United’s Award Routing Rules Make No Sense — And Why That’s a Good Thing

Yesterday MileValue wrote about United’s award routing rules — for instance, the rules that determine what flights you can take when booking an award, how many miles you are allowed to travel between cities, and which partners you can combine on a ticket.

What he discovers, in essence, is that ever since United and Continental integrated their computer systems on March 3, the Continental rules and procedures applied. And that the Continental rules and procedures make no sense, something which has been the case at least since Continental joined Star Alliance.

United’s rules had been quite clear. Before they began cozying up with Continental, you were permitted a stopover (visiting a city on the way to or back from your destination) or an open jaw (flying into one city and back from a different city, the distance between those two cities had to be shorter than your outbound or your return distances). And you were permitted to fly the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ between your origin and destination.

Every city pair has a certain number of miles published as the ‘MPM’. In some cases those mileage amounts are generous, in some cases they aren’t, and whether a given routing is permitted was determined whether the total mileage flown fell within that distance. I once had to get supervisor approval to exceed the maximum permitted mileage on an award when trying to put together a trip from Johannesburg to Denver, Johannesburg – Nairobi – Zurich – Frankfurt – Dallas – Denver. The allowable mileage for Johannesburg – Denver is 11,521 but that routing is 11,533.

Back in February 2011, United loosened up its rules — you could exceed Maximum Permitted Mileage by 15% which was extremely generous. Aeroplan used to be considered generous in allowing 5% overage. And you could do both a stopover and an open jaw, not just one or the other.

Some folks assumed that United continued to implement its published rules, or at least some of them, after March 3rd. But the thing to understand is that they simply moved over to Continental’s platform. They didn’t reprogram the award rules on that platform.

Continental (err… United)’s rules don’t always make sense.

And they’re also not always consistent in how they apply what rules exist.

The key things to understand about award routing rules with United are:

  1. The computer determines what is permitted, the computer is always right, and very few agents are empowered to override — or even question — the computer.
  2. The computer is broken.

The published rules for awards don’t entirely make sense.

For instance, the rules say

Circle trips are not permitted. For example, you cannot fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong, to Auckland and back to San Francisco.

They don’t tell you what a circle trip is. It’s one of those ‘you know it when you see it’ concepts. It’s a triangle trip with a stopover.

For illustrative purposes using United’s domestic hubs, a strip from San Francisco to Houston (stop) to Washington Dulles (stop) and back to San Francisco on a non-stop would be a circle trip.

(Let’s leave aside for a moment that stopovers aren’t permitted on United’s domestic award tickets, this is simply to show you what a circle trip looks like.)

Now let’s look at United’s example of what you cannot do: San Francisco to Hong Kong to Auckland and back to San Francisco.

This is important because New Zealand is one of the toughest frequent flyer awards that there is. Frequently it’s necessary to fly via Asia to get there on points, especially during the high season of the Northern winter.

And I’ve gotten United’s website to give me precisely the award that the rules use as an example of what isn’t permitted. Because remember that United doesn’t actually use the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ concept anymore. You can connect via Asia enroute to Australia and to New Zealand. And Hong Kong becomes simply an allowable enroute stopover.

Except that it only works sometimes.

The way to understand this is that much of the award programming is done as hacks and workarounds.

When Continental joined Star Alliance, they started dealing with international first class for the first time. And United even flew 3-cabin planes domestically. This was a challenge for SHARES and the way this was all scripted. Turns out the workarounds weren’t done properly. Any time I would book an international business class award with a domestic segment in coach on a 3-cabin aircraft, the ticket would price as a 3-cabin first class award. Apparently I was the first to report this to anyone who could do anything about it. The agents would insist it’s what the computer says and that determines the price. But I reached out to someone in authority who managed to get the computer programming fixed within a day or two.

The system is a mishmash of hacks and fixes, not the careful, systematic application of rules.

It validates some things, not others, and doesn’t always do it properly. The agents aren’t relied upon to work through a checklist, “Is the routing within the maximum permitted mileage? Does is follow other rules we’ve laid out?”

This can be frustrating for someone who books awards as a profession, because you can’t ever know exactly what you’ll be able to book successfully until you try to do it. Your plain vanilla stuff will most of the time work although sometimes I come across glitches like the 3-cabin domestic flight pricing problem, or an inability to price an award that included European Star Alliance member Blue1 in combination with certain other carriers.

When you run up against something that you’re ‘pretty sure’ (which is all you can ever be here) should work, you cannot just explain to the agent why you are right, or refer them to the location of a set of rules they can consult. Frontline agents are at the mercy of their computers, and can’t simply override them. Getting to someone who can is an enormous challenge at the Continental era of United (as it was with Continental before that).

While it may be frustrating for MileValue, and for me, I actually like it and wouldn’t change a thing Because what this ultimately means is that you can ‘get away with’ a lot more routing-wise using United than you can with pretty much any other airline’s awards. So I’m not looking for them to ‘fix’ this and no doubt it’s pretty low on their priority of things to accomplish anyway.

Sometimes things price more expensively than they should, things won’t price at all, but you can also get awards and routings that no one else will allow.

And the routing rules that are official are generous. One-way awards at half the price of roundtrip. A stopover and an open jaw on a roundtrip award. Relatively circuitous routings because of no validation of maximum permitted mileage. No requirement to travel on routings which match published fares. An ability to change awards even after departure.

So sometimes craziness, well, it’s just not something to complain about.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. AND the SHARES system has been programmed to offer STD awards when available on UA for 1 segment and apply the higher price to the whole trip instead of saver in economy for 1 segment on a partner (to keep overall mileage low).
    IAH-ORD-FRA-SIN when available low boz from FRA to SIN and economy from IAH to FRA only shows as 150k std award in biz than 40k economy to FRA and 50k Biz FRA to SIN (instead of the 60k all way ib Biz with mixed cabin availability

    The good thing is that once you book the IAH-FRA on line and then add the FRA-sin to it it then prices out correctly as 60k.
    BUT since they do not “allow mixing classes on an award”, this is getting harder to do

  2. @Gary – Will they allow a routing from hawaii to asia that overwaters europe (e.g. HNL-SFO-LHR-HKG) on a single redemption? Thanks

  3. AND the SHARES system has been programmed to offer STD awards when available on UA for 1 segment and apply the higher price to the whole trip instead of saver in economy for 1 segment on a partner (to keep overall mileage cost low).
    IAH-ORD-FRA-SIN when available low biz from FRA to SIN and economy from IAH to FRA only shows as 150k std award in biz than 40k economy to FRA and 50k Biz FRA to SIN (instead of the 60k all way in Biz with mixed cabin availability)

    The good thing is that once you book the IAH-FRA economy online and then add the FRA-sin biz to it it then prices out correctly as 60k.
    BUT since they do not “allow mixing classes on an award”, this is getting harder to do. The work around is to use partners as much as possible.

  4. I was able to manipulate the computer to give me a stopover >24 hours on a one way. Not going to complain about that. Although against the stateted “rules” working with what the computer gives you is not a big deal.

  5. Hey Gary –

    Thanks for this. The rules about the 15% over the MPM read as follows:


    I’ve always interpreted that to mean that if my routing is between the MPM and the MPM+15%, then I would have too use a standard award instead of a saver award. Is that your reading, too?

    With thanks,

  6. @Tom – the MPM rule no longer applies anyway, but NO, the ‘allowable MPM’ was MPM+15%, and what you quoted says that iwas allowable if not over MPM+15% in any case

  7. Oh, also: I have to route my next trip to Asia via the Pacific, but the most convenient return would be via the Atlantic. I know it’s not officially allowed, but based on what you said here, can it happen?

    Thanks again,

  8. @Tom. That is not my understanding. I think that means if you start in SFO and you do a stop over in, say, ICN, and then continue on to BKK, you get charged the mileage it would cost to BKK. You cannot tell the agent BKK is your stopover on the return and your ticket is only to ICN so you want to pay less miles for a North Asia ticket.

  9. @Tom After some agent roulette I got a miniRTW ticketed in May of this year for travel in late May/early June.

  10. I’ve been able to do US-Asia via both the Atlantic and via the Pacific. And I’ve crossed both oceans.

    I have not ever done HNL-Asia via Europe, however.

  11. My favorite example – COdbaUA.com gave me a HKG-NYC award routing of HKG-JNB-JFK (on SA). 14,600 miles when the n/s is a little over 8,000. Go figure.

  12. @Tom: Regarding your question of routing to Asia via the Atlantic, here’s an example of an unofficial round-the-world ticket that I was able to book on United/Continental using generous stopover/open-jaw routing policy:

    LAX > ORD > MHT (stop-over)
    MHT > EWR > DEL (destination)
    MLE (open jaw) > SIN > NRT > LAX

    Domestic segments were in First and International segments in Business for a total of 120K miles.

  13. Does anyone have a link to Open-jaw rules? With two of them permitted, it creates so many choices that it’s hard to know what’s legal. I commented on Milevalue’s post that his example award broke down because of the open-jaw spanning two regions, not the routing of the flights themselves.

  14. I love how these self-proclaimed experts have been in the game for about two weeks and feel the need to right a bombastic blog post about matters like this.

    For those of us who have been around, and learned the system, we wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, we fear any change AT ALL from United, because it’s always favors the airline and not the customer.

    So please Gary, tell these kids to STFU. And he can’t keep his stupid shirt.

  15. @Gary or anyone who’s done it, routing US-Asia via Atlantic and Pacific can it be done online or only by phone? If by phone, do you book certain legs online first, then call in to add on?


  16. @Dan

    I’ve done US-Asia via Atlantic over the phone. My routing was SFO-JFK-FRA-SIN, SIN-HKG (stopover), HKG-NRT-YVR-SFO. Not sure if it matters, but the JFK-FRA-SIN was the direct SQ flight, which might have some difference in how calculations are done

  17. I recently booked the following route on United.com for 32.5k miles:
    tpe-bkk (overnight,<24hrs)
    bkk-hkg (stopover)
    hkg-icn-pek (destination)
    Everything on business class except the last segment. I'm sure this way over the MPM+15%

  18. Interesting that Milevalue and Gary posted about redeeming United miles in the last few hours b/c I am trying to redeem some for a trip and am having a lot of trouble. I feel it should be fairly straight-forward. I would like to fly one-way ROC-FCO (stopover)-CNX (we would like to start in northern Thailand and work our way south). We are willing to fly economy (we will be flying in F on the way home using AA miles from HKG). This reward comes out to 32.5K when I put the date in for 12/2/12 but as soon as I try to build in a 4 day stopover in FCO it says there is nothing available. When I fly from ROC-FCO on 11/28 and FCO-CNX on 12/2 separate it comes up as available but when I try to do it on the same itinerary it doesn’t work. Can someone tell me what I am doing wrong? Should I just call United? Sorry for the “noob” questions.

  19. No problem with SIN-EWR-SFO when SQ biz class space was briefly available. That wouldn’t have been allowed at the pre-3/3 UA.

  20. For Asia one way via the Atlantc and the other way via the Pacific, I recently booked an open jaw with a stopover online:
    Stopover in HKG then

  21. I was able to do

    TXL-FRA-ICN (J, F on LH, overnight < 24h)
    ICN-HKG (J on TG, overnight < 24h)
    HKG-BKK (F on TG, stopover)
    BKK-KUL (F on LH, open jaw)
    SIN-MUC-TXL (F, J on LH)

    all for 160000 in SEP/OCT 2011

  22. A common thread in the comments on my post and this one is along the lines: “If United clarifies, we will be worse off.” I don’t have any reason to believe that. If United enforced the rules on its website, I think we’d be better off.

  23. Has anyone booked a flight for US- Europe via Asia? I was wondering if it is possible to LAX-ICN (stopover)-FRA (destination)and FRA-LAX. Since Im new to the awards and miles, Im little confused about whether such trip possible through United routing rules.

  24. I certainly routed Wichita to Seoul via Frankfurt online without any problem. I have no idea under what circumstances this works. It was simply one of several options shown on the list of choices, not something I plugged in myself. As it happens, due to an unforeseen job responsibility, I had to change the dates of the trip and on the new dates a different routing was necessary. Not that I really cared – the new one is more efficient.

  25. @MileValue, I just don’t see it as a good thing for United to take a hard look at its rules, period. Right now there are quite a few things that are more generous than the industry norm, and I just have the sense that if United were to remove ambiguities it could well be in the context of aligning its program more closely to what others do, which would not be a positive. I suppose if they limited it to clarifying one or two discrepancies it could be good, but who is to say that is what would happen? This is a classic, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” situation in my opinion.

  26. I’m looking to go PEK-BKK-TPE-SIN. It somehow prices out to 27.5k miles in coach. It doesn’t appear to be a RT, but somehow I’m allowed two stopovers. At the same time if it is RT it’s not charging me North Asia-South Asia RT prices (30k) or intra north-asia price (25k). Anyways its perfect for what I need and fantastic value.

  27. A newbie question: Can I do IAD-SYD (via SFO and ICN) one way and then the return AUK-BKK-IAD with BKK being a stopover of about 3 days?

  28. I have a trip booked for DTW-CNX,the way there in economy, the way back in First. I’ve tried adding a stopover/open jaw on the way back from ORD-HNL but the system doesn’t ticket it.
    Any idea why? Is there a problem with crossing the Pacific twice, or the Atlantic and Pacific?

  29. If I want to book a flight from Tokyo NRT to Shanghai PVG, instead of direct flight, can I route as NRT-BKK-PVG? Is this a valid routing?

  30. I am currently trying to book SYD LON via LAX and then returning LON SYD (via BKK) and it is not allowed since the merger. They now say (5 different agents) that due to multiple oceans, they cant do it.

    If I split it up as two one ways, I then cant stop in LAX as that is not allowed.

    So they have suggested the only option is 3 x one way awards!!! The cost is almost double what a return would have been…

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