Anatomy of an Award: Last Minute United Award from Los Angeles to Phuket with a Later Free Oneway

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Yesterday I booked an award with United miles from Los Angeles to Phuket, Thailand with a later free oneway from Los Angeles to Newark.

The award illustrates last-second award searching, problem solving with error messages, free oneways, and free changes to awards within 24 hours.

How and Where

How can you book a similar award?

To convince my friend in Los Angeles to meet me in Phuket next week, I offered to book his ticket with miles. It’s a bit off topic, but I think if you have tons of miles–like most of us–you should strongly consider using them to book your friends and family trips to visit you or travel with you. Or you could save your miles by telling them about this site for them to learn for themselves.

I wanted to use my United miles, and United charges 32.5k/60k/70k miles each way from the US to Thailand in economy/business/first class. If the jump from economy to business weren’t so large or if I were more generous, I might have booked him in business class, but I settled on spending 65k United miles for a roundtrip in economy class.

The Search

My first step was to go to united.com and search for award space on his dates. I detail how to do that here.

The award calendar looked fantastic for next week–a lot of airlines release unsold seats as awards at the last minute–so I thought I was on cruise control. I selected an outbound and return and waited for the pricing screen.

The Error

Instead of the pricing screen, though, I got an error message that I’m seeing more on united.com. The message said something like: “Due to rapidly changing award availability, one of the flights you selected is no longer available.”

I repeated my steps and got the same result. Was United showing the phantom space that Bill has written about?

I turned to aeroplan.com to recreate my search to see if it saw all the space I wanted. (Why not ana.com? ANA is not as good as Aeroplan at showing multi-stop awards.)

The Re-Search

The same flights that were giving me an error on united.com were displayed on aeroplan.com. In my experience, Aeroplan shows space correctly, so I was convinced united.com was showing an unwarranted error message. At this point, I knew I would have to call United to book the award–the standard procedure when you get an error at united.com–but I wanted to put one segment on hold before calling in to avoid the phone fee.

The Call

I used my tricks to put United awards on hold, then I called United. I explained the situation to the first agent, and she said: “OK, but if I add a segment, I’ll have to charge a $25 phone fee.”

“In the past I’ve had success getting that waived when the only reason I’m calling is because of an error on the website.”

She replied: “Well we can ask my supervisor, but he’ll say the same thing.”

I didn’t want to get into a protracted argument about the phone fee with someone who wanted to charge me the $25, so I followed the oldest trick in the book: HUCA (hang up, call back).

The Re-Call

The next agent was not US-based, which often makes agents less confident and more pliable. I explained my predicament, and we started adding the return to the outbound that I had held. After adding the three segments, he said: “The total price is 65,000 miles + $90.”

“Oh, I’m not done,” I corrected him.

I hadn’t yet added my friend’s free oneway. Because his main award was a simple roundtrip from Los Angeles to Phuket, the stopover and open jaws that a roundtrip United award entitled him to were still unused. By combining the stopover with an open jaw, I could create a free oneway for him.

For the bible on free oneways on United, see Master Thread: Free Oneways on United Awards.

His free oneway could pretty much go from Los Angeles to anywhere in the continental US or Canada any time between his return from Phuket and September 3, 2014–one year after the award’s booking–and it would cost zero extra miles and only $2.50 in taxes.

Since it would be after his main award, there was no risk. If he decided not to fly it, the only cost was $2.50 wasted, a very cheap price to give the option of a future oneway flight. Be careful, though. If your free oneway is before your main trip and you skip it, the whole trip will be cancelled. (Instead of skipping it, change the award for $100.)

I had already searched availability and found a flight from Los Angeles to Newark next February on the same day that I’ll be arriving in Newark on a previously booked award.

I said to the agent, “There’s one more flight. He’ll be stopping over in Los Angeles until [date], then he’ll fly United flight [number] to Newark.” Notice that I didn’t use the words “free oneway.” I just used the nomenclature he knows like “stopover.”

He added the segment and the award’s taxes jumped $2.50 as predicted.

The updated total was 65,000 United miles + $42.50 in taxes + $50 in fees for booking within 21 days of departure. The close-in ticketing fee is $75 for non-elites, but I saved $25 by having Premier Silver status. For reasons unknown, he didn’t even try to charge the $25 phone-ticketing fee.

I was excited to have the award booked, which is a complete steal for 65,000 miles + $92.

The confirmation email arrived 15 minutes later, though, and there was a mistake. I had asked for Thai flight 226 that would give my friend the shortest layover in Bangkok on the return. Instead the itinerary had Thai flight 206, which left him with a nine-hour layover.

I called United back immediately because changes and cancellations of awards are free for 24 hours. The agent helped me correct the mistake in five minutes, but he said the taxes had gone up $3.10 with the change. This made zero sense, but I wasn’t going to argue over $3 when I wanted to hang up. (I have in the past argued against tax changes for a few bucks that were unwarranted and avoided paying them.)

For whatever reason, he was having trouble processing the payment, so he waived it. I didn’t get a new confirmation email, but the itinerary online now shows with the correct flights.

The last thing I did was call EVA Airways to make sure they saw my friend’s itinerary since United has a history of not ticketing the award properly even if you get a confirmation email. EVA saw the flights, and he’s all set to fly next week.

Recap

A last-second trip to Phuket for my friend had me award searching a week before a planned flight.

Award space on united.com was plentiful, but I got error messages when attempting to book. Aeroplan.com confirmed the award space’s existence, so I called United to book the roundtrip award plus a later free oneway.

The agent added the wrong flight to the award, so I called back immediately and took advantage of free changes within 24 hours.

His roundtrip to Phuket would have cost $1,408 and his free oneway would have been another $189 for $1,597 total.

According to the MileValue Calculator, I got 2.31 cents worth of value on the award–not half bad for an economy award. But more importantly, miles gave me the chance to give my friend a once-in-a-lifetime trip and me a travel buddy without breaking the bank.

To have an award like this booked for you, contact our Award Booking Service.





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14 COMMENTS

  1. I booked United r/t to London from Dulles in business for May 2014. When I booked it the schedule only went out through early June and wasn’t able to do the trailing free one-way (I’m scared of the early one in case I skip it and they cancel the rest). Is there any way for me to get this added back to head out to Seattle or San Francisco next fall now that those schedules are about to open?

    • Erik: I believe your travel has to be completed within 1 year from the date the original ticket is issued. If your free one way falls into that time frame, I think the only option to avoid paying the fee is wait for a schedule change. You can always try to do it over the phone. I just changed a revenue ticket and the agent (non-US based) waived the change fee ($200) without me asking. I also read on blogs that agents sometimes forget to charge the fee, so you might get lucky. Give them a call and see what they say. Good luck!

  2. I have tried to book a free layover over the phone as a segment after my rt (like u do above) but united agent wouldn’t allow saying that the trip is already a complete roundtrip!! What is the trick??!! Thanks! 🙂

  3. An:
    I think you got bad/incompetent agents. The HUCA approach typically solves that issue. If they still won’t budge, I would tell them my itinerary is LAX-BKK-EWR with a stop over in LAX on the way back. Last option is to ask them to please (always be nice!!) add the segment and see how many miles are required. Hope this helps 🙂

  4. I got an email from United saying that my itinerary has changed, is it possible to change my flights (class of service) without paying a change fee if availability opens up later?

  5. Hey Scott, you may want to double check your reservation-make sure the 2nd agent actually reissued the ticket correctly.

  6. Scott, I’ve seen bigger issues when changing partner awards than when doing initial reservations/ticketing. Sometimes both the original (actually cancelled) segments and the new segments end up in the partner record, even though UA shows the segments correctly. Always double check with the partner, and, if there are any issues, ask UA to fix them well prior to flight time.

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