In the past, United MileagePlus used to be like the jack of all trades among frequent flyer programs: It was relatively easy to earn status, and the miles were among the most valuable in the Star Alliance. Unfortunately, the qualification for status has become much more difficult, and since this year, award flights cost up to 100% more than before.
However, there are still some good ways to redeem existing award miles. Many of them can be further optimized by using the Excursionist Perk. In short, when booking two award flights, you can add another flight somewhere else in the world for only 0 miles plus taxes. This allows you to add a stopover, among other things, but it can be used for much more.
Compared to booking multiple flights on separate tickets, you can save up to 60% of award miles this way. In this article, we’ll show you how it works, what pitfalls to watch out for, and why the trick may not be suitable for everyone.
- World Regions for the Excursionist Perk
- The cheapest award flights – starting from 5,500 miles per segment
- Rebook Award Flights for Free
- How to Book the Excursionist Perk
- Attention: German Air Passenger Tax
The big catch with this sweet spot is the sequence of flights. You must first fly Flight #1, then add the free flight somewhere else in the world, and only then proceed to Flight #3. This may work for simple examples (see Example 1 below).
However, if you want to maximize the Excursionist Perk, you need to get creative. One option is to book multiple tickets crossing over each other: With 2 tickets of 3 segments each, you could, for example, take a trip to England in September 2023, fly for free from New York → Los Angeles → Boston a few months later, and then travel to Iceland in the summer of 2024. The tickets could look like this:
- Flight 1: Munich → London
- Free flight: New York → Los Angeles
- Flight 3: Frankfurt → Reykjavík
- Flight 1: London → Munich
- Free flight: Los Angeles → Boston
- Flight 3: Reykjavík → Frankfurt
Now to the fine print. Your flights must meet the following conditions for it to work:
- The origin and destination of the multi-stop booking must be in the same region (see world map below).
- For 3 segments, this means that the starting point of the first segment and the destination airport of the third segment must fall within the same region.
- The free flight must be within one of the remaining world regions.
- Transfers within the same region are always allowed.
- The travel and booking class of the free flight must not be higher than that of the 1st segment.
- With United flights, you must pay close attention to the booking class:
- The free flight using the Excursionist Perk is worthwhile only with Saver Awards. These are typically flights that cost 15,000 miles (Economy) or 30,000 miles (Business Class). However, it’s best to look at the booking class:
- The booking class for Saver Awards in Economy is X.
- The booking class for Saver Awards in Business Class is I.
- Only one free flight can be taken per booking.
- All airlines can be mixed (including non-Star-Alliance partner airlines, such as Hawaiian).
It all sounds complicated and is not quite easy to understand. Therefore, you’ll find four examples below of how to use the Excursionist Perk to your advantage.
World Regions for the Excursionist Perk
The following map illustrates the Excursionist Perk‘s relevant individual regions. To make a flight “free,” it must (as explained above) be within the same region.
Please note that there are two errors in the above map that cannot be corrected:
- The state of Hawaii is defined as its own zone.
- According to the country table, the Canary Islands do not belong to Europe but to the North African region.
Does everything seem too theoretical and complex so far? We understand. Therefore, below are four examples that show what is possible with the Excursionist Perk:
Example 1: Small Roundtrip with 2 Destinations
Let’s start with a relatively straightforward example, as intended by United MileagePlus. We’ll book a trip to the USA using miles. Instead of just visiting New York, we combine it with a return flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt.
The regular price for this:
- Outbound flight: Frankfurt – New York for 22,600 miles + €121
- Return flight: San Francisco – Frankfurt for 39,900 miles + €5
Now, in the above example, we still need to get from New York to San Francisco. You could indeed book a second award ticket for this, but there’s a much better option. By using a multi-stop flight, you can apply the Excursionist Perk.
This way, the segment New York – San Francisco costs only 0 miles + €4.99. Normally, it would require 12,000 miles (+ €4.99 taxes):
The entire multi-city trip then costs 62,600 miles plus €130.99. The price is made up of:
- Outbound flight: Frankfurt – New York for 22,600 miles + €121
- Free Flight: New York – San Francisco for 0 (instead of 12,000) miles + €4.99
- Return flight: San Francisco – Frankfurt for 40,000 miles + €4.99
To help you understand it better, here are three screenshots:
Frankfurt – New York:
San Francisco – Frankfurt:
Total price with Excursionist Perk:
Example 2: Free Flight at the Other End of the World
When booking the Excursionist Perk, it only depends on the region. You don’t need a round-trip to book the free flight. Two arbitrary segments within e.g. Europe/the USA are sufficient.
In the following example, we combine two one-way flights within Europe with a domestic flight in the USA. The important thing is that the free flight must be between Flight 1 and Flight 3, so you must adhere to the order.
This example could be booked for 14,250 miles plus €40.26 in taxes and fees:
- Flight 1: Tallinn – Frankfurt for 8,800 miles + €11
- Free Flight: New York – Los Angeles for 0 (instead of 13,400) miles + €5
- Flight 3: Milan – Munich for 5,450 miles + €25
Example 3: Maximizing Zones
Some zones on the above world map are much larger than others. You can take advantage of this when choosing the free flights. For example, you can “fly for free” (plus taxes) all the way across Europe with the following example:
- Flight 1: Las Vegas – Los Angeles: 5,500 miles + €6
- Free Flight: Svalbard – Oslo – Munich – Tbilisi for 0 (instead of 16,000) miles + €45
- Flight 3: Los Angeles – Las Vegas: 5,600 miles + €6
The total price in this case would be exactly 11,200 miles + €50.62. The interesting part of this combination is: The flight from Svalbard to Tbilisi would cost more when booked individually than the total price above. So, you save over 5,000 miles with this multi-stop booking and get a round trip to Vegas on top. Only the additional €12 in taxes within the USA are added.
It is not possible to simply let Flights 1 and 3 expire in this example. If you don’t take the flight to Vegas, the rest of the ticket will also expire.
You could potentially let the third flight (from Las Vegas to Los Angeles) expire, but we also advise against that, since United has already suspended accounts due to frequent use of hidden-city ticketing.
Here are more examples of particularly long flights within a zone that you can use as a free flight:
- Within Europe:
- Reykjavik – Oslo – Copenhagen – Larnaca (€38 taxes)
- Madeira – Stockholm – Oslo – Helsinki (€35 taxes)
- Within North America:
- Anchorage – Denver – Boston (€5 taxes, terrible availability)
- Vancouver – Toronto/Montreal (€18 taxes)
- In Africa #2:
- Addis Ababa – Cape Town (€30 taxes)
- Dakar – Addis Ababa – Johannesburg – Mauritius (€126 taxes)
- In Oceania:
- Marshall Islands – Guam – Palau (€101 taxes, including United Island Hopper)
Example 4: Mixed Travel Classes
All the examples provided so far were in Economy Class. However, flights in Business Class are also possible. You can get a free flight in Business Class by ensuring that only the first segment is in Business Class.
We can take advantage of this in the following example to fly the long distance from Dakar to Johannesburg in Business Class. All Ethiopian flights are in the lie-flat Business Class of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner:
- Flight 1: Lufthansa business class Reykjavík – Frankfurt for 27,500 miles + €28
- Free flight: Ethiopian business class Dakar – Addis Ababa – Johannesburg for 0 (instead of 33,000 miles) + €110
- Flight 3: Swiss economy Zurich – Berlin for 5,450 miles + €37
The total cost for this booking would be 32,950 miles and €175. In total, you would spend 15 hours in Ethiopian’s business class. The Lufthansa Business Class on the relatively long flight to Iceland is also somewhat worthwhile.
The cheapest award flights – starting from 5,500 miles per segment
As you can see, it makes sense for segments 1 + 3 to be as cheap as possible. Below are some examples for this in Economy Class:
- Japanese domestic flights with ANA starting from 5,500 miles + €5
- Las Vegas – Los Angeles with United starting from 5,600 miles + €6
- Istanbul – Izmir with Turkish Airlines starting from 6,000 miles + €4
- New York – Boston, with United starting from 6,000 miles + €5
- Milan – Frankfurt with Lufthansa starting from 6,000 miles + €26
- Malmö – Stockholm with SAS starting from 6,000 miles + €18
- Munich – Paris with Lufthansa starting from 6,000 miles + €46
- New York – Fort Lauderdale, with United starting from 6,400 miles + €6
In Business Class, the prices almost always start from 27,500 miles plus taxes, whether it’s Frankfurt – Iceland, Oslo – Bergen, or Kuala Lumpur – Singapore.
Rebook Award Flights for Free
Since 2022, MileagePlus allows free changes and cancellations for all award flights. Changes are possible for each segment (within the same region) individually and even after an earlier segment has already been used.
If the booking is changed before the 1st segment’s departure, it may happen that the entire ticket (and not just one segment) will be repriced. Personally, I have not experienced this yet, but the reports in Flyertalk are not entirely clear.
So, it would be theoretically possible to book a “placeholder flight” as a free segment and then change it later to your preferred connection. However, this requires availability for award flights on the desired date.
How to Book the Excursionist Perk
1. Check Availability
Before booking the Excursionist Perk, it’s best to check if and when the desired flights are available. For United flights, you must look for Saver Awards in booking class X (Economy) or I (Business), as explained above. Unfortunately, this has become increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible on transcontinental routes. With other airlines, you won’t have these problems. If you find any award flight, it’s suitable for the Excursionist Perk.
If you can’t find anything, use the “flexible dates” feature and then click through the best price calendar.
2. Multi-Stop Booking
To book, you must use the multi-stop search on United.com. Then enter all three segments individually and click
Search Flights. Don’t forget to set the currency to
miles. A search could look like this:
Alternatively, you can use our search form (if you’ve recently visited United’s website at least once):
Now you can select the desired flights one by one. When selecting the second flight, if all conditions have been met, you will find a price of 0 miles + €xx:
Once all flights have been selected, you only need to select seats if necessary and then proceed to pay.
Attention: German Air Passenger Tax
If we reverse the Example 2 from above and book the following flights, we encounter a peculiar situation:
- Flight 1: Frankfurt – Tallinn
- Free Flight: New York – Los Angeles
- Flight 3: Milan – Munich
In this case, United calculates a hefty €58.06 as air transportation tax, which is the same as for a long-haul flight from Germany:
Whether this is correct or not for multi-stop bookings like this, I cannot say. It is advisable, however, for the 1st segment not to depart from Germany.
Since United has significantly devalued award miles, it has become difficult to find good redemption opportunities. The Excursionist Perk is currently the best way to do so, especially as it can be combined with other sweet spots (like cheap Lufthansa flights in Europe).
However, it is only suitable if you travel at least three times a year on (at least) two continents. Also, you should already know where you will be travelling in the next few months. Not so easy if you’re still waiting for the right flight deal.
Inspired by Frequentmiler
Cover Picture: Danny Mc (Fotomontage Travel-Dealz)