One Very Important Award United MileagePlus Does Better Than Anyone Else

Reader Sam L. and I had an exchange that made me realize how important it is to point out an award that United does better than anyone else. It’s hard for me to imagine I’m saying this, but it also undersscores how much has changed in the industry over the past 18 months.

United offers the best domestic ‘standard’ awards.

As I explained yesterday, these are the awards where you can spend extra miles for additional award seats. When there aren’t saver awards available, some airlines give you access to extra inventory.

Until April, 2014 any American AAdvantage member could spend double miles to get last seat availability for American flights (the only exceptions were newly-announced international routes that cost more in premium cabins, like Dallas – Seoul).

Then American introduced a four tier redemption chart, with ‘AAnytime’ awards having three pricing tiers, though all members can still access last seat availability at some price.

Delta has five tiers now, and last seat availability.

United still has just two tiers. Not every member gets last seat availability though. Members get access to most seats. But getting the very last seat on the plane with these extra mileage awards is limited to United’s elite frequent flyers and their co-brand credit card holders.

It’s a little-appreciated benefit of having the United Explorer card if you don’t have status. You won’t use this often, and you shouldn’t, but for the few times you need it then it can come in very handy.

I’ve only booked these double (or now more…) mileage awards three times in my life. Twice I booked them through MileagePlus. I never actually flew any of them, I cancelled both times.

However, in 2010 I was flying on an AAdvantage-issued award for travel on British Airways, London – Toronto. It was the last segment of a distance-based oneworld award that I kept under 20,000 flown miles and cost me 180,000 AAdvantage miles for first class. Back then you didn’t pay fuel surcharges when you redeemed on BA, but you couldn’t redeem for flights between London and the U.S. So I redeemed for British Airways first to Canada.

Only things hadn’t gone as planned. British Airways was experiencing a cabin crew strike. They were getting many of their long haul flights out using replacement crew hired from other airlines. They were using legal minimum crews unfamiliar with BA service standards, and so there were no hot meals in first class. But that’s another story entirely.

My concern was that so many BA flights were being cancelled, I’d have difficulty getting home. And I needed to get to work. So I booked an award ticket non-stop home to DC on United, using these extra availability standard awards. I got the last couple of seats on that flight (which were heavily booked as a result of the BA labor unrest).

Once my flight made it out, I cancelled the United award. But it was comforting to have locked in that backup.

Sometimes you just need to fly. A domestic economy segment on American can now cost as much as 75,000 miles one way. That’s only on a few days a year, when no regular award space is available. But if you’ve got a funeral or hospital to go to that’s a rough cost.

Delta will charge you as much as 32,500 miles one-way under their five tier secret chart, and that’s if you can get the pricing engine to work properly.

Many international airlines don’t offer these awards at all. British Airways does — but only for their Gold members. Singapore does, with a highest price level that’s rather crazy.

I’m not a fan of using these awards, but I am a fan of their existing and especially when they are priced reasonably.

United will give you the flight under those circumstances for 25,000 miles one-way in economy again, at least as long as you’re a United elite or co-brand credit card holder.

United has increased the price of their international premium cabin standard awards substantially, those are no longer anchored to double the cost of the saver level. But at least for domestic economy, kudos goes to United.

Hopefully you won’t spend for these extra availability awards often, but it’s immensely valuable when you sufficiently stuck that you do.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I also hoped I’d never need one but I used a standard award to book a last minute ticket to LA for a close relative’s funeral. The cheapest ticket was $1300+ so spending 50k miles was a no brainer.

  2. THANKS for posting that. Now what do you think United will be inclined to do once they read it? Dealkiller.

  3. Very timely. I was looking for award space to visit family over Christmas and coming up with either blackouts or award space sold out on multiple airlines. Spending 2x the points for tickets going for 3x the normal price gets me even better value!

  4. Excellent reminder. I don’t have enough MP miles for two international tickets anymore, but I do have enough for two one way emergency domestic tickets.

    Also, a reason to keep the credit card even though I never fly United. Do you know if an authorized user has access or does the traveler have to be the primary cardholder?


  5. how does this work Gary…using explorer card. WEbsite or you have to call it in?

  6. @ Gary – You already know that United is a copycat:

    “United is copying Delta’s revenue-based mileage earning for flights that started January 1, but it’s taking MileagePlus until March 1 to get it up and running….”

    Killed at least 3 deals this year from dd forums that I know of, where you get some of your material…
    (Again, THANKS for sending United the message)

  7. @Nick Of course United copies Delta. But then this post has nothing to do with it. Which it doesn’t. And for what it’s worth, Dan copies a lot more from me than I do from him, and I always attribute 🙂 (But I still love him.)

  8. United really has excellent availability for both saver and standard tiers, particularly when reserving many months out. But short term availability is also very good. Like you I needed a backup flight last week in order to get back to the office. Had my choice of flights for 12500 miles – and ended up using the reservation when I missed my earlier flight on VX. So UA does well on both ends of the date spectrum. The major exception, of course, are those business class saver seats…

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