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Continuing our series on airlines, let’s take a look at United.  As we talked about the other day, United is a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so you can use any of the Chase credit card signup bonuses to get United miles.  There is also a United credit card (also offered by Chase) that offers 30,000 miles upon signup.

Domestically, United is similar to any of the “big” airlines (American, Delta, US Airways, etc.).  United’s award chart  (pdf) comes in at 25,000 miles required for a domestic round-trip ticket (though it’s only 20,000 if your itinerary is < 700 miles).

Where United shines is their routing rules, which are among the best in the business.

a map of the united states


For international round-trip tickets, you are allowed one stopover and two open-jaws.  The definition of these terms really needs its own article, but basically an open-jaw is where you start and end in a different place.  So if you were wanting a round trip to Los Angeles, you could do CVG-LAX and then LAX-DAY.  Because you start in Cincinnati and end in Dayton, that’s considered an open-jaw (and you’d be responsible for your own transportation between those 2 places).  A stopover is basically an additional stop on your ticket, and is often a way that you can get creative on your routing (which we discussed earlier when we were talking about how to get free one-way tickets).

Different airlines have different rules for allowing stopovers and open-jaws, but from what I’ve seen, United’s are the most flexible.  I think that the website Travel is Free has the best information that I’ve found on United routing rules.  The other nice thing about United is that their fees are fairly low for award tickets.  I mean, who wants to pay $400 in fees on a “free” ticket?  Yes that’s right, I’m looking at you British Airways!

Here’s an example of the flexibility of United’s routing rules, inspired by Travel is Free’s article on the Caribbean Hopper.  A one-way ticket from North America to the Caribbean costs 17,500 miles.  So going from CVG-AUA (Aruba) is 17500 miles.  There’s no direct flights there so typically you will route through CLT (Charlotte), EWR (Newark) or Houston (IAH).  I picked Charlotte for purposes of illustration.

But how fun is that?  Well, now that I think about it, that would be pretty fun.  But we can make it even more fun!  United allows a much more flexible routing.  This is only a one-way ticket, so it doesn’t allow stopovers or open-jaws, but you are allowed “layovers”  I know, I know, another term but layovers are easy – it’s any stop of <4 hours domestically or <24 hours internationally.  So in our “simple” routing to Aruba, Charlotte was a layover.

a map of the world with red lines


The beauty of the Caribbean Hopper is that a) there are no direct flights between most of these Caribbean islands and b) for many of them there is just one flight a day arriving and leaving.  So if you time it right, you can get 23hrs on your first island, then, because there aren’t any direct flights to the 2nd island (your actual “destination” according to United), you have to connect in, say, Panama, and you can get another 23 hours there.

So let’s try an example.  We’ll go from Cincinnati to Jamaica, then from Jamaica to Aruba (connecting via Panama).

We get a day in Jamaica, a day in Panama and then as long as we want in Aruba.  How many miles do you think this costs to redeem?

It’s the same!  17,500 miles




Warning – the United award booking site is better than some (cough, cough, Delta, I’m looking at you), but still can be touchy.  Still, I did manage to throw together some sample dates

Key Largo... Montego... baby why don't we go!

Key Largo… Montego… baby why don’t we go!

So in this case it’s 23 hours in Jamaica, then “only” 19 hours in Panama before as long as you want in Aruba.  If I were actually booking this, I might look for something that could get into Panama City a bit earlier in the day, since by the time you get out of the airport, I don’t know that you have enough time to go down to the Old town or the Canal zone.

So what do you do now that you’re in Aruba?

Stay there!!!!  Why would you want to come back?  Hmm, maybe I am jaded by all the cold weather here lately 😀

But seriously, you could a) use Southwest or another airlines points to come back home (assuming that you ended up in a place that Southwest services, like San Juan, PR) or b) use that as a jumping off point for another award ticket (some airlines, like US Airways to Asia, have cheaper tickets if you leave from the Caribbean than if you are leaving from the mainland US), or c) JUST DO THE SAME THING BACKWARDS!  As I said, a roundtrip ticket between the US and the Caribbean costs 35,000 miles, and you’re allowed a stopover (so say you could spend 3 days in Jamaica instead of <24 hrs) as well as 2 open jaws (which could allow you to visit an additional location).  I was having trouble “massaging” the United award engine, but it is bookable by phone (albeit with a $25 fee)

Now, when we’re talking about travel with families, a trip like this might not be tops on your demand schedule.  Personally, my kids seem to have just as much fun at the swimming pool as they would at a Caribbean beach, and couldn’t care less about visiting the sights in Panama City.  But maybe this would be a good “getaway” trip to leave the kids behind!  Carolyn and I went to Miami this past fall and it was great to have a few days to ourselves.  So who knows, maybe something like this might be in the cards for 2014 or beyond!?!

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