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Knowing how to easily acquire miles is only half (or even less) of a travel hacker’s tool belt. The complement is a thorough understanding of the ins-and-outs of loyalty programs and how to book award tickets for the best value. You can literally save thousands of miles by knowing how to maximize them.

While United may be one of the easier programs with which to book awards (although I’ve also covered why their search is the absolute worst), there are still some nuances that could help you find that perfect award ticket. Here are some tips that will allow you to become a master of the United award search engine:

Search leg by leg

If you’re putting together a complicated itinerary and nothing is coming up when you simply search between origin and destination, try searching leg by leg. Identify major United and partner hubs that have non-stop flights between them, and search those first.

I typically start with the “over water” leg for flights between continents. For example, if I’m looking to fly between my home airport and Prague, I might start with SFO-FRA, pulling up availability of nonstop United and Lufthansa flights as my first search. Once I’ve found a few dates with non-stop flights, I’ll search for the other legs separately (ACV-SFO and FRA-PRG).

Once I’ve identified the flights I want, I’ll search the whole itinerary for the corresponding date(s).

United does have this utterly terrible unique rule where agents can no longer override what the computer tells them. I find this ridiculous, and it was one of my major gripes (along with the death of some of the most amazing routing tricks) when United rolled out its “enhancements” last fall. If the computer doesn’t pull up the ticket, you may be out of luck. But there also may be a remedy…

Understand the power of the filters

Unlike when you try to use your disAAdvantage miles, you can actually suffer from too many options when searching United award flights. I have this theory that the United award search engine caps out at 200 options. It’s like an arbitrary line where the computer decides it has found enough options for you.

As you might guess, finding an ideal flight among the plethora of options can be a tad difficult at times. The filters at the bottom of the search results can help you weed out options you don’t want. You can filter out undesirable connection airports, change the type of award, adjust the departure and arrival times to what works best, and even filter by aircraft amenities and type of connection.

When I’m looking for an award, I first order by the award type of interest (saver economy, saver business, etc.) at the top. Then if the number of options are greater than a page, I’ll use the pane at the bottom to search for specific connections or other option. Most of the time I can either pull up the flight I want within seconds (if it is available on that given day).

Learn to use the advanced search

This goes hand in hand with the filters. There are several options that are presented to you in the advanced search that the majority of people ignore. Besides being able to do multi-segment searches, there is a “my search preferences” section you can expand to add in additional criteria into your search.

The advanced search is a sort of pre-filter. It will allow your preferred options to float to the surface. Rather than scouring through pages of flights for the one with the best connections (remember that the computer craps out at 200 results), you can feed in your ideal (or undesirable) connections to hopefully find the space you want immediately.

Case in point: if I had not known how the tricks of United’s advanced search, I couldn’t have booked the exact tickets I wanted for our adoption trip.

A couple weeks ago I found a flight option that I really liked for my wife and I to travel to Costa Rica. I figured I’d discuss it with my wife and then book it.

However, when I went to find it a couple days later, the flight was gone. I was bummed. However, after searching through all the other options presented to me, I realized that all the segments of my ideal ticket were included as part of other itineraries! But why wasn’t the one I wanted showing?? Curse you, United.

This is where the advanced search came to my rescue. I started my search over, but instead of simply searching flights to SJO, I keyed in the connections I wanted, the ones I wanted to avoid (like SAL), and the ideal departure time. Voila. The award I wanted was suddenly the fourth option in the list. Take that, United.

Get creative with multi-city itineraries

While United killed the bulk of its amazing routing tricks last year, you can still exploit the “excursionist perk” to great advantage. This topic is an entire post of its own, but I’ll at least touch on it briefly.

The “excursionist perk” is essentially a free one-way segment that you can sandwich between two other legs as part of a “round-trip” flight. You can’t book it as part of a one-way. I also put round-trip in quotes since United is pretty loose with what constitutes a round-trip.

The excursionist perk segment must obey the following:

  • It must be booked as part of a round-trip award, and
  • The excursionist perk segment must be entirely within one zone, but
  • It cannot be in the same zone as the origin, finally
  • The return flight must end in the same zone in which the outbound leg originated

There are some more nuances, but that is the most basic explanation of the free segment. While you could assume that you would probably want to book the free segment in the same zone as the destination, it can actually be in an entirely different zone, as long as it is contained within that other zone.

Here is an example:

  • SFO-FRA (outbound)
  • CAI-DXB (free – excursionist perk)
  • MEX-EWR (“return”)

This ticket prices out at 75,000 + taxes and fees. The outbound is in business on United metal for 57,500 miles, and the return is in economy for 17,500 miles. The segment from Cairo to Dubai (entirely within the Middle East zone) is free, and in business class.

This is an entirely open jaw itinerary. You’d have to get yourself from Frankfurt to Cairo to fly the middle segment, and then back to South America to fly the return.

Map courtesy of gcmap.com

To book a ticket including an excursionist perk segment, you’ll need to use the multi-city search option. One final thing to note is that class of service of the excursionist perk is the same as the preceding segment. If your outbound is in business, the excursionist perk segment is in business. The return segment can be in economy.

Finally, you can add additional segments using the multi-city tool, but you only get one excursionist perk per round-trip ticket.

Watch out for phantom space

You should also watch out for phantom space. This should be doubly true if you will be transferring points to United miles, since this will be irreversible. Some carriers are more prone to displaying phantom availability than others. Earlier this year there was a lot of phantom SWISS first-class availability showing.

If you’re unsure about award space, try to see if it the United website will let you continue once you select a specific itinerary. If it returns an error message, it is likely phantom space. You could also check either Aeroplan or ANA, preferably both, to make sure a given itinerary is available. Calling United is also an option.

Don’t trust the phone agents

If you do have to call United, make sure you know what you’re looking for and how best to explain your award to them. The phone agents are not exactly the most helpful. Plus, you’ll end up paying a $25 phone booking fee per ticket if you *do* book through them.

I was talking with a friend recently who had been on the phone with a United agent (I couldn’t keep him from calling). I knew the flights he needed to book, but of course the agent couldn’t find them. Since he is a MileagePlus cardmember, and I knew the ticket he needed included space exclusive to cardholders, I told him to make sure the agent looked for “XN” space. Even with that helpful suggestion, she couldn’t find it.

Luckily, he ended up cutting the conversation short, not only saving precious minutes of his life, but also the phone booking fee. I was later able to guide him through finding the space online using some of the tricks above, specifically the advanced search.

Bottom line: if you can master the award search engine, you won’t need to call United, except in the fewest edge cases.

Conclusion

I’m not exactly sure what goes on behind the scenes in United’s award search engine, but it sure isn’t magic. Now that the phone agents can’t help you piece together a complicated itinerary, hopefully you can apply some of these tips to coax the award search engine into returning the results you want.

Happy searching!

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