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Last month, I got an interesting email from reader Ed that started:

Scott,

Please consider if this is viable, albeit challenging to book:

[UA]  DCA-BOS-YYZ-ORD-CLE-EWR // EWR-ZRH-IST, IST-IAD

The answer is yes it is possible, and what it means is that you can add a free circle trip onto roundtrip international United awards.

Hopefully readers of this blog are well acquainted with Free Oneways on United Awards, the most-read post I’ve written.

The central idea of free oneways is to take your free stopover at your home airport, then start a second trip from there on the same award. Ed combined that idea with the idea that on international awards you can stop at any airport–in the United States or abroad–for up to 24 hours without the layover counting as a stopover.

Let me give an example with screenshots to illustrate what combining this idea creates: a free circle trip before or after an international United award.

The base trip that I’ll be adding a circle trip to is a roundtrip business class award between Los Angeles and Sydney.

Each way between the US and Australia in business class is 67,500 miles, so this award goes for 135k miles and $131.

Just like with a free oneway, instead of ending my award in Los Angeles at my home airport, I will use my one stopover at my home airport and continue the award at a later date.

Unlike a free oneway, say LAX to Boston, I want to take a circle trip, going from LAX to many destinations and ultimately returning to Los Angeles.

There are two major restrictions on the circle trip.

  1. We can spend a maximum of 23:59 in each city. A layover of 24+ hours would be a second stopover, since our first is in Los Angeles upon returning from Sydney.
  2. The total routing of the entire return can only exceed United’s Maximum Permitted Mileage (MPM)–the maximum distance allowed on paid fares between two cities–for SYD-LAX by 15%.

 

United will see the real return and the entire circle trip as the return leg of a roundtrip award. That means we’ll have to add the SYD-LAX leg to the circle trip legs to figure out the length or our return.

That length can only exceed United’s Maximum Permitted mileage for the Sydney to LAX–the return’s origin to the return’s destination–by 15%. If it exceeds the MPM by more than that, the routing is invalid.

So to know how big of a circle I could make, I checked the MPM from Sydney to LAX.

Since I can exceed 8,994 miles by 15%, I can fly 10,343 miles total. Sydney to LAX direct is only 7,488 miles, so I can make a nice circle.

Playing around with the Great Circle Mapper and considering United and US Airways’ hubs, I came up with the following trip: LAX to San Fran to Salt Lake City to Denver to Phoenix to Burbank.

This trip tacked on to SYD-LAX still totals only 9,786, well under the maximum possible length.

I searched availability on United.com to find segments that took off less than 24 hours after the previous one landed. Since the return from Australia is in business class, we are entitled to domestic first class on all legs, but I couldn’t find low-miles-price first class for all segments.

Mixing and matching some first class segments with some economy class, I found availability and called United to piece it together.

I told the agent: “I want to book a trip to Australia. I have the exact flights picked out.” For each flight, I read the date, flight number, cities, and cabin. I never used the words “stopover,” “free oneway,” or “circle trip.” Why confuse them?

The agent added all the segments together without comment. He told me the price was 135k United miles and $143.87. That’s the same amount of miles and $12.57 more than the pure roundtrip between LAX and Sydney I priced out earlier.

With the confirmation number he gave me, I was able to see the reservation and confirm the price online.

The one thing you may notice about this trip is that the return is to Burbank, not LAX where the circle trip began. Not everyone lives in an area served by multiple airports, so I also checked whether I could make a pure circle back to LAX.

I called United back to change the last segment to PHX-LAX, and the price did not change. This is probably not a surprise to those who read my Free Oneways on United Awards post closely. Several of the examples in that post transited the same airport twice.

Hopefully I’ve explained the process and rules for adding a free circle trip to a roundtrip international United award, but I’ll try to anticipate some questions you may have.

This looks awful. Who would voluntarily fly this?

Air-travel enthusiasts, baseball-stadium enthusiasts, people who have friends in many cities with whom they want to have one dinner. I’m not advocating this trip or suggesting it is more valuable than a free oneway.

I’m just breaking the news that this trip is possible. I think it looks like a fun way to travel occasionally.

Is there anything special about Sydney, LAX, the length of the stopover, or anything else that made this possible?

No! Adding a free circle trip is possible on all roundtrip international United awards–except awards wholly within the USA and Canada.

I chose LAX because I live in Los Angeles. I chose Sydney because there is a direct United flight, and I though the MPM might be high enough to allow routing through Asia. (Higher MPM means bigger circles are possible.)

The stopover can be as long as you want it. Just remember that all segments of an award must be flown within one year of the original ticketing.

This trick will work even better for people on the east coast, where cities are much closer together than out here on the west coast. Shorter distances means more cities can be seen on the circle.

Do all segments have to be direct like in the example?

No, I chose direct flights in the example because it’s easier to see what this circle-trip trick can do. If you are adding connecting flights, remember that every segment counts toward your mileage limit, so direct flights are better.

You’ve posted about Free Oneways on United Award to Hawaii. Can I add a free circle trip to awards to Hawaii?

I’ll look into it. It will depend on whether layovers on those awards can be up to 24 hours like on international awards or whether they can only be up to four hours like on domestic awards.

A circle trip with 3:59 stops in each city definitely seems useless.

Can I book something like this online?

Definitely not. United.com can barely book a free oneway.

Must I pay the $25 per ticket phone fee then?

You can definitely avoid the phone fee. Just reserve one or more segments online then call up to add the rest and ticket. More details on my United-phone-hold trick, which saves $25 per passenger, can be found in this post.

Are there any variations to this trick?

Ed’s email is actually different than what I tested. He envisioned beginning in Washington, DC, circling around to Newark, flying to Europe, and returning to Washington DC.

For a DC flyer, that would mean combining the circle trip with the Europe trip and taking a stopover in Newark. The lesson here is that if you eschew the stopover at your home airport that separates the circle trip and main trip in my screen-shotted example, you can take a stopover at any one of the other airports.

That means you can spend more than 24 hours at one of the circle trip cities. Or you can chronologically separate the circle trip and international trip into two vacations. But you can’t do both.

Is this possible on other airlines?

I think it will be possible on the other airlines but less valuable.

Delta and US Airways don’t allow you to exceed MPM by as much as United.

American allows exceeding MPM by 25% and allows a stopover both directions–meaning two circle trips could be added to a roundtrip award or one to a oneway. But stopovers can only be at the North American International Gateway City, so people at small airports can’t use this trick. See The Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards.

Finally, I want to add that I don’t think I ever would have seen the possibility of adding a free circle trip without Ed’s email. This shows the value of collaboration in the miles community.

If you have a chance to post in FlyerTalk, attend a seminar, or even go to a MileValue dinner, you and everyone else will benefit from the sharing of ideas.

Recap

Combining the rule that international awards allow 24 hour layovers at all airports en route with taking a free stopover at your home airport greatly expands the possibilities of the free oneways available on United awards.

Circle trips can be created that start and end at your home airport, stopping at several cities in between. These awards can be added for free to international United awards.

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