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Reader Christopher emailed me an exciting tip the other day: free oneways are possible on United awards within the continental USA and Canada. I already knew free oneways were possible on international United awards and awards to Hawaii, but this was news.

He sent me some screenshots, and I was able to replicate his findings and add some more of my own. I learned four things:

  1. Christopher’s tip: You can get a free oneway on roundtrip Standard economy awards within the US and Canada. That means three oneway Standard awards for 50k United miles. This is a savings of 25k miles.
  2. You can book a roundtrip award that is half in Saver economy space and half in Standard economy space with an additional oneway in Standard space for 42.5k United miles. This is a savings of 20k United miles.
  3. You can add a oneway onto a roundtrip Saver economy award ticket within the US and Canada for 10k miles. That means three oneway Saver economy awards for 35k United miles. This is a savings of 2.5k miles.
  4. You can add a oneway onto a roundtrip Saver business/first award ticket within the US and Canada for 10k miles. That means three oneway Saver business/first awards for 60k United miles. This is a savings of 15k miles.

Free Oneway on Roundtrip Economy Standard Awards

United has two prices for award ticket: the Saver price and the Standard price. I think of the Saver price as the “real” price and the Standard price as the “double” price. Saver space is heavily capacity controlled, and Standard space is almost always available.

Within the upper 49 US states and Canada, United charges 12,500 miles each direction for economy Saver awards and 25,000 miles each way for economy Standard awards.

That means a roundtrip Standard economy award is 50,000 miles, which I consider to be a horrible deal in the vast majority of cases. Why? I value 50,000 United miles at about $900, which is quite pricey for a domestic roundtrip.

But Christopher sent me screenshots of free oneways on domestic roundtrip Standard awards.

Here’s an example:

LAX-Orlando, Orlando-LAX, LAX-Chicago for 50k on all Standard space

In the example above, all the space is Standard economy space, denoted by the YN in parentheses at the end of the Fare Class line.

That means that

Los Angeles to Orlando on December 23, 2013

Orlando to Los Angeles on January 2, 2014

alone should cost 50,000 miles as a roundtrip Standard economy award. But in fact, the whole award costs 50,000 miles total including the third segment from Los Angeles to Chicago in economy. That means Los Angeles to Chicago added zero extra miles, and Los Angeles to Chicago is a free oneway.

Or if you prefer, you can think of this trick as getting three oneway trips for 50,000 miles, meaning 16,667 miles for each one. That’s a 33% premium over the Saver price, but it could be worth it in some cases.

Do the math for each potential award. Just because there is a free oneway doesn’t mean the award is a good deal, and just because Standard space is involved doesn’t mean the award is a bad deal.

For instance, the three segments above would cost $748.70 if purchased with cash. Plugging the award into the Mile Value Calculator, the award only gets about 1.3 cents of value per mile.

But just because my one example isn’t a great award doesn’t mean great uses of this trick don’t exist. This trick seems to encompass any three oneway Standard itineraries. If you are looking to book three very expensive oneways, 50,000 miles could be a good deal. Possible uses:

  • Booking a roundtrip Standard award to an event that is causing airfare prices to spike and Saver spaces to disappear, like the Super Bowl, and adding another expensive oneway trip. (Although there is plenty of award space to EWR at the moment for next year’s cold-weather Super Bowl.)
  • Booking a roundtrip award at the last minute where Saver space is not available, and adding another expensive oneway. (Ideally you would have status too, so the close in ticketing fee for booking an award within 21 days of departure would be reduced or waived.)
  • You live in a small city where very little Saver space is released, so you are stuck with Standard space. Three oneways using Standard space for 50,000 miles isn’t so bad since paid fares are probably expensive.
Charlottesville, VA to Las Vegas roundtrip plus Charlottesville to Houston oneway in Standard space for 50k

Cheap Oneway on a Roundtrip Mixed Standard/Saver Economy Award

The foregoing example makes theoretical sense to me: you can get a free oneway on a Standard roundtrip economy award within the US. But I can’t explain this second one.

If the outbound of a domestic roundtrip is in Saver space and the return is in Standard space, you can add a oneway to the end in Standard space, and the total award will price at 42,500 miles. I have no idea where that price comes from.

LAX to Orlando in Saver, Orlando to LAX and LAX to Chicago in Standard

The roundtrip from LAX to Orlando should cost 37,500 miles since oneway is in Saver space and oneway is in Standard space. The oneway from LAX to Chicago should be another 25,000 miles.

But instead of 62,500 miles, the price is 42,500 miles total. This is getting to the territory where I could see a lot of itineraries making sense. If I really needed a domestic oneway ticket as a Standard award, I would make sure to ticket that award using this trick.

Cheap Oneways on Roundtrip Saver Economy Awards

Most of us probably book Saver economy awards within the US if we book domestic awards at all. A roundtrip Saver award is 25,000 miles.

You can add a oneway on to that for 10,000 more miles. That’s not a huge discount–2,500 miles–but it’s nice to know.

Chicago to San Francisco roundtrip plus Chicago to Tampa oneway for 35k

 

Cheap Oneways on Roundtrip Saver Business/First Awards

A roundtrip Saver award in domestic first class costs 50k miles. I can’t imagine that ever being a good value for me, since domestic first class is just a slightly wider seat, seven extra inches of leg room, and a meal worth maybe $10.

But 50k miles is also the price of a roundtrip on flat beds on United’s p.s. flights from JFK to LAX and San Francisco in business class. That’s a price I might actually pay since those flights exceed six hours, and a bed is a big upgrade over an economy seat.

In another price I can’t explain, the price to add a oneway in domestic first class to a roundtrip in domestic first or business class is 60,000 miles total.

JFK to LAX roundtrip in flat beds, LAX to Chicago in domestic first for 60k miles
LAX to Dulles roundtrip plus LAX to Chicago, all in domestic first for 60k miles

 

Why do these four tricks work?

I assume these are glitches.

Any way to get more out of the tricks?

The tricks that maximize the value of Standard space are useful for very few awards, namely awards where the equivalent cash ticket would be very expensive. Unfortunately on those flights, even Standard awards might not be available because Standard awards don’t have “last seat availability” for the general public.

But if you have the United Explorer card or United elite status, you can get any seat, any time for the Standard award price. That means three super expensive oneways can be had for 50,000 miles, which could be a great deal.

I got an error message when I tried to replicate the methods in this post.

That happens a lot on united.com multicity searches, which is the only way to search for free oneways on United. Ordinarily I recommend calling in to piece together the award when you get an error on united.com. But since I think these prices are caused by a glitch, I would say that an error message just means you are out of luck.

The only error messages I’ve gotten on these searches are when I tried to string three flat bed p.s. flights together like JFK-LAX//LAX-JFK//JFK-SFO, and when I tried to take the free oneway back to where the roundtrip went like ORD-SFO//SFO-ORD//ORD-SFO.

Recap

A reader tip sent me to explore free stopovers on United domestic awards. I found:

  • You can get free oneways on domestic roundtrip Standard economy awards. That means three Standard oneways for 50,000 miles.
  • You can get a cheap oneway on a domestic roundtrip economy award that is half Standard/half Saver. That means two Standard oneways and one Saver oneway for 42,500 miles.
  • You can get a cheap oneway on a domestic roundtrip Saver economy award. That means three Saver oneways for 35,000 miles.
  • You can get a cheap oneway on a domestic roundtrip Saver business/first award. That means three Saver business/first awards (including up to two on flat beds on the transcontinental p.s. flights) for 60,000 miles.
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