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 united.com 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 gcmap.com 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 gcmap.com. I had to compare this to United’s maximum permitted mileage from CLE-CPT, which expertflyer.com 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 united.com’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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