Taking an Excursionist Perk for a spin for a trip to Africa


In a post last week, I wrote about plans for a trip next year leveraging Air Canada Aeroplan that will have us stop in Europe and in Mauritius en route to mainland Africa. We’ve long known that Africa can be a good place for making use of an Excursionist Perk, and I think that’s become even truer thanks to some award rate changes. This post will examine how a little creativity can save you quite a few miles on a trip within Africa.

That’s a thumbs-up for the United Excursionist Perk. Pre-mask days.

Excursionist Perk basics

The simple explanation of the United Excursionist Perk is that United Mileage Plus allows a free (zero miles) one-way trip when you book an award that begins and ends in the same region (you still pay the taxes). The basic idea applied would go something like this:

  • Fly Boston to Frankfurt (stay in Frankfurt for a week)
  • Fly Frankfurt to Lisbon (stay in Lisbon for a week)
  • Fly Lisbon to Boston

Because your award begins and ends in the same region (it begins and ends in Boston, which is in the United States), the one-way leg from Frankfurt to Lisbon is free. You get to see two places in Europe and you don’t pay for the one-way within Europe.

Let’s imagine you wanted to fly in business class the whole way. It would cost you 88,000 miles to fly from Boston to Frankfurt in business class.

It would cost you 28,800 miles to fly in business class from Frankfurt to Lisbon if booked separately.

Then Lisbon to Boston again would cost you 88,000 miles in business class.

If you booked those flights separately, you would pay a total of:

  • 88,000 miles Boston to Frankfurt
  • 28,800 miles Frankfurt to Lisbon
  • 88,000 miles Lisbon to Boston
  • 204,800 total miles if booked separately

However, if you book all of that together as a single multi-city itinerary, United will give you the Frankfurt to Lisbon leg for free.

If you go to the Advanced United search tool (just click “Advanced search” on the home page to the left of the “Find Flights” button) and select “multi-city”, you can search for those three routes on a single ticket. Be sure to select the “Miles” radio button and the multi-city tab as shown here:

Then select business class from Boston to Frankfurt (for 88K miles as shown below).

After that, the flight from Frankfurt to Lisbon will cost 0 miles (you still pay taxes).

Then you select your preferred itinerary home. I didn’t find the Lisbon to Boston nonstop in business class, but let’s suppose that you wanted to fly business class, so you selected an itinerary from Lisbon to Boston via Zurich on Swiss in business class for the final leg.

When you book that as a single multi-city trip that begins and ends in the same region (in this case, the trip begins and ends in the United States), you get the one-way leg in a different region (in this case, the flight from Frankfurt to Lisbon) for free. Rather than costing 204,800 miles, the total trip costs 176,000 miles.

That’s a simple example of how to use this benefit. For a fuller understanding of the background knowledge you’ll need for the rest of this post, please see the following post for a more detailed explanation of this benefit:

Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist Perks

More advanced key things to know about the United Excursionist Perk

Hopefully, you’ve read that post about Maximizing and understanding United Excursionist Perks. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you see the link at the end of the previous section and read that post first.

The Excursionist Perk can become more fun when you understand some key “rules” about how it works:

  1. Travel must begin and end in the same region. It doesn’t need to be linear. That is to say that if your trip begins in the US and flies to Europe, your award needs to end in the US, but it doesn’t need to travel from Europe to the US. You can sometimes save miles by playing with this rule (as you’ll see)
  2. Your free one-way must be in a region that is not your region of origin and destination. For instance, if your region of origin / destination is the US, your free one-way has to be entirely within a region that is not the US & Canada. The free one-way does not need to be in the region you flew to. In other words, if your award starts off from the US to Europe and your award ends in the US, your free one-way could be within any region outside the US. Your free one-way could be entirely within southeast Asia or entirely within southern/central Africa — it doesn’t need to be within Europe, it just needs to be outside the United States and sandwiched between the first and last legs of your trip.
  3. You don’t need the final leg to “return” to the city of origin, it just needs to end in the region of origin. See this post for how to visualize United regions.
  4. Your “free” leg is in the same class of service as the first part of your journey. In other words, if your “outbound” is in economy class, your free leg is in economy class. If your “outbound” is in business class, your free leg is in business class. Your “return” leg (the flight that ends in your region of origin) can be in any class of service you want (this doesn’t affect the free leg).

All of the above was originally reported in an excellent post by Drew at Travel is Free years ago. We’ve also since written about all of the above before. This perk can get confusing when you think outside the box on it a little bit, but leveraging the above, you can potentially save a lot of miles on flights within southern / central Africa.

United awards cost varying amounts within Africa

Years ago, when Greg and I first wrote posts about the Excursionist Perk, flights within southern / central Africa were a fairly standard 17,500 miles each way in economy class. Unfortunately, prices have increased on many routes. That is particularly true on routes that include any legs on United partner Airlink.

While it used to be either part of South African Airways or part-owned by South Africa (I can’t recall which), Airlink is a separate entity these days. Therefore, Airlink is not part of the Star Alliance. That is a shame because it means that United is one of the only ways to book Airlink flights with miles (if not the only?). Airlink has a more robust route network within southern / central Africa than South African Airways has, so if you search awards within Africa, there is a decent chance that you’ll see results on Airlink.

However, Airlink awards are more expensive. See for example this short route from Victoria Falls airport to Johannesburg. If you find availability entirely on South African Airways, that award only costs 8,800 miles, but if you have a leg on Airlink (even if it’s nonstop), it costs 26,800 miles one way. During my actual trip dates, Airlink is the only available option at 26.8K.

Flying from Victoria Falls to Cape Town, you can see that the nonstop on Airlink costs 26,800 miles in economy class — or fly South African Airways for 17,500 miles.

But, again, note that availability doesn’t always exist on South African Airways (especially during peak dates).

However, I likely won’t pay 26,800 miles for my Airlink flights thanks to the Excursionist Perk.

Leveraging cheap United awards to save miles in Africa

Europe, then within Africa for zero miles

In my case, I’m starting my trip with a stop in Europe before I continue on to Africa. That could work out to be fortuitous since I will need a couple of flights within Europe in addition to needing a flight from Victoria Falls to elsewhere in Africa because flights within Europe can be quite cheap as awards.

For instance, very short one-ways within Europe on Star Alliance carriers often cost 6,000 miles. A member of our Frequent Miler Insiders group has shared that this likely applies to most Star Alliance flights of fewer than 500 miles in distance. See for example this flight from Zurich to Milan, which costs 6,000 miles in economy class.

Another similar example is Brussels, Belgium to Billund, Denmark, which also costs 6,000 miles in economy class (I actually booked that award last summer).

Since Europe has flights that cost just 6,000 miles one way in economy class, you can save a ton of miles on a flight within Africa if you’ll be in Europe before your trip to Africa.

For instance, in my situation, I have a flight booked to Europe (I used Avios to get to Europe). Then, I still need to book some flights within Europe (here’s where United is going to come in handy!). Later, I have a flight booked from Europe to Africa as a separate award ticket (booked through Air Canada Aeroplan). So I’ll be in Europe and need a couple of one-way flights within Europe. Then, after flying to Africa on a totally separate award ticket, I’ll need some flights within Africa. This is a perfect recipe for taking advantage of the Excursionist Perk.

Let’s say I could use that flight from Zurich to Milan. I could book a multi-city itinerary that starts with that flight for 6,000 miles, continues with a free one-way from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg so long as the third leg of my “trip” ends in Europe. See this example where I fly Zurich to Milan on February 27th, then Victoria Falls to Johannesburg in March 13th, then Brussels to Billund on March 20th.

After first selecting the leg I wanted from Zurich to Milan for 6,000 miles…

My next selection from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg would cost 0 miles. That’s true whether I chose the South African Airways flight (which you’ll recall only cost 8,800 miles one way) or the Airlink flight (which you’ll recall cost 26,800 miles one way).

In this specific example, you’d probably want the nonstop South African Airways flight, but if you’re looking to travel to Africa during a peak season (like I am in reality), your only option may have been via Airlink (which was true on my dates — and there was a nonstop flight on Airlink that would have cost the same 26,800 miles).

For some reason, United is discounting the third leg on my European examples, so the leg from Brussels to Billund would only cost 5,450 miles when chosen as the closing leg of a multi-city award.

In total, for all three flights, you would pay a total of 11,450 miles.

Again, that’s including the leg within Africa that would have otherwise cost 26,800 miles on its own. Booked separately, those 3 flights would cost 38,800 miles. Booked together and utilizing the Excursionist Perk, you save 26,800 miles per passenger. That could be more than 100,000 miles in savings over my family of four. Cash tickets within Africa can be very expensive, so I was already looking at probably needing to redeem 26,800 miles per passenger for an Airlink itinerary since I can’t book those flights with other airline miles. Booking a flight within Europe first might actually save us those 100,000 miles. Note that even if you don’t actually need the final leg from Brussels to Billund, it makes sense to book that leg to save a ton of miles here (though if you make a habit of booking throwaway legs that you don’t fly, United might get angry about that and could take away miles / close your account, so I don’t recommend making a habit out of booking stuff you don’t want to fly).

In my post last week, I wrote about how I’m going to visit Mauritius. If I wanted to book a United award from Mauritius to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. United would charge 26,800 miles in economy class or 40,500 miles in business class (which would be mixed-cabin since I believe that the Airlink leg is only in economy class).

However, if in leg #1 you chose to fly in business class from Milan to Zurich for 27,500 miles…..

….then your business class leg from Mauritius to Addis Ababa could cost 0 miles.

Again, you would need this to be a multi-city award that ends in Europe. So let’s assume you flew:

  • Zurich to Milan in business class for 27,500 miles
  • Mauritius to Addis Ababa in business class for 0 miles
  • Brussels to Billund for 5,450 miles (since it charges less on a multi-city itinerary)

You would pay a total of 32,950 miles. While that savings is not as pronounced as the savings in economy class, getting all three of those legs (two of them in business class) for 32,950 miles could be a great deal (remember that just the journey from Mauritius to Addis Ababa would cost 40,500 miles in business class!). While intra-European business class is typically nothing special (usually just a regular economy row with a blocked middle seat), the extra baggage allowance and lounge access can come in handy.

As noted above, Airlink operates lots of itineraries within southern Africa, and many times Airlink awards will be your only option (particularly during North American summer / South African winter dates). For instance, if you wanted to travel from Cape Town to Skukuza, which is the airport located right at Kruger National Park, United would charge 26,800 miles for that award in economy class.

But that same July 10th leg sandwiched between a trip within Europe in February and a trip within Europe later in the schedule, you could get three one-ways for 11,450 miles.

Keep in mind that the dates of your trips don’t need to be in close proximity, you just need all 3 legs to be within the booking calendar (which extends almost a year into the future). Additionally, don’t forget that your “free” leg needs to be entirely within a single region (see this post for where United draws its lines). For instance, you could get a free one-way within Southern/Central Africa, but if you tried to fly from Southern Africa to Morocco (which is in a different region), you could not get that leg to Morocco for free (even though the award might cost fewer miles than some awards you could get for free).

And you don’t necessarily need to start in Europe to save a lot of miles in Africa.

Hawaii, then Africa for zero miles

Let’s say you are planning a trip to Hawaii and a trip to Africa within a year of each other. You could leverage the same trick (albeit for a few more miles) with inter-island Hawaii flights.

For instance, I currently have a trip planned to Hawaii in February (thanks to the Turkish Miles & Smiles sweet spot for flights to Hawaii!). I could book an inter-island flight from Lihue, Kauai to Honolulu for 7,700 United miles.

If I book this as a multi-city, I could then have that leg from Cape Town to Skukuza in the summertime (July 10th shown) for 0 miles.

But in order to get that for zero miles, my trip would need to “end” in Hawaii. So I could add a third leg from Hilo, Hawaii to Maui in September for another 7,700 miles.

Even if I ultimately don’t make it back to Hawaii in September, I’d still get a leg I need within Hawaii and a leg I need within Africa for about half the price of the leg within Africa alone.

Note that I won’t book exactly the above — I don’t intend to fly from Cape Town to Skukuza and I don’t actually need that specific flight from Kauai to Honolulu. In fact, I’d rather book my inter-island Hawaii flights with Southwest for free checked bags (and in reality, I do need a couple of short flights within Europe before my trip to Africa), but my point here is that you can really have some fun with the Excursionist Perk.

Getting a free leg in the United States between trips to Europe

Keep in mind that you can also leverage this the other way around. In other words, I could use a couple of cheap European awards to grab a free domestic leg within the US.

I got those 0-mile awards by sandwiching Newark to Los Angeles between a trip from Zurich to Milan on February 27th and a leg from Vienna to Frankfurt in late August.

If you’ll take two trips to Europe in the same year, you might want to see if you can squeeze a free domestic one-way in the US out of the deal. Again, that works because your region of origin / destination is Europe (the award starts in Zurich, which is in Europe, and ends in Frankfurt, which is in Europe), so you can put a free one-way in between within a single non-Europe region (like the US). While you won’t save as many miles as you can in Africa, I’d say that getting three one-way awards for less than the cost of a single one-way award within the United States is a pretty nice win.

Bottom line

I don’t often think about United awards because I don’t collect many United miles, instead focusing on programs that offer better value for long-haul business class awards. However, the United Excursionist Perk can really shine, particularly for economy class awards. You can often leverage this perk to get three flights for less than the cost of one of those flights, which is particularly true when you need a short-haul partner award like between nearby European cities (which often cost 6K miles each way) or inter-island Hawaii flights. The same concept can hold true for flights within Japan or very short-distance Star Alliance awards within Asia. This is definitely a tool to keep in your belt and one that I had mostly ignored for a while but that I definitely plan to put to use for my trip to Africa next year to grab a one-way or two that saves my family a lot of miles.

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