Leveraging the United Excursionist Perk to save miles


The other day, I wrote a post about the Strengths Membership Rewards has over Ultimate Rewards. In that post, I mentioned that Chase only really has two unique airline partnerships: United and Southwest. I dismissed Southwest since it is revenue-based and thus without inherent sweet spots, and then I dismissed United by saying it has some sweet spots, but not as many as some other airlines. Since nobody else did it, I’m going to go ahead and take myself to task for flippantly dismissing one of the biggest award chart sweet spots that too often flies under the radar: the United Excursionist Perk. While plenty has been written about the perk, I think many of us are missing the potential value. A fair warning: If you tend to plan linear “Point A to Point B” trips, this technique may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you tend to book separate one-ways and you like to visit multiple places on an award / piece together a trip with different types of miles, the Excursionist Perk can add huge value and save you a lot of miles.

Maybe I’ll fly United Polaris to Europe next summer with one of the cards I open.

The basics in quick review

If you’re familiar with the Excursionist perk, skip this section and go down to “Example #1”. If the Excursionist perk is new for you, here’s the idea in a nutshell: When you book an award trip using United miles, and your travel begins and ends in the same region, you can get a free one-way within a single region of the world that isn’t your region of origin. Make sense? It might make more sense visually.

Let’s say you live in Chicago and you’d like to go to Switzerland for a vacation. You could simply book an award ticket from Chicago to Switzerland round trip:

Assuming you’re flying on a partner airline like Swiss Air, that trip would cost 70K miles each way in business class (140K miles round trip). However, via the Excursionist perk, United will allow you to add a free one-way that is not within your region of origin (i.e. a free one-way within a single region that is not North America in this case). This is what United probably had in mind when they created this perk:

In the example above, you fly from Chicago to Zurich. You enjoy some time in Switzerland. Rather than simply returning to Chicago from Switzerland, United will allow you to add a flight from Zurich to Lisbon for free and then return to Chicago from Lisbon. The idea here is that you can see two European cities for the same price as if you had seen one.

For a more detailed explanation of this perk, see this excellent post from Richard Kerr at The Points Guy. For the purposes of today’s post, here are the key premises:

  • Your travel must end in the region where it begins (it does not need to be “round trip”)
  • Your first journey wholly within a region of the world that is not your region of departure will be free and can be in the same class of service as the previous leg (or lower)

Again, your travel has to end in the region it begins but does not need to be round trip. For instance, we could get the same flight from Zurich to Lisbon for free with a trip like this:

In that case, you’ll fly from Chicago to Zurich and then later (whenever you want) fly from Zurich to Lisbon. Later in the year, you fly New York to Washington, DC. Because travel ends (in Washington DC) in the same region in which it begins (North America), the first leg outside of the zone of departure (outside of North America) is free. In this case, that would be Zurich to Lisbon, which is in Europe (completely outside of North America). In this case, the trip can price out like this:

  • Chicago to Zurich in business class = 70K (on partners)
  • Zurich to Lisbon in business class = free leg (0 miles)
  • New York to DC in economy class = 10K
  • Total cost = 80K miles

Note that the leg from Zurich to Lisbon can be in business class because the free Excursionist Perk leg can be in the same class of service as the leg preceding it. It doesn’t matter that the flight from JFK-DCA is in economy class. Also note that I don’t think United flies from JFK-DCA. Pretend it’s EWR-IAD. It’s just an example for illustration purposes.

Why would you do this? A couple of reasons. Those will become clearer with the examples to follow. If you are still unclear on the basics, see that post from Richard Kerr linked above.

Example #1 of the United Excursionist Perk saving you a ton of miles

Some readers may remember that I took an unexpected trip to China earlier this year. As it was planned quickly and at the very last minute, I didn’t do the best job of booking the most logical itinerary. This is what I booked:

  • New York to Shanghai one-way on Cathay Pacific for 70K American Airlines miles
  • Shanghai to Tokyo to New York round trip (i.e. back to Shanghai) for 95K ANA miles

I ended up booking my “return” leg from China to the US as a round trip with ANA. I did this because ANA only allows round trip bookings and a round trip in business class ticket on ANA costs only a little more than a one-way in most programs. I figured I’d get a “nearly free” trip to Asia next year. On the return, I built in a stopover in Japan…and that will likely be where my trip stops — I may return to the US from Japan and not fly the final leg back to Shanghai.

That means I have a flight to Japan on the books, but I’ll need to get home from Japan. Another round trip ANA booking is tempting, but regular readers will also know that I recently booked a stay next year at the St. Regis Bora Bora. I also booked a Marriott Travel Package week at the Domes of Elounda next year. Greg is an incredibly generous boss, but my vacation time is not unlimited. Note to Greg “self”: Vacation time is an “investment” because planning trips leads to the inspiration for posts like this one 🙂. The fact is I just don’t have the time to visit Asia again next year, so I’m just looking to get from Japan back to New York. That need, and Richard Kerr’s Time Machine example, got me thinking about the United Excursionist Perk.

United charges 70K miles to fly in business class on its own metal (i.e. United flights) from Japan to the US.

Let’s say I book that journey. If I want to get a free Excursionist Perk, my travel needs to end in the same region where it originates. In this case, I’m originating in Tokyo, Japan. If my trip also “ends” in Japan, I can get a free one-way that is completely within any single region that is not Japan. But remember that I do not need to book a round trip, I just need a leg that ends in Japan (remember the JFK-DCA example above). Unfortunately, it looks like you cannot book domestic ANA flights more than 30 days in advance (those would be the cheapest awards “ending” in Japan). However, an underrated enhancement United made last year was to add a cheap short-haul option to its award chart. Flights outside of North America that are less than 800 miles in flight distance between origin and destination only cost 8K miles in economy class. It just so happens that Seoul to Tokyo is 783 miles in distance, and Asiana and ANA (both Star Alliance carriers) fly that route.

So the concept here is this: if I fly in business class from Tokyo to New York and add this leg from Seoul to Tokyo for an additional 8K miles (at some point far in the future), I could use an “Excursionist Perk” to get a free one-way in business class within some other region of the world that is not Japan if I sandwich that free one-way in between. For example, that free one-way in business class could be within North America, as in this example:

In that example above, the first two flights are in business class and the third is in economy class. That is significant because, as you may know, San Francisco to Newark in flat bed business class normally costs 35K miles these days.

However, by adding it to a my trip home from Japan, it can be free.

Again, in order to get that leg for free, my travel must begin and end in the same region. So once again, this trip looks like this:

  1. Fly from Japan to the US in business class on United = 70K
  2. Fly from San Francisco to Newark at some time later on United = 0 miles (free Excursionist perk)
  3. Fly from Seoul to Tokyo somewhere near the end of the booking calendar = 8K miles
  4. Total cost = 78K miles

Note that for #3, I said fly “near the end of the booking calendar”. That’s the way I’d book it if I had no intention to fly it wasn’t sure I’d end up in Seoul to take that flight. For 78K miles, I’d end up with one trip that normally costs 70K miles (Tokyo to New York) and a trip that normally costs 35K miles (San Francisco to New York). That’s a savings of 27K miles by adding the Seoul-Tokyo leg.

Example #2: Booking Hawaii to New York on United with…..United miles?

Everybody who has been into frequent flyer miles for more than 10 minutes will tell you that you do not book a United flight to/from Hawaii with United miles. You use Singapore miles because Singapore charges fewer miles (17.5K in economy / 30K in business) than United charges for the same flights (22.5K in economy / 40K in business). But everybody is wrong. You do want to use United miles because you can avail yourself of the same terrific perk as before, though I’ll show it a bit differently this time.

A business class flight from Honolulu (Region: Hawaii) to New York (Region: North America) costs 40K miles one-way with United. Note that the taxes below show $80.60 – that’s because this particular flight departs in less than 21 days, so United is adding a $75 close-in booking fee. You can avoid that by planning farther in advance than I did for this example’s sake.

But let’s say that in addition to your trip to Hawaii, you also have a second trip planned later in the year / next year to Asia. If we book a trip that ends in Hawaii (the region where we’re starting this booking), we can add a free business class journey that is entirely within another region — say Southeast Asia. In this case, let’s say you want to fly from Bangkok to Bali in business class for “free” (remember that you still pay taxes).

As a Thai airways business class passenger, you’d be entitled to a free 30-minute massage in the lounge in Bangkok. As you can see above, you could fly direct from Bangkok or you could connect in Singapore and enjoy the Singapore business class lounge as well if you wanted. To get that journey for 0 miles as shown above, you just need to end your trip in Hawaii. Luckily, inter-island Hawaii flights are only 7K miles.

So by booking Honolulu to Newark (by way of LAX) for 40K and ending the trip sometime next year with a flight booked from Honolulu to Maui for 7K, we can get the business class flights from Bangkok to Bali (Region: Southeast Asia) for free. In this case, it would cost 47K total: 40K for the itinerary from Honolulu to New York and 7K for Honolulu to Maui, with the business class itinerary from Bangkok to Bali being free.

Remember the above example includes the $75 close-in booking fee. If you planned further in advance, your total cost would be 47K miles and $34.30.

Example #3: Pay less than sticker price for premium transcon business class

As shown earlier, United now charges 35K miles one-way for their premium transcontinental business class awards (like Los Angeles or San Francisco to New York). That’s more miles than I’m willing to part with for just that one flight. But it’s possible to get a discount if you have some travel already planned outside of the US. For example, let’s say you already have a trip planned that will get you to the Galapagos islands.

Starting a booking at the Galapagos, you could book business class from the Galapagos Islands to Bogota, Colombia (by way of Guayaquil and Cali) for 20K miles one-way (the $75 close-in booking fee is again included in the numbers below).


In this case, your travel is starting in the Galapagos (Region: Northern South America). If you end the booking in the same region, you can get a free one-way business class ticket wholly within another region. Cali to Bogota is certainly fewer than 800 miles, so a separate one-way journey from Cali to Bogota would cost 8K miles.

If we sandwich a North American business class flight between the Galapagos->Bogota trip and the Cali->Bogota trip, we can get the North American leg for free.

Here’s what that looks like:

Again, in this case, that breaks down like this:

  • Galapagos to Bogota in business class = 20K miles
  • Los Angeles to Newark in business class = 0 miles (free “Excursionist” perk)
  • Cali to Bogota in economy class = 8K miles
  • Total cost = 28K miles

As you can see, the total cost for that trip is 20% less than if we had only booked Los Angeles to Newark by itself (normally 35K miles).

How do you book these trips?

To book these, hit the “advanced” search options from the United.com home page. Then select multi-city and simply plug your trip into the multi-city tool. I highly suggest you not practice an exercise in futility by calling and spending hours trying to hash through this over the phone with an agent. The United.com multi-city tool works just fine and doesn’t rely on how Agent A interprets the rules vs how Agent B sees the world versus what Supervisor C tells you. Just use the website. If it doesn’t work, try something different.

But how can this apply to my life?

Some readers have surely wondered by now: But how would I get to the Galapagos? And back home from Bogota? or similar questions that essentially boil down to: How would I use this, practically speaking?. The answer is that it will really vary from person to person. However, when I book trips with miles, I almost always book one-way trips (the ANA trip mentioned in this post is a rare exception). If I’m going to fly 8 or 10 or 14 hours across the ocean, I usually try to visit at least two places. If you share that style/philosophy, you could find this perk extremely useful. If you tend to plan linear “Point A to Point B” trips, this technique may not be for you.

That said, it’s worth thinking outside the box a bit in that the results could be huge mileage savings if you’re the type of person to plan more than one trip per year. If you can connect the dots between regions, you could nest a few such separate bookings to build some pretty crazy trips and save yourself a bundle of miles. Regions that have business class flights that are normally expensive in terms of miles could become much more reasonable when sandwiched between a business and economy class leg within a smaller / cheaper region. Have a look at the United award chart for inspiration.

Bottom line

The United Excursionist Perk is one award chart sweet spot that seems to be flying under the radar. If you accumulate United miles and/or Chase Ultimate Rewards and you like to plan somewhat complex trips, this is a perk you could be leveraging for huge savings and opportunities to enjoy great service and business class products from Star Alliance carriers around the world. With the size and breadth of the Star Alliance reach, it’s not too hard to find a throwaway speculative one-way to book down the road that gets you a free business class flight in between.

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