Update: United has now instituted a four-flights-per-one-way-rule. That limits you to three 23-hour layovers. You can hope an agent forgets the rule when you try to book by phone.
A few days ago I booked myself an award to travel to seven European cities this fall for 12,500 miles and $155 using the 23-hour layover trick.
I’m going to
- party in Zagreb
- cliff jump in Dubrovnik
- see the Colosseum in Rome
- hang out at the Grand-Place in Brussels
- check out a fjord in Oslo
- get into trouble in Amsterdam
- and get to Munich in time for the end of Oktoberfest.
And I’m doing all that on one 12,500 mile award that had the agent so surprised by the price that she put me on hold to confirm with a supervisor that she could indeed ticket the award for me.
How is this award possible? How did I plan it? Am I crazy to try to squeeze seven European cities into a week?
A United one way economy award within Europe costs 12,500 plus taxes. United has some very generous routing rules.
One of them is that you can have unlimited transfers on an intra-European award. I know this because my award was ticketed and because I heard the agent reading her computer screen aloud (“unlimited transfers…”).
Another is that you can have layovers of up to 24 hours on international awards.
Those rules combined mean that my award from Zagreb to Munich via seven segments prices out at 12,500 United miles–the same as a one way award within the continental US would cost.
Planning the Award
Planning the award is easy, though time consuming. I mainly wanted direct flights with a stop after each flight for as close to 24 hours as possible. I wanted to stop in Dubrovnik after I saw YouTube cliff jumping videos because I am an aficionado of jumping off high stuff.
Other than that, I wanted to stop in interesting cities I had never been to.
The Star Alliance has a major presence in Europe with 11 partners:
(JP) Adria Airways (Ljubljana)
(A3) Aegean Airlines (Athens)
(OS) Austrian Airlines (Vienna)
(SN) Brussels Airlines (Brussels)
(OU) Croatia Airlines (Zagreb)
(LO) LOT Polish Airlines (Warsaw)
(LH) Lufthansa (Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, Berlin-Brandenburg)
(SK) Scandinavian Airlines (Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm)
(LX) Swiss International Air Lines (Zurich)
(TP) TAP Portugal (Lisbon)
(TK) Turkish Airlines (Istanbul-Ataturk)
The strategy to ensure that you can take a stop after each flight is to fly from Star Alliance hub to Star Alliance hub or to place Star Alliance hubs as every other destination.
For instance, my last three cities are Oslo to Amsterdam to Munich. Oslo and Munich are Star Alliance hubs of Scandinavian and Lufthansa, and they are placed two destinations apart.
That means I can easily fly to Amsterdam between them with direct flights even though Amsterdam is not a Star Alliance hub. I fly Scandinavian from Oslo to Amsterdam and Lufthansa from Amsterdam to Munich.
Like all awards, I started with the hardest part, which I assumed would be flying into and out of Dubrovnik. It’s the smallest airport I’ll be hitting, and it has the fewest flights. There is plenty of award space from Zagreb to Dubrovnik daily, but leaving Dubrovnik is a bit harder without backtracking through Zagreb. There are flights from Dubrovnik to these cities on Star Alliance-partner Croatia Airlines:
I am stopping after every segment except that to get from Rome to Brussels, I have a one-hour layover in Frankfurt during which I will not leave the airport. The route is served directly by Brussels Airlines, but there doesn’t seem to be any award space on the route (ever?), and I didn’t want to change my cities around anymore, so I accepted one one-stop routing.
Here’s exactly what I did to take this award from dream to reality.
- I planned my routing out in pencil on looseleaf paper because there was a lot of erasing and rearranging of days and flights and cities before I came to the final routing.
- I performed my searches for each segment on united.com.
- When I found all the flights, I put Dubrovnik to Rome on hold using the PayPal trick. By starting the award online like that I could save the $25 phone fee even though I would ticket the award over the phone. Booking the award over the phone was necessary because united.com would never show a seven-segment seven day itinerary from Zagreb to Munich even though such a journey is allowed.
- I called United at 800-UNITED-1, gave the confirmation number of Dubrovnik to Rome; asked the agent to help me add a few segments; and gave her the flight number and date of each flight I found.
She had no trouble putting together the award. When she priced it her computer said it would be 12,500 miles and $155 in taxes. She was flabbergasted by the miles price, so she started reading the fare rules to herself looking for one to disqualify my trip. Finding no rule I had broken, she put me on hold for ten minutes to ask a supervisor for approval.
Eventually she came back on to tell me that the supervisor had said, “If the computer prices it, ticket it.”
I gave my credit card info, and my trip was ticketed. I immediately switched from flight planning to trip planning.
Am I crazy to fly this award?
I wasn’t planning on a whirlwind trip like this at all–I was just planning to spend the last seven weeks of the summer slowly moving through Europe–but then some too-good-to-miss opportunities arose to take two weeks out of Europe and spend them in Southeast Asia. With my remaining five weeks in Europe split in halves, I had some awkward amounts of time to fill given my goals, so I improvised this maniacal plan.
I am normally a slow traveler. I like to linger in a place and do boring (for other people) things like grocery shop and take walks in the non-touristy parts of towns. For evidence of this travel style, consider that I am currently in the middle of six months in Argentina.
I do not travel as an exercise in counting. I’ve been to 32 countries, but I know that mainly because I love the visualization of the Where I’ve Been map, and it keeps track. So I’m not going to these new countries for a day to say I’ve done it.
I’m taking this trip to experiment for one week in Rapid Travel and to see if any of the new places jump out at me as a place where I have to return.
I imagine the trip will be very tiring with all the flying, transportation to/from airports, walking tours, changing beds every night, and morning flights. But it could very easily be the most fun week of travel I’ve ever had.
It helps that only Croatia and Norway are outside the euro and that all the countries are in the Schengen Area except Croatia.
You can use your United miles to take a whirlwind trip through Europe with unlimited stops of up to 24 hours for a cost of only 12,500 United miles plus tax. Tax will be substantial–my bill was for $155–since international flights in Europe usually have exit taxes in the tens of dollars.
If you love–or want to experiment with–rapid travel, this is a great option to get a lot of flying with a few miles.
I am not the first person to use my United miles this way. See this Wandering Aramean post from September 2011 about using his Continental (now United) miles the same way.