’s stopover rules, and went into details regarding how United restricts flights via regions to set up the post. I continued to write about segment rules, United’s errors and the like, but I realized that it was never in one place… until today.
The goal is for this to be the most comprehensive writing on United’s routing rules that exists, in blogs, forums or United.
Here is a summary of the rules you’ll find in this guide:
1.) United’s Region based rules
2.) Stopovers & Open-Jaws
4.) Booking Errors
This guide is about the routing rules for award tickets. When using cash, the rules may be quite different, especially in outcome. If you add a stopover to a paid ticket, it may increase the price. With an award ticket, a stopover will not increase the price, ever. I should be honest and note that I don’t really have much experience with booking paid tickets. Despite all our travels, I have only booked a couple tickets that were paid tickets that weren’t tiny flights on discount airlines like RyanAir or AirAsia. So if you’re looking for those rules, they aren’t here or on this site really. This site is about using miles.
Besides the issue of less availability for award tickets, the routing rules when using miles are much more generous. Although it’s important to understand your options, because you may be missing out on the generosity and the options your miles offer.
Note that the routing rules you’re about to read are not published online, but they are consistent formulas that I figured out and kept track of. Some of these things contradict what seems intuitive, what other bloggers say, and what United itself might say. But, I assure you that these have been tested and the readers here have tested them and found them to be rules. These are rules, not speculations. When you try to do a stopover in Africa on the way to Japan, the price will come out lower than a regular Africa ticket. When you try a stopover on an open-jaw or when you try to book too many segments, you will get an error.
Routes and Regions
United does not limit routes by mileage flown, like AA, instead it solely determines how far or where you can fly based on what locations you want to include.
A trip to London for example, doesn’t prevent you from routing through other cities based on anything other than what region(s) you are flying to. It actually doesn’t matter if it’s London or Istanbul, it works the same.
A flight to London would be allowed to route through Istanbul, not because it’s on the way but because it’s part of the same zone.
In other words, it’s not about “being on the way”, or within mileage limits, it’s purely about what regions you’re allowed to touch. And here I’ll rehash what I wrote in United Routing Rule Secrets.
Europe and Oceania can’t be combined.
Africa and Australia can’t be combined.
Europe and Australia can’t be combined.
Africa and Oceania can’t be combined.
Middle East and Oceania can’t be combined.
South America can only combine with…
North America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Brazil is an exception and can also combine with South Africa in addition.
Most Powerful Zone Concept
However, prices aren’t always what you think they’ll be. If you touch two regions, you’ll find that the price the computer chooses isn’t always the higher priced region. Sometimes it touches a more expensive region and a cheaper region and still gives the lower price.
This is the concept behind: United Routing Rules and Stopover Secrets
I call the way it chooses the price a list of “powerful zones”. When two regions are touched (that are allowed to touch) the more powerful zone’s price is chosen.
Order of powerful zones:
What this means is that when you combine two regions (stopover + destination) on a roundtrip, the price you get will be the one higher up the list. If you stopover in Africa (80k) on your way to Japan (70k), Japan will be your destination as it will price out at 70,000 miles.
If you combine the Middle East (85k) will Northern Africa (80k), it will be a Northern Africa ticket and price out at 80,000.
In a post during some of United’s changes to routing rules in December, Kalendil commented sharing that what I speculated was true, that they are limiting tickets by segments.
Since then, there’s been a lot of confusion around the subject. People “realizing” that the rules have changed when they just haven’t realized a fundamental key to the connection rules. So I dug in deep and looked at every region for the connection limits.
Here they are…
From North America on roundtrip:
The thing that may have thrown a lot of people off or may have led them to believe that United recently changed their routing rules is probably that they checked a route searching oneways. If you’re looking into a route by searching oneways, many of the limits that are 4 connections on a roundtrip will now be 3 connections. This may explain why someone might see different rules every time they check the same region.
From North America on One-ways:
These are a few of the rules actually published on United.com. Which usually doesn’t mean much, but I went through and tested these and they seem fairly accurate. I couldn’t get more than 4 connections on a roundtrip to Bangkok and I could get 7 connections on a trip to Peru.
Example: If Bangkok is your destination and it’s a roundtrip, then you have 4 connections. This could include a stopover someplace, like Vienna. Your 4 connections must include the stopover on the way to Bangkok, you don’t get 4 connections to your stopover and to your destination and home. Just 4 connections each way to and from Bangkok.
A quick search for flights from NYC to Vienna and Vienna to Bangkok showed this route: EWR – MUC – VIE (stopover) – FRA – BKK. That’s 3 connections including the stop in Vienna and is totally a legal route.
If you’re short on connections you may have to start from a hub, stopover in hubs, find days with more direct routes, or pick a destination with unlimited connections, like the Middle East.
You are allowed one stopover and two open-jaws on roundtrip tickets.
A stopover is essentially a second destination. Stopover in London for a week on your way to Paris for a week. As long as it follows the region routing rules, you’re allowed to stop anywhere in a valid region.
An open-jaw is when you continue your flight from a different airport and a part of the ticket where the airline isn’t responsible for your transportation.
For example, fly into London and out of Paris. It doesn’t matter if you drive, bus, walk, or bike to get to Paris, the airline gets you to London and takes you home from Paris. (And you get yourself from London to Paris.)
A layover is less than 24 hours. Anything more and it requires a stopover.
Where open-jaws can be placed:
In December I did a post speculating that United added more unpublished routing rules and said that it seemed that they no longer allow open-jaws on stopovers. Since then I have tested this thoroughly and found no real exceptions.
As I’ll explain later, it’s important to know which city is the stopover and which city is the destination. Therefore there are two valid examples of an an open-jaw and one invalid.
Invalid open-jaw: on a stopover.
Valid open-jaw: on the destination or ending city.
Open-Jaws can be applied to a stopover when Hawaii is the stopover on the way to these destinations: SE Asia, North Asia, Japan, Central Asia, Australia, Oceania
To understand this, you have to understand that the stopover is not determined by you, but rather by the computer and its list of “powerful zones”. As mentioned earlier, a stopover is practically like a second destination. So the computer decides which of those destinations the stopover is based on which zone is less powerful or has less priority for pricing.
Here’s an example. While you can stopover in Vienna on the way to Japan, you will not be able to open-jaw and return from another city in Europe. Because Europe is a less powerful zone and therefore is the stopover, you would not be able to open-jaw and see Vienna and Rome on the way to Japan.
You would be able to open-jaw in Japan and see Kyoto as well. US to Vienna to Japan and then return from Kyoto to the US.
Another valid example would be return to a different city in the US than the one you started from. If you did NYC to Japan, and then did Japan to Los Angeles, that would be fine.
Although, again, the destination and stopover can be as long as you want, assuming that the ticket is still bookable. You could stop for 6 months, but know that airlines only sell tickets about a year in advance (give or take a month). You need to have your travel completed in a bookable timeframe, although it may be possible to extent your ticket.
Understanding connections further
These rules we’re discussing apply to your route to the destination and from your destination.
The key to all this, again, is knowing what is technically your destination. Your destination is not necessarily the furthest point or the point of turn around. Your destination is determined solely on the list of more powerful zones. The question is not what we think the destination is, but what United’s computer thinks it is. This affects many routing rules.
Another way to figure out your destination is based on the price of the ticket. If you’re flying to Europe to have a stopover in Vienna, and then continuing on to Tokyo, Japan and the roundtrip price (starting in North America) is 70,000 miles, then what’s the destination? Well, if it were just Europe the price would be 60,000 miles and if it were just Japan the price would be 70,000 miles. Therefore the 70,000 price indicates that it is a Japan ticket and Japan is the destination.
This is the easiest way to figure out what the destination is. Again, you can use the list of powerful zones or you can figure it out yourself using the award chart and seeing what the price would be.
It is important to pinpoint which city is the destination in order to figure out:
Let’s take a more extreme example. The example we’ll be using to show these is NYC – JNB (South Africa) – NRT (Japan) – NYC (USA)
You would think being a ticket to South Africa that it would price out at 80,000 miles, right? But instead it prices out as a Japan ticket for 70,000 miles. Because we know that Tokyo, Japan is the actual destination we can now know the follow things:
1) You can not have an open-jaw on the stopover. You therefore wouldn’t be allowed to open-jaw in South Africa but you could in Japan. You could fly into Tokyo and out of Kyoto.
2&3) You are allowed 4 connections to get to Asia and therefore you would count your connections from NYC to NRT, even though that would include JNB.
In other words, with this ticket you’ll need to be able to go from NYC to JNB to NRT in 4 connections. Then you’ll need to get from NRT to NYC in 4 connections.
4) This could work in two different ways – an open-jaw so you don’t continue from Tokyo, or an open-jaw so you don’t return to NYC.
If you don’t continue your flight from Tokyo and continue your flight from Hong Kong, you need to price one way NYC – NRT and then price out the second part from what is your second destination, Hong Kong; HKG – NYC.
NYC- NRT is 35,000 miles.
HKG – NYC is 40,000 miles.
The other way an open-jaw could change the price is if you returned to a different region. Say instead of ending your trip in NYC you end it in the Caribbean, like San Juan, Puerto Rico. You’d price out the same NYC to NRT and then price it out from NRT to SJU.
NYC – NRT is 35,000 miles
HKG – SJU is 45,000 miles
This is why it is so important to understand where the destination is. Imagine how confused you would be if you assumed that JNB would be your destination. You would try to figure out the connections incorrectly and demand an open-jaw.
If a stopover is in the same region as the destination, how do you determine which city will allow an open-jaw?
Don’t worry, United’s engine will determine that the stop without an open-jaw is the stopover. Take the stop in London on the way to Paris example. See if you open-jaw in the UK so you fly into London and out of Edinburgh and then fly to Paris, that could be a legal route because Paris could be the destination. It has nothing to do with which one is further, the point of turn around, or which direction you’re going.
But this can not be so with the South Africa example. If you added an open-jaw in South Africa it would have to be the destination. And if South Africa is your destination you can not stopover in a more powerful region on the way home like Japan. You would still be able to stop in a less-powerful region like Europe, but you wouldn’t be able to technically stopover in Japan without it becoming the destination and removing your ability to open-jaw in S.A.
But when it’s the same region, there is no issue of more or less powerful cities.
When you get the error message…
Recently we did a post detailing the various reasons a person may come across the error message when trying to book a ticket. Though that post was pretty recent, we decided to include it to keep this complete guide…complete.
Next time you get an error message, try to follow this chart to see if it’s the computer’s fault, or if you need to go over these rules again! If it is for sure a legal route and it still won’t let you book online, just call.
Because there is so much opportunity for using stopovers well with United, and because they don’t pass on fuel surcharges, United MileagePlus miles are still probably my favorite miles to collect and use. AA (and US Air) miles also don’t pass on fuel surcharges and have better prices, but there are some phenomenal redemptions possible with United miles.
Of course, if you are a first class only kind of person, United’s prices may be quite high. But if you’re looking to get the most out of your miles, knowing the routing rules can be super helpful. Actually, if you’re doing anything besides a regular ticket, knowing the routing rules helps. Too many people have duked out losing battles with phone agents, not realizing the computer decides basically everything. The key is knowing what the computer does.
I hope United miles routing rules aren’t a mystery any more.