Over the past several months, I have paid very little attention to domestic award pricing. I just haven’t had any interest in flying domestically during the pandemic. I still get airfare email alerts and see bargain-basement cash prices each day, but I hadn’t realized just how low variable pricing has competed down award tickets within the US in some cases. With the elimination of change fees, it may be worth revisiting United’s Excursionist Perk given that United award flights now price as low as 3K miles each way. I don’t know whether or how long that kind of pricing will last, but it will be worth keeping an eye out for cheap one-way options if and when you get back to travel and want to leverage the United Excursionist Perk.
United awards pricing from 3K miles each way
While working on a completely unrelated post, I stumbled on the fact that some routes, like the Los Angeles to Orlando flight shown below, are pricing at just 3K miles each way via United Mileage Plus.
The cheapest of the routes I found included Los Angeles to Las Vegas or Orlando, Miami to Chicago, and Boston to Washington DC – though I’m sure that plenty of other similar options abound. I found plenty of 4K routes as well, like Newark to New Orleans. I had no difficulty finding available flights for 3K miles each way as late as the week before Memorial Day in May. If current projections hold true, many readers may well be vaccinated against COVID by that time. We obviously don’t know how effective the vaccine will be and I have no interest in dueling over politics and predictions here, but the fact is that I expect at least a segment of readers will feel safe in traveling this spring. Will one feel safe enough to take an unnecessary flight in order to save a few miles? As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
I’m not sure how long award flights have been pricing this low. I found some Delta flights lower than 5K each way also, which was also somewhat surprising but not unprecedented. I hadn’t seen United award flights pricing this low before (though, again, I hadn’t been tracking them closely during the pandemic).
But what makes the 3K awards most interesting to me apart from amazingly cheap awards is the possibility of leveraging the United Excursionist Perk to get more flying for fewer miles.
United Excursionist Perk quick recap
I wrote a post several years ago about how I used the United Excursionist Perk to save some miles on an intra-Africa flight that I needed to book. Then, in 2019, Greg blew things open with the Excursionist Perk when prepping for our 40K to Far Away Challenge. He wrote several useful posts that are worth reading / reviewing if you aren’t completely familiar with the United Excursionist Perk:
- Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist Perks
- United Excursionist Perk Maps. Visualize regions to optimize awards.
- Fly around Japan for 5K each way, and add a free Excursion [Sweet-spot spotlight]
The Excursionist Perk is a bit difficult to wrap your mind around and those posts do an excellent job of explaining the concept and how you might leverage it. If the following explanation doesn’t quite compute, see those posts in that order.
To try to simplify it, the United Excursionist Perk is a benefit that United offers on award tickets that begin and end in the same region. When you have an award itinerary that begins and ends in the same region, you can have a free one-way that is entirely within some other single region that is not the region of your origin / end point.
The clear intention of this benefit is that you could, for example, fly round trip from Chicago to Europe and because your travel begins and ends in North America, you could get a free one-way within another region — presumably you’d choose Europe. This way, you could use your United miles to fly from Chicago to Paris and then get a free flight from Paris to Frankfurt and then use your miles to fly from Frankfurt back to Chicago. In that example, the flight from Paris to Frankfurt would cost 0 miles because your travel begins and ends in the same region (i.e. you begin and end in North America), so you get a free one-way that is entirely within some other region (Paris to Frankfurt is entirely within Europe). You have to book all segments together at once for this to work. For more detail and maps to help you visualize, see those posts above.
What Greg showed off during the 40K to Far Away challenge is that the segments of your trip do not need to be closely related at all. During the challenge, Greg flew from Washington, DC to West Virginia for 5K miles and then booked a throw-away ticket from Chicago to Austin far in the future so that he could book a free flight from Cape Town to the Seychelles. Because his trip began in North America (Washington DC) and ended in North America (Austin, TX), he was able to book a free one-way within another region (Cape Town to Seychelles is within United’s Africa region) for 0 additional miles.
The key to Greg’s strategy was finding United flights that cost 5K miles each way. At the time, flights for 5K miles existed but were a bit elusive. Greg even wrote a post about how you could try to find those 5K awards. The good news is that it is now quite easy to find 5K awards, but better yet there are some flights ringing it at 3K each way. This would reduce the number of miles necessary for Greg’s Excursionist shenanigans.
And indeed there are some opportunities where booking a throw-away leg could be intriguing depending on your travel plans.
Playing around with United Excursionist options
Given the limitations on travel – whether restrictions on entry, restrictions on re-entry, quarantine requirements, testing requirements, and the actual risk of getting sick, most of the itineraries I played with are very unlikely to be realistic. That said, it was fun to put reality aside for a few minutes and see what kind of mileage you could get out of just 6K United miles. Furthermore, given the removal of most change and cancellation fees when you make adjustments more than 30 days in advance of departure, it may be possible to lock something in now and then change it down the road (though if the price has gone up, I expect you’ll be on the hook for the difference).
Here are a few options I put together:
Los Angeles to Orlando (3K miles)
Johannesburg to Seychelles (0 miles; normal price = 19,500 miles)
Las Vegas to Los Angeles (3K miles)
Total: 6K miles + $58.30
Los Angeles to Orlando (3K miles)
Palau to Guam (0 miles; normal price = 12,500 miles)
Las Vegas to Los Angeles (3K miles)
Total: 6K miles + $18.20
Orlando to Los Angeles (3K miles)
Istanbul to Reykjavik, Iceland (0 miles; normal price = 16,500 miles)
Las Vegas to Los Angeles (3K miles)
Total: 6K miles + $55.20
As you can see, you can potentially get a lot of flying (and in some cases, one-way trips that are ordinarily quite expensive) for very few miles. With some time and effort, you can build trips with multiple destinations. For example, the itinerary above from Istanbul to Iceland includes a nearly 15-hour stop in Copenhagen. Since United allows for a layover of up to 24hrs on an international award, you could put together a trip to several places for very few miles. In other cases, you can realize a large cash savings. The example above that includes a “free” leg from Palau to Guam would ordinarily cost hundreds in economy class. Picking that up for 6K miles and taxes (and also getting two other flights) could be a great deal in a world where it is possible to make that trip happen. Will we see this kind of pricing and a more normal world converge at the same time? I don’t know, but it’s fun to consider.
Variable award pricing and the Excursionist Perk
One question about which I’ve wondered is how variable award pricing will gel with the availability of the Excursionist Perk. In the new Mileage Plus, there is no longer a standard “saver” price for flights within the United States. For example, here is a look at Los Angeles to Orlando during the first week of August. Some days have awards from 10K miles each way and other days start at 12.5K each way. Both are labeled as “Saver” awards.
Going back to the post that Greg had written about flying around Japan, he had demonstrated how one could book a round trip flight within Japan and get a “free” one-way within another region (like North America). At that time, the advantage was that awards were predictably cheap within Japan. If you had a real trip planned to Japan and you were going to fly a one-way domestic flight within Japan, you might have considered making it a “round trip” with the “return” leg far in the future in order to squeeze in a free one-way within the United States in between (whether or not you actually intended to fly the second part of that domestic Japan round trip). With award prices so low in the US these days, that technique looks much less interesting these days, however I used it to test how the Excursionist Perk would apply when saver pricing varied from day to day as it does above.
Therefore, I set up an itinerary that looked like this:
- Tokyo to Osaka on June 19th (5.5K miles)
- Los Angeles to Orlando on August 3rd (Should be 0 miles. Ordinarily 10K-12.5K miles as shown above)
- Osaka to Tokyo on August 25h (5.5K miles)
Again, the purpose here was to see whether I would find the Excursionist flight (Los Angeles to Orlando) pricing for 0 miles only during the days with the cheapest save awards or whether both 10K “saver” and 12.5K “saver” would qualify. I’m glad to report that both saver levels qualified as 0-mile Excursionist Perks.
That was good news given the highly variable nature of US domestic flights. In some cases, you may visit another region like Europe or Asia and be able to actually save a few thousand miles on a US domestic flight by booking a throw-away leg “round trip” in that foreign region. That remains true even given highly variable award pricing within the US.
United is charging fewer miles than I’ve ever seen on some routes – as low as 3K miles each way in some cases through nearly the end of May. While that certainly may be interesting on its own for those flying domestically in the coming months, it was even more fun for me to imagine some possible “free” Excursionist flights thanks to such cheap domestic one-ways. Whenever I do get back to traveling internationally again, I’ll be on the hunt for cheap US one-ways in order to pull off a trick similar to what Greg did during the 40K to Far Away challenge by nesting a couple of throw-away tickets to grab a free flight across a region. Unfortunately, this trick does not work for flying up front because those flights do not vary downward nearly as much as economy class options do and you absolutely do need to fly the lead-off leg. It is therefore of limited to utility, but it is a neat trick to have in your belt nonetheless.