Anatomy of an Award: 23 Hour Layovers


Recently I had two clients of my Award Booking Service want to add a few 23 hour layovers onto their United award from Cleveland to South Africa. All the legacy US carriers have a rule in place that on international layovers, under 24 hours is just a layover, but over 24 hours is a stopover.

This distinction is crucial since no US carrier allows more than one en route stopover internationally. So if you want to stop somewhere for two days, you have to burn your stopover, meaning you can’t use it elsewhere, and you can’t tack a free oneway onto the award. (Constructing a free oneway requires a stopover and an open jaw.) But if you can squeeze the stop in under 24 hours, you can preserve your stopover for somewhere else.

Whether you would want to rush through a city in under 24 hours is a separate question, but if you’re interested, my experience booking this award will be a good guide.

Finding Award Space

My clients’ specific dream award was from Cleveland to Dubai (stopover) to Cape Town (destination) then returning from Johannesburg (open jaw) to Cleveland. Since they wanted to use a several day stopover in Dubai, and United only allows one en route stopover per roundtrip award, any other cities they saw would have to be on 23 hour layovers.

They indicated a desire to see Frankfurt and Doha on 23 hour layovers. Here’s how to go about constructing this award:

Search on for each leaving-the-airport-point to the next such point. In this case, that meant searching:

Cleveland to Frankfurt (23 hour layover city)

Frankfurt to Doha (23 hour layover city)

Doha to Dubai (stopover)

Dubai to Cape Town (destination)

Johannesburg to Cleveland (destination)

For each of those five sections of the trip, I wrote down the times and flight numbers of flights with award space. For the CLE-FRA and FRA-DOH sections, I had to make sure that the time spent in Frankfurt and Doha were under 24 hours. If that sounds complicated, it’s actually the easy part!

Verifying the Legality of the Routing

After it looked like I had all the flights with space, the next step was to go to and find out the length of the itinerary. United has very generous routing and stopover rules. You can choose any way to get from your origin to your destination and stop anywhere along the way as long as the routing doesn’t exceed to the maximum permitted mileage for your origin and destination pair by more than 15%.

United sees the outbound on this itinerary as everything from Cleveland to Cape Town. With all the 23 hour layovers and the stopover in Dubai, the outbound had become a very indirect, eight segment behemoth.













The actual routing was 12,149 miles from origin to destination–Cleveland to Cape Town–according to I had to compare this to United’s maximum permitted mileage from CLE-CPT, which lists at 10,824 miles.

Since we can exceed the listed MPM by 15%, the actual maximum length of an award ticket routing between Cleveland and Cape Town on United is 12,447 miles.

Our routing was pushing that limit but thankfully came in about 300 miles below the cap. Checking the return routing against this rule was unnecessary since they were heading directly home on a two segment itinerary.

Ticketing the Award

Now comes the least fun part. Awards with 23 hour layovers will rarely be bookable online because the online booking engines are not great at complex bookings. That means that I had to call up, which incurs a $25 phone fee per passenger, and worse still, means I have to deal with award reservation agents.

The first hour long call was a failure because the agent’s computer gave him an error. He claimed the error was caused by two consecutive flights departing from Johannesburg. The last segment of the outbound was JNB-CPT, and the first of the return was JNB-JFK because this was an open jaw award that went into Cape Town but returned from Johannesburg.

Suffice it to say, phone agents rarely know the real routing rules and often make up imaginary ones like this agent did. Open jaw awards often have two consecutive flights depart the same airport, and that’s perfectly legal. I insisted that he speak to a supervisor to clear things up, but I had something else I needed to do, so I actually had to hang up before it was resolved.

That meant all progress was lost, and the hour was wasted. Infuriatingly United refuses to hold your award for any period of time, and refuses to call you back when they sort out their error. Wait on hold, or you lose your work.

My second call was worse than the first. Another hour with an incompetent agent and made up rules. He was constantly grumbling about my beautiful routing–“I don’t know why you have to route this way.”–and he insisted that he could not sell me the segments on Qatar Airlines because its partnership with United had been severed.

When I pointed out to him and his supervisor that I could buy the segments online, they suggested I do so. It’s mind-boggling how little these agents understand. I can’t buy the two segments online and the eight over the phone on this ten-segment award, and I can’t buy this ten-segment award online, so I needed to book it all with them.

Then the supervisor, who was not a native English speaker, tried to argue that my comprehension of this sentence from’s Qatar page was incorrect. “Award tickets issued on or before September 14, 2012, will be honored as ticketed and are valid for one year from date of issue. ” To me it clearly means that you can book Qatar tickets until September 14 for travel until September 14, 2013.

This is a classic case where hanging up and calling back will usually be the best course. A fresh agent may not try to invent fake rules. Luckily I was soon transferred to United’s web support, where I had the pleasure of speaking with a competent agent. She was able to put together and ticket the itinerary in twenty minutes without making up any rules!

In the end, the tickets priced at 80,000 United miles roundtrip per person, a definite incredible deal, considering the travelers will have a chance to explore Frankfurt, Doha, Dubai, Capetown, and Johannesburg.

Hopefully in the next few days, I’ll put up a review of my 23 hour layovers in Frankfurt and London because in some cases, 23 hour layovers can be a great addition to a trip. Does anyone else have any experience with them?

Here is some info about the booking:

CLE-DXB//DXB-CPT//JNB-CLE cost: $2,361

Subjective value of CLE-DXB//DXB-CPT//JNB-CLE: As routed, at least $2,361 since there are also 23 hour layovers in Frankfurt and Doha!

United miles used: 80,000

Total taxes and fees: $160 (including the $25 phone fee)

Miles foregone by not purchasing itinerary: 19,218

Cents per mile as booked: 2.22! according to the milevalue calculator. (I plugged 2361; 160; 80000; 19218 into the calculator. Do you see why?)

And that’s not even accounting for how much they value the 23 hour layovers, which would only increase the cents per mile.

I’m pretty excited; even after my modest fee they are getting well over 2 cents per mile, and more importantly, they get to enjoy cities on three continents on one award!

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  1. I have a trip from Wichita, Kan., to Larnaca, Cyprus, with 23-hour layovers (actually it’s rare you can really find flights exactly 23 hours apart, so the times vary, but in each case it’s enough for either a good chunk of a day, or an overnight with several daylight hours too) in Chicago, Zurich, Skopje and Ljubljana on the way there, and in Tirana, Istanbul, Vienna and Frankfurt on the way back. Despite the crazy number of segments, this time it was all bookable online, no phone calls needed.

    One caveat – let one partner airline cancel a flight or make a schedule change after you book, and it can throw off a lot of connections and render the whole itinerary invalid (whoops, that 23-hour stopover just became a 25-hour one and that’s the only flight of the day…). I had this happen to me, so I went back online to find availability on alternate connections, and then did need to call a human and walk her through what I was doing flight by flight. She was obviously unfamiliar with some of these airports and partners but patiently worked out the changes for me for free.

    You need to keep monitoring your itinerary, as my experience is that United will not automatically let you know right away if there’s a problem, and you do want to catch any issues as quickly as possible while there may still be award space for alternate routings. I do commend United for its website, which is far superior to any other U.S. based service in showing partner airlines’ availability.

    • When the schedule changed what makes you think the itinerary became invalid? I would think that you would have not have to make changes even if a 23 hour layover becomes 25 hours. They made the changes after all. Did they contact you ever saying they would have to take more miles retroactively if you flew the new itinerary?

      • Actually, that was just an example I was using to illustrate the issue. In my personal case the schedule changed to make an impossible connection – one flight leaving before the previous one arrives, and I probably should have used that as the illustration. I knew that couldn’t work and I’d need to call. Maybe my assumption was wrong in the example I used.

      • Sadly this was not the case on bookings made with former Star Alliance airline British Midland. Existing itineraries booked on awards were promised to be honored when BA bought BMI as a going concern (not in bankruptcy) from LH. I had several award itineraries booked when schedules changed to make booked itineraries impossible and Lufthansa flatly refused to solve the problems. Customers were basically abandoned and there were many of us in the same situation being given the run-around and ultimately suffering and losing benefits we paid for. Thanks LH. Thanks BA. It was not legal but they got away with it. And not just in my case. I ended up having to cancel award tickets and accept unwanted variations in the tickets that were left. Watch out if you book anything with US Air for that same reason with the upcoming changes. Your legal rights may be dishonored.

  2. Awesome tips – I was able to do something similar this summer (20 hour layover in New York) before continuing on to London. Fortunately I was able to book it using Delta multi-search.

  3. The AA rules seem to indicate that you have to take the next available flight to your destination/transfer point within 24 hours. How would you be able to stretch this to a 23 hour stop if, for example, the next flight leaves in 5 hours?

  4. I am new to stopovers, but I was wondering if an award like this would be possible on American Airlines (based on your post, it seems like you used partner airline Qatar Airlines to make the example work).

    LAX-Fiji-Sydney on AA or their partner Air Pacific (I think they might actually fly this entire route).

    Sydney-HNL-LAX on AA (or a partner).

    Is that the basic concept of how stopovers would work?

    Thanks Mile Value!


  5. You refer to this as 23-hour layovers, but then mention it shouldn’t be over 24. Can you have a 23:45 layover?

    I’ve been searching this on United’s site and Flyertalk, but can’t find it expressly written out anywhere. I was just on hold on United for 45 minutes and gave up, but I’ll try calling tomorrow and I plan to also ask what would the effect be if the connecting flight is then delayed.

    • Answered my own question with a booking today. Any length under 24 hours is ok. The agent also confirmed that there is no penalties if the connecting flight is delayed or cancelled causing the layover to extend past 24 hours.

  6. Great post! However, when you argue with the agents, aren’t you concerned that they’ll flag your account, thus making it harder to accomplish unusual bookings in the future?

    • I’m not sure they can “flag” my account. And if they could, how would it stop me from booking awards that follow the airline’s own rules.

      • They can write a note on the PNR and even if the first agent is wrong, it will then often be impossible for you to get the problem rectified even if another agent or supervisor picks it up. That’s why advice to HUACA should be listened to.

  7. I am thinking of booking the following one-way with United miles:

    PEK-MAD-CPH(overnight layover 23+ hrs)-WAW(overnight layover 19+hrs)-YYZ-RDU

    My goal is a overnight layover in CPH, I do not really need (but do not mind) another layover in Warsaw or anywhere else, its just i cannot find anything in Business without an additional layover. On my (inflexible) date the only way to go to CPH from PEK appears to be thru MAD (or possibly IST, although there are no direct IST-CPH flights on my date, so I would have to go IST-FRA-CPH, cutting into my valuable time in CPH).

    Great circle mapper shows this to be 12,289 miles. Do you think this will be allowed (two sub-24hr overnight layovers in Europe and MPM)? Thank you.

  8. I booked a trip with 23 hour layover in Paris, due to schedule change, the layover became 24.5 hour (which is good, I get one more hour of sleep in the morning) I understand my itinerary is still valid since they are the one who made these changes. However, I am concerned now that I need to make another legal change to a different segment, are they going to reprice the ticket due to my new change and determine I have too many stopovers due to the 25 hour layover? Any experience with this situation?

    • I don’t have experience with these specifics. But from my experience working with airlines when they make a change, they are usually flexible. Just be polite and explain that the schedule change was beyond your control, and ask them to manually price an award if necessary.

  9. will this work

    CLE-YUL-FRA-LIN (23 hour layover) LIN-FRA-BKK (destination)

    (total 65k miles in the back)

    I’ve thought about doing it thru MXP (milans larger, but further airport) mxp could look like CLE-EWR-MXP(23 hrs)MXP-BKK (makes more sense, but mxp is less convenient). It’s not a routing that ever would come up on uniteds website, but 23 hours in milan is much better if into linate LIN. would there be a problem because their is a 23 hour layover in the same airport as the ‘destination’ on the way to a ‘stopover’ in BKK? wouldn’t be hard to route through elsewhere and book some cheap flights to milan on the ‘return’?


    • These hypotheticals are tough to be helpful on. It’s kind of if-it-books-it-books. All you can really do is call United and try. There’s no rule I know of that you are violating, but I doubt the computer will price it for an agent and I doubt an agent will overrule the computer. But I hope you do try and succeed.

  10. Awesome! How was this itinerary priced at 80,000 United miles roundtrip per person? (I thought a round trip to from US – Europe award is 100,000 United miles roundtrip per person).

    Also, how do you know which airports will work for this 23-hour layover trick? Does it only work at the busiest airports in Europe? Or, can it also work at smaller airports in Europe?

  11. Hi,
    I am wondering if it costs extra miles to make these special layovers? or do I just call the airline and tell them I want this certain flight that leaves 23 or however many hours after my other flight gets in and it will all be included in the itinerary for the same price? For example, if I can find an award flight for 30,000 points on united from LAX to Santiago Chile one-way, I can add a 23 hour layover in Panama city at no extra charge? I just have to find the right flights myself to make it work out that way?

    • It costs no extra miles. You don’t have to explain anything really. Just find flights that have layovers under 24 hours, call the airline and give each date, flight number, and cabin.

  12. Ugh, I have called United and spoken to two different agents so far to book this, but no luck 🙁 First one transferred me to the Star Alliance around the world ticket desk, but the agent there said they could not help me (45 minutes wasted). Second one was very friendly and tried helping for another 40 minutes, but in the end, told me I couldn’t connect/stop in the Maldives since it’s Asia and I’m going to Africa, Europe, and Asia all on this one ticket. He suggested I return from the Maldives instead of having the stopover there. Is this legal routing or do I have an error somewhere in here?

    CHI-IAD-ADD-KGL (destination; open-jaw #1)
    KGL-ADD-AXU-LLI (23 hour layover)
    LLI-ADD (14 hour layover)
    ADD-IST (19 hour layover)
    IST-MLE (stopover)
    MLE-IST-ASR (28 hours here; open-jaw #2 starts here)
    ASR-IST (19 hour layover)

    • You will never get this ticketed in my experience. United doesn’t publish the computer’s logic, but it is blocking this award probably because it is too many segments and too much backtracking. I can’t pinpoint what you can do to make it legal because United doesn’t publish its rules (its computer’s logic) anywhere.

      • OK, I had a feeling that it had too many segments, but also wasn’t sure if I was looking at it incorrectly. I’m going to tweak it a bit and try again. Thanks!

  13. So your statement of the layover rules turns out to be slightly inaccurate. Just discovered today exactly 24 hours to the minute is still a layover (even though it’s not less than 24 hours as you stated above). Pretty excited that we managed to score that in Prague!


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