How to See Seven Cities in Europe on One 12,500 Mile Award

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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.

All this is one award. I’m leaving the airport everywhere except Frankfurt.

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:

For me, the most intriguing option was Rome, so I found availability on the Dubrovnik to Rome flight and worked from there. The space I found was on a weekend and early in the morning.

Dubrovnik to Rome shaped the trip. Because I always have to take off within 24 hours of landing, I chose a morning flight out of every city.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. I performed my searches for each segment on united.com.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Recap

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.

3,046 miles to make the 271 mile journey from Zagreb to Munich

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.

 


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48 COMMENTS

  1. Hi man,

    Looks like a awesome trip, would it work the other way around, starting with a number of stops in Europe, then going to US and finishing off returning to Europe ?

    Kind Regards
    MAds

    • To be clear, this entire award is within Europe. If you leave Europe, other rules apply. If you fly to the US and back, you are not getting the award for 12,500 miles.

  2. I did the 23 hour segments last week: PEK>ZUR>VIE>FRA>EWR….and I’ll never do it again. It was just too rushed.

    • Domestic layovers can only be 4 hours. However, you can tack on a stateside trip like this onto the end of an international award. I booked a United award from North America to Australia, then took my stopover in Tokyo on the way back, then had 23 hour layovers in Vancouver, Atlanta and Cleveland before finishing in Toronto. (Was doing a ballpark tour, hence some of the less glamorous cities.) I wanted to also fly Toronto to Boston, but they wouldn’t let me hop between countries like that. I don’t know the exact rules on that, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  3. I’d recommend spending the money to taxi to and from the airports. With your schedule minutes will matter. Waiting 20-25 minutes for the next train or bus to/from the airport can add up to a significant part of your overall experience. As Lo

  4. Amsterdam is probably the only city on this list where you can see everything that’s worth seeing in day. If you arrive early, a few art galleries, dinner and a coffee shop, and you’re done. Unless you like the red light district too 😉

    • Btw, in Rome, you’ll want to do the special tour that takes you into the basement of the Colosseum, and those sell out so book a week in advance.

    • Brussels too. Easily done in 24 hours. Buy some great Leonidas chocolates a block from the Grand Place. As good as Godiva but much more affordable.

      • It’s worth it to try some of the chocolate shops that you don’t see in the US, Neuhaus and Wittamer. Just buy one and it’s like WOW! Also, one should also sample the moules and frites accompanied by Belgian beer and I don’t mean Stella. Our favorite in Carmeliet, a trippel. There are many more.

  5. Interesting “trick”, but why bother? Spending so little time in some interesting places seems like a waste of time and effort.

    • Who says he isn’t going back someday? This is a great way to get a sample of several places at little cost, then if something intrigues him make plans to return on a future trip. One thing I love about this hobby is that the phrase “Trip of a Lifetime” is obsolete. You can always go back again if you want.

  6. Hope you don’t get any flight delays or major schedule changes. That would not be good. Thanks for another nice trick.

  7. Does this work only in Europe or would it be possible to plan a trip like this in the US/Canada as well? Thanks 🙂

  8. You are not crazy for booking this award. You are nuts for jumping from that cliff. Anyway buy good life and health insurance and enjoy that adventure.

  9. I definitely want to take a trip like this at some point. Originally, I was thinking along the lines of 4 stops, but I’m loving that you were able to get 7 out of it. It’s going to be a long week, but I’m sure it’ll be quite worth it.

  10. Please don’t call to book this kind of award again. Agents’ surprise kill things like this. This is a well-known trick and you should do it online instead of calling and involving an agent.

    • except for 20k businessFirst, the lounges would probably be worth the extra 75k (considering how many legs you’re transiting, and the food/drink on either end, not to mention showers)

  11. Nice! How can I find out which airports will work for this 23-hour layover routing trick? Does it only work at the busiest airports in Europe? Or, can it also work at smaller airports in Europe? (Is there a list?)

    Also, on United miles, if I book a US – Europe award that includes a Stopover in Europe, can I also route a 23-hour layover in another city in Europe on the way back to the US at no additional points/charge? Thanks!

    • I think most Star Alliance airports will work if you can find departing flights that are timed right. You do have to be able to find a flight out, with award space, going where you want to go that leaves you enough time in the destination, but less than 24 hours. Not always easy. I had a one-way this year of Wichita-Chicago-Zurich-Zagreb-Skopje-Ljubljana-Vienna-Larnaca. Of course the mileage for this was 30,000, the North America to Europe amount on the United chart. (I picked up a $300 voucher for being bumped on the first flight, so the total cash cost with fees and taxes, then deducting the value of the voucher, was negative).

      Later for 17,500 (separate trip) I flew Bologna-Vienna-Amman-Cairo-Doha-Dubai.

      These were both booked online, though I’ve noticed too that it isn’t as easy as it once was to do that.

  12. Hi Scott,
    Was planning a US-Euro trip for next summer and have a question, if this routing is legal on United ? LAX-BGO/ZRH-VCE//ROM-LAX.
    Isn’t this a case of 1 stop-over (BGO) and 2 open jaws ? Website ends in error,even though individual segments are available. Appreciate your inputs. Thanks !

  13. Gotcha ! thanks for the info. Also, just received the Citi AA sign-up miles, for which I had applied using your link in July. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  14. Hi Scott,
    I booked a one way from SNA to London via Miami. SNA to MIA on 06/28/14. MIA to LHR on 07/01/14 in first class @ AA First MileSAAVER rate (62500). The booking is ticketed, so everything is good. But here’s the problem. Back when I made and purchased the reservation, the MIA to LHR was on 777 with row 1,2,3,4 in first class. I am in 3B. Yesterday while looking at my reservation, I noticed AA changed the equipment for the flight from a 777 to 77W and now the 77w first class is only row 1,2, so I will be seating in business class instead. How would you handle this issue where you booked first class and end up seating in business because the airline changed the aircraft? Thank you.

    • First, try to change your seat over the phone. If you can’t, I would ask for the full refund of the ticket price after the trip. At a minimum I’d want quite a bit more than the 12.5k mile difference.

  15. Hey Scott,

    Thanks again for putting together the dinner get-together. It was alot of fun with great people and great food. My fiancee and I had a blast. I had a question. I want to book a similar flight adventure but wanna know if it’s possible to include a stopover in addition to many of these layovers. All the initial flights are just 24 hour layovers until ZUR where I’d stopover for a couple days, before continuing on to Paris.

    Here’s my proposal:
    IST>ZAG>BRU>ZRH>stopover>CDG

    Would this price out at 12.5k in economy with saver space available?
    I know UNited offers 2 free stopovers and open jaw. So my hope is I can use Paris as my second stopover before finally ending in Barcelona. Thanks again for everything you do and enjoy some relaxation in Hawaii

    • United offers one stopover and two open jaws on roundtrip awards. On one way awards, you get zero stopovers (and the concept of an open jaw is meaningless on a one way.)

      That means that you cannot get a stopover on the one way award you are proposing.

  16. Just tried doing this and it was a seven segment one-way award. It bumped my miles up from 12,500 to 25,000 miles plus taxes.
    I guess the technicality behind that is it’s like (2) one-ways now since I went over the three-stop over max rule?

  17. Are multiple 23h layovers also possible if we’re traveling from US to Southeast Asia? If so, what are the maximum number of segments allowed?

    • I don’t know max segments. United doesn’t list the info anywhere. 23 hour layovers are allowed on all int’l awards.

  18. 1. Do you get all boarding passes when you checked in fist day first flight?
    2. Is the checked baggage checked through final destination or do I need to claim and recheck in?
    3. If one flight disrupts like cancel or reschedule, what happens to next flights?
    I have a 2 week stopover in fra on my USA to India.
    Now I want to book a 4 destination 15k miles separate ticket as per your plan. I am actually able to build and book online if I want. I will have a bag that I do not need for these 4 days. So want to see how baggage is handled.

    • 1. no
      2. no, claim them
      3. Nothing unless it would cause me to miss one in which case I would be accommodated with new flights.. They certainly wouldn’t let me bump every one of the flights back b y 24 hours.

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